Blue Crush

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 Blues taught 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.

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Patti Epler
Contact: Patti Epler