After retiring from the Cleveland Police Department and Cleveland SWAT, I moved to the San Francisco area. So on Saturday March 21, 2009, I was watching local TV when the reports of the Oakland police murders started coming in. "Two OPD Motor Officers Shot and Critically Wounded, Massive Manhunt Underway," was the breaking news story.
I was now glued to the TV. Much of the tragedy was caught on live TV. I felt horrified and numb when I heard the reports that three of the OPD officers had died, with the fourth on life support, not expected to live.
The "unthinkable" had happened: Two OPD Motor officers shot and killed during a traffic stop, followed by two OPD SWAT officers shot and killed, a third shot and wounded. All of these assaults were made by one suspect who was killed by OPD SWAT.
We in law enforcement are not strangers to tragedy. Each year some 100 of our brothers and sisters are killed in the line of duty.
However, the deaths of these four experienced OPD officers-three of them sergeants and two of them SWAT-by a lone gunman was almost unfathomable.
Shortly after the OPD tragedy, three Pittsburgh Police officers were also shot and killed, sparking a furious gun battle between SWAT and the (wounded) suspect, who ultimately surrendered.
The back-to-back Oakland and Pittsburgh tragedies marked the start of a deadly year for law enforcement, including a number of additional multi-officer shootings. Yes, last year was a very bad year for law enforcement. But it was a far worse year for the departments who lost officers.
Let's look at how OPD and particularly Oakland SWAT moved past these tragedies to triumph and prevail.
Any LE agency experiencing LODDs understands the deep impact such deaths have on both the agency and the community.
But to put the Oakland shootings and their aftermath into perspective, we really have to look at larger picture of police-community relations in the area and how they colored the incident and the community's reaction to it.
Early on the morning of Jan. 1, 2009, a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer shot and killed an unarmed male at an Oakland BART station. Widespread outrage was seized much of the community. In subsequent weeks, a series of riots erupted in downtown Oakland.
BART officer Johannes Mehserle was arrested, charged with murder, and currently awaits trial. The trial has been moved from Oakland to Los Angeles because of the massive publicity and controversy in the Bay Area.
Oakland, already notorious for violent crime and for hostility toward law enforcement, had now become a powderkeg, one that would explode on March 21.
Given the conditions, no one was quite sure how the people of Oakland would respond to the murders of four officers. But for the most part, the people of Oakland grieved. Still, a small, but vocal, group of anti-police demonstrators marched in support of the gunman, despite the fact that DNA had linked him with the rape of a 12-year-old a month before and the rapes of two women the morning of the tragedy.
Of course, the outpouring of well wishes and condolences for the OPD from the law enforcement community was overwhelming, as evidenced by the 20,000-plus law enforcement officers who attended the combined funeral service for the four OPD officers.
But the most important part of this story is how the OPD recovered after the memorials were over and the slain officers were laid to rest.
OPD has undergone a tremendous transformation, while also grieving for its fallen. It now has a new chief, Anthony Batts, who comes to the post from the Long Beach (Calif.) Police Department where he served on the SWAT team.
For two months after the tragic shootings, OPD SWAT went into "stand down" mode, to regroup and train replacement Sergeants. Oakland is part of Alameda County, so Alameda County's tactical team handled any callouts while the OPD team regrouped. In May 2009, OPD SWAT became operational again and has since handled dozens of missions, successfully.
Last October, I was privileged to be an observer at Urban Shield, a 48-hour series of SWAT exercises organized by the Alameda County Sheriff's Department that involves 26 tactical teams mostly from Northern California . Urban Shield is a non-stop "gruelathon" consisting of 25 ultra-challenging "real world" tactical events. The regrouped Oakland SWAT team won last year's Urban Shield and that is a testament to its professionalism.
A few months ago, a board of inquiry report was released on the Oakland police murders. It was critical of OPD's command and control. Much of the recommended changes from the report have already been instituted by Chief Batts. And a second formal review of the tragedy by California SWAT practitioners is currently underway.
Throughout the last very difficult 12 months, OPD has continued to perform its duties admirably, with professional pride.
The healing process continues for OPD and undoubtedly will far into the future. What's important is OPD is doing its best to bounce back from its unthinkable tragedy. And this should serve as an inspiration to all of law enforcement, including SWAT.