Blue Crush

To outsiders, the Phoenix Police Department's Special Assignments Unit is meant to be an overwhelming show of force. The inside story is much more powerful.

"We couldn't do our jobs without them," Metelski says as she waits in the back of an SAU van for her suspect to appear. "Without them I probably wouldn't get half my guys arrested. As detectives, we really don't have the time to go out and hunt these guys down. [SAU] will find them wherever they are in the city."

Hoover thinks he could easily keep a fifth squad busy.

The department has no plans right now to add more SAU squads, but Chief Harold Hurtt says inevitably more of the highly trained teams will be needed. The unit is too vital to the department and the city, he says, and will only become more critical as the area grows.

SAU officers spent a day and a night in April practicing riding on helicopter  skids and deploying onto the roof of a building.
SAU officers spent a day and a night in April practicing riding on helicopter skids and deploying onto the roof of a building.
SAU officers practice deploying onto a roof of a building.
SAU officers practice deploying onto a roof of a building.

Details

Photography by Jackie Mercandetti

Hurtt also predicts that problems with terrorism will continue and that the SAU will certainly be at the heart of the department's response to that kind of a threat.

The chief is not alone in his worries about terrorism or his view that SWAT teams like the SAU will become even more necessary.

"If things are really bad -- and they are going to be very bad -- we're in for some problems here," says Ron McCarthy, a retired Los Angeles Police Department SWAT officer who is considered one of the nation's leading experts on SWAT, deadly force and officer-involved shootings.

He points to al-Qaeda and Columbine and the Washington, D.C., snipers. "That's what SWAT teams are for," he says. "That is why SWAT teams were started, because the culture changed and we began to have radical right-wing groups and radical left-wing groups and now there are new problems with terrorists. Special weapons teams are one part of the approach for law enforcement. You can't send a patrol cop there."

Late one night in early May, it is patrol that calls the SAU to a barricade near 23rd Avenue and Cactus. A mentally ill man is causing some problems at the house he shares with his elderly mother, who has just gotten out of the hospital. The 43-year-old man has fired a gun into the ceiling and has locked himself in a room.

The SAU has had a lot of practice dealing with mentally disturbed people who come to the police's attention for one reason or another. Many of the barricades they're called on involve people in some sort of mental or emotional crisis or who are mental patients.

"A lot of them haven't been in trouble before but they go into a crisis and then their coping mechanisms just snap," says Jan Dubina, the SAU's chief negotiator.

Dubina has been a police officer for more than 21 years, 16 of those years on the SAU. She is highly regarded as one of the country's top negotiators and is currently the sector chair for crisis negotiations for the National Tactical Officers Association, the premier professional group for SWAT officers.

The use of negotiators in Phoenix and elsewhere has evolved into an essential element of crisis response. The SAU has a trained negotiator on each of the four squads, plus Dubina who is also the unit's training officer. (She also takes a rear guard position on an entry team when needed.)

"We used to negotiate to failure, then SWAT took over. Now we keep negotiating" as the tactical response unfolds, she says.

But people often get hurt when entry is forced -- not only the suspect but officers as well. "As negotiators, we feel we have failed if the team has to go in," Dubina says. "We want to talk them out because that's the safest option."

Many times, the negotiators just let people vent, to get them to come back down from a highly stressful emotional level to a level where they can think more clearly.

"When they come down off that emotional high, they see the SWAT team and we talk to them a little. They realize they do want to live and they end up coming out," Dubina says.

"SWAT is an iron fist and we're the glove that goes over it."

On this evening in May, that glove is the perfect fit for the situation. Negotiator Bob Ragsdale talks the man into opening the door; he stands quietly, unsteady on his feet, in the hallway.

SAU officers are ready with Tasers and stun bags. A police dog waits off to the side.

In the end, three officers simply rush the man and hold on to him.

Later, the two squads involved in the case stand in the middle of the sleeping residential neighborhood, debriefing under the fluorescent glow of streetlights. Sergeant Brad Burt praises the tactics they chose for a man who was clearly just plain out of it. Surely he would have sustained physical injury from the stun bags, a Taser or the police dog.

"I'm glad we handled it the way we did," he tells the collection of officers. "I wouldn't have slept well if we'd dogged him."

By now it's close to midnight, but Ragsdale stays behind to check one more time on the mom, and to make sure the man is put in the psych ward, not the general jail population.

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