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.

The next day, some of the same SAU officers are on the scene of another barricade involving another distraught man, this one in his early 50s, who is also refusing to come out of his room in the house that he shares with his parents.

This man, apparently upset that his mother is dying of cancer, has picked up an old sword and attacked a hospice worker who's come to visit. The caregiver suffered serious cuts but was able to run from the house and call police. The man may have at least a shotgun and perhaps other weapons, police are told.

SAU officers move into position outside the house. "We're going to move in a little closer and make some noise, see if we can't get him to open the door," Stan Hoover says.

The SAU participated in a major police raid on the Les Jardins hotel in central Phoenix last month. SAU was assigned  to rooms thought to be occupied by suspects in a murder.
The SAU participated in a major police raid on the Les Jardins hotel in central Phoenix last month. SAU was assigned to rooms thought to be occupied by suspects in a murder.
SAU Officer Skip Roberts advises Valley police officers  on breathing techniques before a drill involving possible terrorists with chemical weapons.
SAU Officer Skip Roberts advises Valley police officers on breathing techniques before a drill involving possible terrorists with chemical weapons.

Details

Photography by Jackie Mercandetti

The lieutenant is hunched over a white erasable board laid out on the hood of a patrol car which has become the command post for this operation. Officers have drawn a diagram of the house, penciling in doors and windows, hallways, any detail that will make their entry go more smoothly.

Again, the SAU teams carry tear gas, Tasers, stun bags and other tools designed to bring a man down. And again, they decide not to use any of them.

They push on the bedroom door and, surprisingly, it opens. The man is lying on the floor, wrapped in a blanket, drenched in sweat. A shotgun rests across his lap. Another shotgun is leaned against one wall, and yet another shotgun is propped in a corner. The floor is covered in shotgun shells, piles of them everywhere.

The SAU officers walk in and grab ahold of him. He does not resist, does not even register their presence. The medics wheel him out on a stretcher.


Getting on the Special Assignments Unit is tough, but Jeff Green says leaving is even harder.

"This is the elite of the department, it really is," he says. "Every officer on the department, regardless of their ability, would like to be on SAU.

"We do all the cool stuff."

Today is Green's last day in SAU. After four years on the unit, he has been promoted to sergeant, and all new sergeants must spend time in "the field," as patrol is called.

The guys have just given him a little send-off, a roast of sorts, plus speeches from his sergeant, the lieutenant and the commander.

"This is a team thing," Green explains. "I know what every one of these guys is thinking. There is almost nothing about me that these guys don't know."

The roast includes a few jabs at Green's remarkably sturdy self-confidence. He's used to it.

"You heard them point out that I think I know everything, that I don't listen. Sometimes people don't like hearing that, but when you sit back and think about it, they're right."

About 30 people a year go through the SAU's rigorous testing process. Some years, only two or three slots come open. Many years there are none.

An officer must have at least three years on the department before he or she can take the SAU test, which stretches over a couple of weeks. It includes a physical fitness portion that many people simply can't do. Run a mile and a half in 13 minutes. Leg presses, bench presses, pull-ups, pushups, sit-ups. Upper body strength is often necessary in the SAU, where they haul heavy gear around and have to climb physical barriers, like fences.

Then there's an obstacle course. A lengthy written test on procedures. A firearms test and a series of shooting scenarios that require correct, quick judgment.

Practical exams include demonstrating how to search a building and how to scout a house that officers might have to enter.

Then you have to sell yourself at an oral board presided over by Stan Hoover and two sergeants.

"We're looking for a well-rounded officer with a lot of life experience who's willing to assume any role he's placed in," says Hoover. "We're not looking for John Wayne gung-hos."

Once on the unit, it takes no small effort to stay there. The physical fitness test has to be passed every three months. So the first thing they do when they get to work every day is run or work out in the gym at their south Phoenix office. Other cops just have to pass a less rigorous fitness test once a year.

The hours are long and call-outs in the middle of the night common. Each SAU squad is on standby two weeks and two weekends a month. That means families are often abandoned at baseball games, at church services, in the middle of dinner. They've learned to take separate cars.

Ed Warner wanted to be on SAU so badly he tried for seven years. He'd study the procedures manual for much of the year before the test. One year he missed the run by seven seconds. The year he finally made it, one-tenth of a point separated the top candidates. Twenty-five people took the test that year; SAU took three guys.

Warner has been on the Phoenix department for 13 years. He worked various assignments, including detectives, before he finally made SAU two years ago. "If you want to work with the best, you work harder to get here," he says, noting: "It takes more to get here than it takes to get promoted."

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