By New Times Staff
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Ray Stern
By New Times Staff
By Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
The steel bars on the outer door of the suspected drug house were no match for the special squad of Phoenix police officers stacked up on the porch. A large pry bar did the trick.
The inner wooden door popped open with a single blow of their battering ram. No one answered their repeated shouts of "Phoenix police! We have a warrant!" But the commotion was enough to send one of the home's occupants diving right through the glass of a back window. He was caught immediately, and 230 pounds of marijuana were later seized.
Around front, officers in full tactical gear entered the house, splitting up in a maneuver aimed at covering potential threats -- hallways, doorways, hiding spots. It's a tactic they had practiced and performed hundreds of times, most often with no surprises.
But this time -- surprise! -- a man with a pistol-grip 12-gauge pump shotgun was standing in the kitchen. His finger was on the trigger.
But the gun was pointed more toward the floor than at the police. It was a life-and-death distinction that Officer Gil Arredondo, a 14-year veteran of the Special Assignments Unit, recognized in the same instant that he yelled a final warning, in English and in Spanish, "Drop it!"
A mere heartbeat before Arredondo would have been forced to end this deadly game of chicken with a crippling rifle round, the man dropped the gun.
The whole scene -- from the rush in the door to the gun on the floor -- had played out in just a few seconds.
"If that barrel would have moved up in any upward direction, I would have had to protect Skip," Arredondo explains later, referring to Officer Skip Roberts, whose back was to the gunman in the kitchen. "There's no question I would have had to shoot him."
And here's the kicker: Turns out the guy was deaf.
He never heard the police pounding or the shouted command to open the door. He didn't hear them yelling to drop the gun. He just thought someone was after his pot. "When he saw he was outnumbered, he went down like a pancake," says Arredondo.
"We were like, Oh my God,'" adds Sergeant Bob Baker, who heads this particular squad. "You don't ever want to shoot a guy for 200 pounds of dope, and especially not a deaf guy.
"That's the kind of thing that wakes you up in the middle of the night."
Hill Street Bluestaught us that those rifle-pointing, boot-pounding, brainless special-ops cops were all about shooting first and sorting out the details later. SWAT snipers took out bad guys every week from a rooftop across the street.
In Phoenix, though, the script goes more like this: The Special Assignments Unit -- our version of SWAT -- hardly ever shoots anybody. Most of their confrontations -- and there are many -- are resolved through less-than-lethal means like stun bags or Tasers or even a good old-fashioned bum's rush.
Sometimes, they're the ones who get shot. Three SAU officers have been seriously injured by gunfire in the past few years. Each one came back to work within weeks.
New Times has spent much of the past eight months with the SAU as part of a project on police shootings (see accompanying story). Nationally, studies have shown that SWAT units reduce the number of officer-involved shootings in a city, primarily because, as the drug bust involving the deaf man demonstrates, highly trained, experienced officers with well-planned tactics and sophisticated equipment are more likely to resolve a situation without bloodshed.
"They're who the police call when the police are in trouble," says Phoenix Police Chief Harold Hurtt. "We could not afford to have the rest of the force to that level."
A New Times review of Phoenix police shootings from 1996 through 2002 and other records shows that the SAU often managed to take people into custody without incident, including a number of cases where patrol officers had already fired on or exchanged gunfire with suspects.
Last year, the Phoenix SAU responded to 41 barricades and served 175 high-risk search warrants. In addition, officers arrested hundreds of suspects wanted by probation officers or police investigators from other units within the department that rely on the SAU for help -- homicide, robbery, sex crimes, crimes against children, for instance. They were frequently at the heart of the most intense police operations in the city.
Yet SAU officers fired their guns only twice last year. And one of those shootings marked the first time in the unit's 30-year history that a police sniper fired his rifle at a suspect.
New Times has tagged along with SAU officers as they have gone about their days, from early morning workouts in the police gym to daylong stakeouts to late-night call-outs. A reporter and photographer attended regular training exercises and accompanied officers on numerous felony "high risk" search warrants. The newspaper was allowed close-up observation of barricades, where suspects had to be taken from behind locked doors, sometimes by force, often coaxed out by the SAU's negotiators.
Unlike their prime-time counterparts, the SAU's efforts rarely make the morning paper or the evening news. "They're the best-kept secret in the city," says SAU Lieutenant Stan Hoover. "These guys don't get much credit, but they don't seek it out, either."
The 38 men and one woman who make up the SAU are a unique subculture of the police department. They are hand-picked after a rigorous testing process, which means they are among the smartest, savviest and most seasoned officers on the force. That also means they're outspoken, even to supervisors. They are passionate and thoughtful about their responsibility as police officers and openly critical of teammates when they screw up. They tease each other endlessly.
"A guy might have all the talent in the world," says Sergeant Brad Burt, another squad leader, "he can shoot real well, he can run real fast.
"But I've got guys here who think real well."
On a sunny spring morning in mid-March, Fred Spitler is staking out a west Phoenix home to see if he can pick up a guy the homicide detectives want. Just before noon, a patrol car goes by in pursuit of a stolen vehicle.
"Let's help this guy," Spitler says, and takes off after the marked unit. The suspect ditches the car in a driveway and runs, his escape route a beeline down a row of neatly trimmed lawns and low bushes.
Spitler slows for the briefest of moments and glances at the uniformed officer, who also has gotten out of his car. He, too, is running, gun in hand, after the fleeing suspect who has started pulling small plastic bags of white powder out of his pockets, dropping them like breadcrumbs along the way.
"This is where age and experience comes in," Spitler remarks. "We're just going to drive along here because he's going to collapse here in just a minute."
On cue, the suspect stops suddenly in the middle of someone's yard and Spitler swerves his van onto the curb. He jumps out and instantly has the suspect on the ground; it's quite a few paces before the patrol officer catches up.
Within minutes other police cars arrive. A gray-haired patrol supervisor, obviously a pal, shakes hands with the white-haired Spitler. "Good job for an old guy," the supervisor says.
Fred Spitler is 53 years old, tall and well-built. He has been on the police department for 32 years. He has been on the SAU for more than 20 years, longer than anyone else on the unit.
A couple years ago, someone figured out that the average age on the SAU was about 42.
On Spitler's squad alone, five of the eight guys have been together close to 15 years.
For more than a decade, Skip Roberts and Fred Spitler have held their squad's "point" and "point cover" positions. That means when the squad needs to make what they call a dynamic or crisis entry -- which they do dozens of times a year -- Roberts goes in first. Spitler is right at his back.
Gil Arredondo and Jerry Kilgore have been a step behind them, in rear guard positions. Jim Kliewer has been their sniper, although he often takes a rear guard position in "the stack," their entry team lineup.
It's a relationship of absolute trust and confidence, one that most of us will never experience, let alone truly understand. They don't look back because they don't need to. They are confident each man will do his job, cover his teammates' back, make the killing shot if necessary.
"I've worked with Skip for 15 years," says Spitler. "I just feed off him. I know where he's going to go, what he's going to do."
Dave Haas made the squad three years ago, Bob Knapp two years ago. Rich Shore is the newest, with a year on the unit. Despite their relative youth, all were experienced police officers before they joined the SAU.
They take the most ribbing. And they're still put a little farther back in the stack than they'd like to be. But when Dave Haas was shot by an armed robber two years ago, it was Fred Spitler who watched over him in the operating room while surgeons removed a bullet from his stomach.
Four months later, Haas was there with his squad mates, surrounding a pickup truck they had stopped on an access road off the Black Canyon Freeway in north Phoenix. The man inside, Aaron Gingras, had shot and killed a Phoenix couple merely because they had no drugs or money to give him when he'd knocked on their door, at random, the night before. When the SAU caught up with him, he was wearing body armor and holding a 9mm semi-automatic pistol.
Officers quickly removed several other occupants from the truck. But Gingras stayed inside. He kept his hand on the pistol.
Bob Baker, the squad sergeant, says he picked Skip Roberts to take one side of the truck and cover Gingras while Baker and Fred Spitler talked to him through the other window. "Because I know if and when that guy turns to shoot me -- because I'm the one talking to him so that's where he's focused -- Skip is going to shoot. I trust him to do that. He won't hesitate."
According to a detailed report on the incident, witnesses (including a motorist who wasn't paying attention and drove right up on the scene) confirmed what happened next. Baker told Gingras over and over again to put down the gun and get out of the truck.
But he didn't.
"You could just see that look in his eye, that he'd decided what the heck he might as well go for it," says Baker. "He got about a half turn and Skip killed him."
Baker, who keeps track of such things, says Roberts, in the point position, comes face to face with an average of five armed people a year, during search warrants or barricades. Countless times a year, Roberts and the other SAU officers encounter armed suspects who they've pulled over or come in contact with on the street. Last month, Baker's squad alone made 39 felony arrests.
In early May, it is Roberts who is the first to enter a small hotel room at the Les Jardins on Fourth Avenue and Clarendon, where the SAU is helping serve a number of search warrants simultaneously with other officers. The police want to break up what they believe is an ongoing criminal operation -- drug trafficking and other illegal activities. The SAU has been given the task of taking down a couple of the riskier rooms, including the one where a murder suspect is believed to be staying.
At 8:30 in the morning it's already hot, and a dozen guys in 40 pounds of gear -- body armor, helmets, vests loaded with radios and tools, rifles and handguns on the side -- are stuffed in the large transport vehicle used by the SAU on these kinds of operations. It's so crowded that some stand and hang on to an overhead bar for support.
Ten very long minutes later, they're still waiting in a line of other police vehicles, some marked, some not, that have queued up at the staging point, the Park Central Mall.
"What is the hang-up here? What are we waiting for?" A couple of the guys finally pound on the cab window and grill the driver, who replies, dryly:
"We're waiting for Fire. Apparently their GPS system isn't working and they can't find Park Central Mall."
That brings a hoot all around. And the tension that goes with being keyed up and ready to just do this thing is vented. At least until the van starts rolling.
One squad is dropped at the entrance to the hotel, the other continues on and parks at one end of the building, near the bottom of an outside stairway. Within seconds, Baker's squad is up the steps and banging on the door of the end room.
This time, Roberts' command to open the door gets an answer. A woman pulls it open and is immediately taken outside. Inside, a man is in bed, his hands under the covers. A pistol is on the second bed, within easy reach.
"Put your hands up! Do you hear me?" Roberts shouts, more than once. The man on the bed says nothing, but he begins to move around.
One of the squad members throws a "flash bang" diversionary device -- an explosion accompanied by a bright flash of light. The bang is enough to stun the man, who finally lies still and is taken into custody.
He turns out to be the murder suspect they have been seeking. There is much speculation about whether he was thinking about going for the gun or was just another meth freak. But, they agree, he just didn't have that look in his eye.
The SAU of today began life in the mid-1970s as the SEU -- the Special Enforcement Unit. Lyle Rodabough, now the commander of the department's planning and research bureau, joined the SEU as an officer in 1975. Police departments all over the country were creating SWAT teams, following Los Angeles' lead after the Watts riots of 1965.
"We had some good street cops, some tough old sergeants, but training was few and far between," he recalls. "We came up with a sniper rifle for each officer, but it wasn't the right caliber. In the beginning, they struggled."
A couple of tragic incidents here, including one involving a man who killed his wife and daughter after holding them hostage, convinced police administrators of the need for a special squad, Rodabough says.
"When I was a young sergeant, if you had a barricade, it was yours. You had to solve them. On the night shift, the youngest and the newest officers faced most of them and they were pretty trying. We needed some people with real experience to handle them. Besides that, it takes all your resources and then there's no one to handle all the other calls in the precinct."
In the 1980s, the SAU blossomed. A good training sergeant was brought on, operations were briefed beforehand and debriefed afterward. They started getting the best equipment. The squads grew.
Rodabough calls today's SAU "right up among the very best in the nation. I think they're that good."
"They are not the Dirty Harry guys. Sometimes they like to be perceived as that, but they're really not."
Unlike the ramshackle detail Rodabough joined nearly 30 years ago, today's Special Assignments Unit is all about training. For these guys, the phrase "practice makes perfect" is not a cliché, it's a lifeline.
"We generally don't get surprised," says Pete Wechsler, the SAU's training sergeant for the past five years. Before that, he spent four years as an SAU squad leader. He teaches officer survival and tactical operations to police departments and other organizations all over the country. He gave firearms training to the bodyguards of the Saudi royal family.
Wechsler's training regimen for the SAU ranges from regular "shoot house" practices to complex scenarios staged in vacant buildings, often based on real-life situations that they think could have been handled better. In the past few months, among other things, they've practiced neutralizing terrorists at a Tempe business park and jumping from the skids of hovering helicopters to rescue hostages from a building at the Phoenix Police Academy.
"Seniority and discipline is primarily what makes a tactical team effective," Wechsler says. "Our snipers are very disciplined, our negotiators are outstanding."
Last year, Steve Ecker, a veteran SAU sniper, lay in the bushes 88 feet away, across a small courtyard, from the apartment of Jason Delaware, a man who had threatened to kill himself and one of his mental-health counselors.
Ecker watched Delaware through the high-powered scope of his sniper rifle. Other SAU officers stacked up outside the apartment while negotiators talked to Delaware on the phone.
In the darkness, Delaware apparently spotted the red glow of Ecker's infrared flashlight and fired, striking the building near him. Ecker shifted position but Delaware fired again, this time directly at the partially concealed officer. Ecker shot back, striking Delaware in the bridge of the nose, killing him instantly.
It was the first time since the SAU was formed that a police sniper had taken a shot at a suspect.
They are trained not to miss. Twice a month, SAU snipers must put a 10-round course in a two-inch square within 30 seconds at a distance of 100 yards. They need a 90 percent accuracy rate to qualify.
Jim Kliewer has been an SAU sniper since 1994. He pulls a three-ring binder off his desk and flips through recent targets he's shot -- bright blue heads overlaid with a white grid, their centers punched out by the bullets he's fired. "98, 98, 98 -- oop, 95," he says. "That'd be a bad day."
Most of the time, Kliewer's job involves watching a suspect through the scope and relaying information to other officers. He's fired his sniper rifle during an operation only once in nine years. And even though he likes to joke that he shot a gun out of a guy's hand, the real story says much more about the way SAU operates.
In 1997, patrol officers responded to a burglary from a vehicle near Deer Valley Park. The suspect ran into the neighborhood and was cornered in a backyard. SAU negotiators tried to talk him into giving up the gun, but the man refused to surrender. Instead, he'd get up, walk around, wave the gun at the cops. Still, they waited him out.
Occasionally, the man would put the gun down next to him. "The plan was if he put the gun down, we'd shoot the gun and then converge on him," Kliewer says. "Unfortunately, they said, Kliewer, you're going to take the shot.'"
Kliewer was on a nearby rooftop.
"Bobby Olson was next to me and I said, If I miss, kill me now, 'cause I'm never going to live this down.'"
The guy put the gun down and Kliewer hit it with a single shot. It bounced up and hit the wall, disabled. Another SAU officer fired stun bags at the man and a police dog was set after him. He was taken into custody and treated for a bite wound, otherwise unharmed.
"This is honestly a thinking man's game," notes Jeff Green, who recently left the SAU. "It's not a shooting man's game.
"People have no perception of what SWAT does. They're constantly judging us. But it's really about preserving lives."
The SAU is made up of four eight-man squads. There are four squad sergeants plus a training sergeant and a training officer. With few exceptions, most of them have been on the detail for many years.
One of the relative newcomers is their boss, Lieutenant Stan Hoover. Although Hoover was an SAU officer (rear guard) from 1986 through 1990, he has only been back with the unit for the past year.
He appears perfectly suited for the head job, on a number of levels.
For one, he is instantly likable. "How do you think I keep the body of a dentist, I mean, Adonis," he quips just after an early morning stint on the treadmill.
He will tell you that his people "all know their jobs better than I do," which makes him simply a manager of highly motivated individuals. He encourages open discussion and frank critiques, even of himself, because, he says, their own lives and the lives of citizens depend on it. These are management practices that sit well with the tough guys who work for him.
In February, some on the unit were vocally unhappy with Hoover's handling of a hostage-rescue training exercise, staged in a soon-to-be-remodeled Paradise Valley home. The "bad guy" made several appearances at a window, sometimes taunting the cops below, even parading the "hostages" in front of him. The training scenario called for a decision to be made: Take him out early with a sniper shot or let the situation play a bit longer, risking harm to the hostages but possibly saving a man's life.
Hoover opted to let it play out. Eventually, the order for a sniper shot was given, but not soon enough for the tactical team pressed up against the side of the house, watching him hold his gun to the head of a hostage. They'd been told the man had already killed at least one other person.
At a debriefing immediately after the exercise, some argued that Hoover should have given the sniper the green light to fire as soon as the bad guy came to the window, gun in hand. They talked about how they would feel if their own families were in that situation and the police held back. They grumbled that maybe Hoover was concerned about how this would all look in the press. Or perhaps he was worried about what the "Fourth Floor" (the chief and his top assistants) might think, and how a shooting might affect the lieutenant's career.
Tough crowd. But Hoover took it with remarkable grace. He sent them all to lunch.
"I don't know how you can do this job unless you're willing to have that kind of discussion," he says later.
"When you're dealing with hostages, barricades and high-risk warrants, the correct decision is usually right there in front of you," Hoover says, noting that the officers who are closest generally make the right call themselves.
"Sometimes," he says, "I have to pull back on the reins, slow things down, make sure we are in control."
His quick humor and ready handshake clearly serve him and the department well. He frequently arrives in the middle of highly charged situations where he must take command away from cops who are often deeply invested in a situation. If SAU is involved, SAU assumes tactical control of an operation, handing it back only when they've decided they're done.
But Hoover and his crew, already tagged as the A-Team of the department, do the heavy lifting and then pack up and disappear. It's those other cops who take down the names, write the reports and spend hours booking suspects into jail.
In April, Hoover is at the base of Camelback Mountain, deploying his SAU troops to look for Alan McMahon, who the day before had shot his neighbor's brother in a dispute over a dog. The homicide happened in Scottsdale, but McMahon's van is parked on the Phoenix side of the mountain. The police think he may have gone up the hill to kill himself.
Hoover moves easily between the Scottsdale police honchos who have come to the scene and the patrol supervisors from Phoenix's Squaw Peak precinct who have been on site for hours. There is much handshaking with the Squaw Peak officers; before returning to SAU, Hoover was their precinct lieutenant.
He respectfully introduces himself to the Scottsdale crowd and immediately includes them in the tactical planning. He sends some Scottsdale SWAT officers out with his own guys. The Scottsdale commanders soon back away to the shade of trees on the other side of the street.
Up the hill, Hoover's tactical teams inch up on McMahon's van only to find that it's empty. They spend the next few hours searching the lower reaches of Camelback, to the edge of the Phoenician golf course. It's still possible, although unlikely, everyone agrees, that McMahon is holed up with a gun somewhere.
Now Hoover's biggest worry has become the desert itself -- heat and dehydration can set in fast when you're dressed in even the lightest of body armor and carrying heavy weapons. A hefty supply of water and snacks arrives with the department's air-conditioned mobile command center. Teams are rotated in and out and a couple hours later they call it quits. (Police will find McMahon the next day, high up the side of Camelback Mountain, dead. He has either fallen or jumped from a ledge.)
It's been a good day for what Hoover likes to call "customer service." He sees the SAU as a major support service for other agencies and units within his own department that are overwhelmed with cases. His people are better suited and more readily available to handle the more dangerous warrants and arrests.
Every SAU officer serves as a liaison to other police units. When they're not training or out on a barricade, they're helping out elsewhere in the department.
Two weeks ago, the SAU lent a hand to Detective Chris Metelski who works crimes against children. She had a warrant for a young man who was trying to buy a baby, the first case of its kind in the state, and she needed it handled carefully. Undercover detectives made the case -- the guy gave them $500 for a one-month-old they told him was out in the car. But it was SAU officers who took the man into custody when he came out to the parking lot.
"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.
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.
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 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."
Warner is drawn to the excitement of the job and the camaraderie of the unit. "Our lives depend on each other and it's such a cliché to say that but it's true," he says. "Right before a barricade, you're keyed up. That's when you feel most alive, I guess."
Rosado has been a cop for 10 years, five in New York and five in Phoenix. He's had experience around guys like these, and had spent time with the SAU -- "test-driving it," they like to say -- before he was chosen for the assignment.
So you'd think he'd know better than to put a framed photograph of himself on his new SAU desk. It was immediately seized and blown up into a very large poster with a nametag that reads "SWAT GOD." Someone hung it on the wall of the squad room. Rosado's head also is pasted atop the cartoon body of a muscle-bound weightlifter on another wall by the back door.
If this bugs him, he doesn't let on. "The people here are among the best people you're going to find in this business," he says. "Just the fact that you test well says something about these guys."
Rosado says he wanted the SAU because he's not the kind "to sit at a desk and work a caseload." Sure, the SAU is more risky, he says, but it's also more rewarding.
And now the pressure is on. "You don't want to be the one that messes up and gets someone hurt," he says.
On September 17, 1997, Jim Kliewer and Jerry Kilgore knocked on the door of a second-floor apartment on Ninth Street, just north of Van Buren, looking for a guy that adult probation services wanted them to pick up. They didn't even expect him to be there.
But he was, half hidden behind a dresser in the small living room. He pulled a gun and shot them both as they stood in the apartment doorway. Then he ran, but not before witnesses said he stood over one of the officers and tried -- unsuccessfully -- to fire again.
One bullet hit Kilgore in the ear but stopped in the thick muscle below the back of his head, muscle he'd built up through years of weightlifting and strength training.
The first patrol officer on the scene found a stream of blood flowing from the upstairs landing. He initially reported that Kilgore was "901H," the police code for dead. It was an honest mistake, but one that still angers Kilgore's SAU buddies when they tell the story.
Kliewer took a shot to the back. The bullet traveled up and came to rest in his neck; the scar now "blends in with the wrinkles," he jokes. He couldn't move his left arm.
"I thought, Oh, man, don't die right here in this crummy little place.' I got about 10 feet and went to my knees," Kliewer says. "I thought, Get back in the game, do something.' And then I saw Jerry lying there."
It was Kliewer who radioed in that the officers had been involved in a shooting and needed help. He sounds remarkably calm on the tape of that call. But the dispatch sent his squad mates, who'd been spread out on other assignments, into shock.
As soon as he got off the radio, he heard the sirens headed his way. By then he'd crawled over to Kilgore, who was bleeding from his ear. The woman who lived in the apartment brought him a towel.
"Jerry was out of it," Kliewer says. "His eyes were like a cuckoo clock, like a Tweety bird thing, you know, where those stars are spinning around. But I could see him breathing."
Two months to the day later, Kilgore and Kliewer walked back into the SAU squad room and returned to full duty with the Special Assignments Unit.
You've got to wonder why.
"What else?" Kliewer, now 48, shrugs. "I had every intention of coming back. I couldn't retire, financially. And I like the job. These are good people, well, most of the time."
Kilgore, 49, and Kliewer have known each other for 14 years, as long as Kliewer's been on SAU. Kilgore's been on the unit for 17 years.
Their desks are next to each other in the SAU office. Once he gets to know you, Kliewer is chatty, with the witty cynicism of a veteran cop. Kilgore is sweetly quiet but often very funny; he's the guy with the quick comebacks on the radio, the one who draws a laugh from the back of the room during briefings.
Kilgore is reluctant to talk about the shooting, but the other guys goad him into it. So, for just a few minutes, he explains why, with 20 years on the department at the time, he didn't just retire.
"It's the only thing I know how to do. It's my job," he says simply.
And neither he nor Kliewer would settle for a desk job. They say they don't know how to use a computer. So they helped each other through weeks of recovery and rehabilitation. And then they came back, together.
Kilgore says he really doesn't remember the shooting, it happened so fast, so there was no real psychological trauma to recover from. "It was like somebody coming up behind you and hitting you in the back of the head. I didn't even see it," he says.
Earlier this year, Phoenix police brought Miguel Savala, the man they say did the shooting, back from Mexico where he'd fled. He told detectives that he didn't know the two men who'd come to his apartment door were police officers. He thought they'd been sent by a guy he'd tried to shoot for messing around with his girlfriend, according to a police report that summarizes an interview with Savala.
His trial has been set for July 22.
The guy who shot Dave Haas won't be going to trial. On the day before Easter 2001, he was killed by Haas and another SAU officer, Bill Underwood, moments after shooting Haas in the stomach.
Haas, now 35, was back on light duty in six weeks, full SAU duty in eight.
"I was a little jittery at first," he concedes. "I paid way more attention to my surroundings for a bit. It put me back in that mode where you're super-duper cautious."
Haas had been on SAU less than a year when he and Underwood tracked a bank robbery suspect, Chris Zetterlof, to the Embassy Suites at 44th Street and McDowell. They had not put on body armor because they didn't want to tip off Zetterlof, he says.
They bumped into the suspect just as he was coming out of his door. The cops chatted with him about the vending machines as if they were paying guests, then went into their own room, next door. Moments later, Zetterlof left his room, wearing shorts and an unbuttoned shirt. He stopped at the balcony railing and leaned over, his back to the officers who were peeking out their window.
Downstairs, some kind of college fraternity formal dance was in progress. There were kids in tuxedos and party dresses everywhere, Haas recalls.
"So we decide we can't let him go downstairs because we might have a potential hostage situation."
They could see a sandwich in his left hand. But they couldn't see his right hand. "Our plan is to sneak out and grab him."
As it turns out, that didn't work so well. As soon as Underwood told him they were police officers, Zetterlof spun around. That right hand held a gun.
"I am like nose to nose with the guy when I see the gun, so I grab it with both hands," Haas says. Zetterlof pulled the trigger at pointblank range and Haas took a bullet in the stomach.
"It just felt like I got burned. It was not like I figured getting shot would be."
By this time, Underwood, who'd been on SAU about five years, had fired a round or two at Zetterlof, but his gun malfunctioned. Zetterlof turned to shoot Underwood, and Haas got off five shots at the suspect.
"He turned to shoot me. I turned and fell. You know how panicky you get. I crawled away looking for the door but I couldn't find it.
"Bill gets his gun working and shoots three more times, one in the chest."
And that was it for Chris Zetterlof. An internal affairs report on the shooting notes that he was hit nine times and died at the scene. Underwood fired six rounds, Haas five.
Haas went to the hospital. Today he has an eight-inch scar that he doesn't reveal but says extends from his navel to "my lower unit."
Haas has been on the department for 13 years and spent time on patrol as well as in detectives. He wanted to come to the SAU because he felt like "I'd gotten out of touch with what it's like to be a cop."
He took the SAU test five times before he finally made it. Now he's a sniper. "As far as the job goes, it's a blast," he says.
The pain of an abdominal gunshot wound seems to have truly faded into the past.
They'll tell you their work is actually safer than other police jobs, certainly more so than patrol. Usually, they've had time to plan an operation, they wear more protection and carry more tools. There are usually at least eight of them, working together, just like they've done hundreds of times.
"We know what we're getting involved in most of the time," says Fred Spitler.
On May 13, at about 9:45 a.m., the SAU responds to a police shooting at the Wellesley Inn Suites, just off I-17 at Peoria Avenue. Patrol officers had been tracking a guy who they believed had shot another guy a few weeks before.
Patrol found the man, Eric Jones, at the motel and had already called for the SAU's help to take him into custody when Jones left the room and began walking toward his car. When patrol officers approached him, they say, he pulled a .357 Magnum revolver from his pants and pointed it at them. Two of the six patrol cops fired, hitting him in the lower legs. Jones fired back and managed to crawl back into the room, where his girlfriend was still inside.
By 10:15 a.m., a dozen SAU officers are surrounding Room 324. Jan Dubina and Rich Shore, a squad negotiator, use the phone in a hotel office to try to talk Jones and his girlfriend into surrendering.
Stan Hoover is scooting between the patrol officers who have already spent hours wrapped up in the intense dynamics of an officer-involved shooting and the paramedics who have just rolled up. His radio is in one hand, his cell phone in another. Both go off at once. "See, I'm multi-tasking," he jokes.
This time, the Fourth Floor does indeed make an appearance, in the form of Assistant Chief Mike Frazier, who oversees the department's North Zone. Hoover's own boss, Commander Steve Campbell, is there, too. After the usual handshakes and a briefing, they pretty much stay out of Hoover's way.
And the media are out in force, of course. TV helicopters whine overhead. The press pack -- a dozen print and broadcast reporters -- is held at bay by a yellow police tape that is cutting off access to the hotel parking lot where, this time, the trunk of a patrol car has become the command post.
By 10:45 a.m., the SAU tactical team is ready to move in. But the negotiators have been talking to Jones as well as his girlfriend. They think they can get her to open the door. A paramedic is enlisted to explain the potential seriousness of his wounds in an effort to convince him to come out.
For the next 15 minutes, SAU negotiators in the office and the tactical team outside the hotel room door relay a ping-pong of information to those listening on the radio at the command post. The girl tells the negotiators she's helping him to the door; the officers watch as the couple tries for the door, then heads back deeper into the room. This happens several times.
"Frankly, Lieutenant, he just seems to be stalling," Dubina reports to Hoover. "Now we're trying to get the girlfriend out."
The officers just outside the room take it from there:
"We can't see him but she's putting something on the bed . . . She's right in front of the window . . . She's trying to open the door . . . Oh, she walked away from the door toward the back . . . She's kneeling down next to him on the floor . . . Okay, she's trying to help him now . . . God, don't back up on us now . . . I see both hands are up . . . All right, we're rolling in."
At 11:15 a.m., Jones is in custody, the girlfriend detained by police detectives. Not a shot has been fired, by either side, although the SAU finds an AK-47 and two shotguns in the room.
Reporters and photographers are finally let through to get their close-ups, just in time for the noon news shows. That night, the evening news footage stops for a minute on the SAU officers deployed around the outside of the building. Their tactical gear makes for good TV.
Hoover, unknown to the press, slips through the cameras and walks up to the room in time to see Jones being loaded onto a stretcher by medics, then wheeled away.
"You get a feeling when you get to some of these things, when to negotiate, when to go tactical," he says, careful not to step on shell casings scattered on the asphalt.
"There are a lot of moving parts."
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