Officer Sacrifice Brings Lessons for Two Tactical Teams

The mission for both New Orleans and San Antonio PD SWAT is crystal clear. They, too, need to recover, rebound, and rebuild from the major "hits" each team has taken.

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Virtually every day, across America, SWAT/Tactical teams are tasked with handling and diffusing high-risk situations. Contrary to what some might think, the vast majority of SWAT situations are resolved without incident, injury or notoriety. 

Given the dangerous, volatile nature of SWAT work, it's predictable there'd be some situations requiring forcible resolution. These few incidents are the ones that usually garner the most attention, notoriety, and controversy.

Two such SWAT incidents occurred in San Antonio, Texas in November and New Orleans, La., following Hurricaine Katrina.

San Antonio, Texas, 2:30 p.m., Nov. 11: San Antonio PD SWAT conducted a high-risk narcotic search warrant at a small home in the 4300 block of White Oak. The search was considered high-risk in part, due to the target subject's previous two arrests on murder charges. SWAT was requested, because they are the most trained and qualified to do high-risk entries.

San Antonio is a major city with a population of 1.4 million and size of 412 square miles. SAPD, formed in 1848, has 2,100 employees, and according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, 50 agency officers have died in the line of duty from 1857 through this year.

The 27-officer SWAT unit is an active, respected team that's described as a "tight-knit bunch," who train together all the time. The officers on the entry team were seasoned veterans.

In 2004, the tactical unit took first place at the SWAT World Challenge in North Carolina, and in 2010 took Best SWAT Team in the nation at the U.S. National SWAT Competition in Tulsa, Okla., winning a trip to Germany to compete in the "Olympics" of SWAT competition โ€” the 2011 GSG-9 Counter-Terror Competition. SAPD will be the first-ever team to compete from the U.S.

At approximately 2:30 p.m., wearing their standard ballistic vests and helmets, SAPD SWAT breached the door, encountering a woman and child. Once inside, four SWAT officers were shot by the suspect who fired an assault rifle through a bedroom door. SWAT returned fire and evacuated the wounded officers to safety and medical attention at Brooke Army Medical Center. The woman and child were unhurt.

Neighbors reported hearing SWAT loudly yell, "Police!" and "Get on the floor!" The 29-year-old suspect surrendered, was arrested and charged with four counts of attempted capital murder with a $1 million bail.

All four wounded SWAT officers will survive their wounds. But initially, their conditions were โ€” one critical, one serious, the other two T&R (treat and release).

New Orleans, La., Sept. 4, 2005: Six days after Hurricane Katrina roared through, destroying everything in its deadly path, New Orleans was a city in shambles and chaos. Law and order had broken down almost entirely, and New Orleans Police found themselves under siege, and often under fire, virtually abandoned by large numbers of their fellow NOPD officers who were either unable or unwilling to respond to duty.

This level of lawlessness hadn't been seen in America since the deadly, destructive 1992 Rodney King-fueled rioting in Los Angeles. In New Orleans, it seemed the entire city was under siege and under water. It would be days before "the cavalry" arrived to help NOPD bring New Orleans back under control.

As the world watched New Orleans' dire chaotic situation unfold on TV, we can only imagine what it must have been like for the brave NOPD officers who stayed and fought to save their beleaguered city.

As deadly as the Rodney King riots were and the deadly urban rioting of many U.S. cities in the 1960s, the near total breakdown of law and order in New Orleans was unprecedented in modern American history.

New Orleans is a city of 350 square miles with a post-Katrina population estimate of 325,000. NOPD was formed in 1796, and currently has 1,400 personnel. From 1856 to 2008, 108 NOPD officers have died in the line of duty, according to the ODMP.

The deadliest incident in NOPD history was the Howard Johnson's sniper, Mark Essex, who fatally shot nine people, including five NOPD officers, in 1972 and 1973. Among those killed were an NOPD deputy chief and a cadet who was killed a few days prior to a gun-battle at the Howard Johnson's Hotel. The sniper was ultimately shot/killed by a police sniper in a military helicopter.

Clearly, New Orleans Police are no strangers to violence. And New Orleans' crime rate undoubtedly keeps both NOPD and its SWAT team very busy.

In Katrina's aftermath, 10 civilians were reportedly shot by police (four dead, six wounded). Included were six shot on the Danziger Bridge (two dead, four wounded), allegedly by NOPD SWAT. Shootings that would result in intense scrutiny by the media and the U.S. Justice Department.

In Katrina's wake, 11 NOPD officers have been criminally charged for alleged post-Katrina actions. Including five officers currently on trial for charges stemming from a body found in a burned out vehicle, and the Danziger Bridge shootings. The courts will ultimately determine the fates of the officers facing criminal charges.

In August of 2010, PBS "Frontline" aired an in-depth report, "Law and Disorder," featuring the NOPD charges, and the Danziger Bridge SWAT incident.

Post-Katrina New Orleans was an unprecedented breakdown in law and order. NOPD officers found themselves under siege, under fire, virtually alone and without communications or transportation. Many NOPD officers were unable or unwilling to report for duty, and a few officers became national news when they were filmed "looting" businesses in full uniform.

Post-Katrina New Orleans and the NOPD are working hard to recover and rebuild their city and department, along with their image.

The mission for both New Orleans and San Antonio PD SWAT is crystal clear. They, too, need to recover, rebound, and rebuild from the major "hits" each team has taken. 

The lessons from San Antonio and New Orleans are ones that all tactical teams can, and should, learn from.

About the Author
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SWAT Sergeant (Ret.)
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