Ending a Barricade with Heavy Equipment

When faced with a barricaded suspect, SWAT officers may want to consider using heavy construction equipment to end the incident.

Photo: Ti Goetz

The Biblical account of the Israelites' battle for Jericho turned out to be a pretty easy win for Joshua. His barricade tactics were simple. He and his men marched around the city for seven days, blowing horns, and carrying the Ark of the Covenant, and then stood back and watched the walls of Jericho come tumbling down. The sudden loss of the defenders' main line of defense resulted, of course, in Joshua's unimpeded assault into the city. End result: an incredibly successful and relatively cost-free sacking of one city.

Whether you believe the Biblical version or not, you have to admit Joshua had a pretty good strategy. Why waste precious men and resources trying to fight past the primary defenses when you can simply bring the walls down and walk past them? It's a good question, then and now.

While the Israelites were limited to crude weapons and technology, backed up by a little divine intervention, the modern day equivalent of the tactic-using armored vehicles and heavy construction equipment to tear into structures-appears to be catching on with SWAT operators. Why risk our officers' lives when we can use our own version of the "Jericho Solution" to bring down the walls on barricaded gunmen?

Modern Day Precedent

Israel's military has used armored Caterpillar bulldozers for years to deal with barricaded gunmen and terrorists, with great success, if not in the press, at least on the battlefield. Generally a practical army, the Israel Defense Forces quickly realized that storming structures occupied by fanatical gunmen was often an exercise in wasted lives. So Israeli tacticians developed a heavily armored bulldozer that their troops could simply drive over and/or through the structure, reducing both the terrorist and the building itself to rubble.

Now admittedly, as American law enforcement officers, our ability to obtain armored bulldozers and drive over suspects—no matter how appealing the thought—is somewhat limited. Law, policy, cost, circumstances, and what would most likely be a highly unfavorable backlash from the media and human rights folks make such a tactic impractical. However, some American police tactical teams have adopted a modified "Jericho Solution" that has proven highly effective.

What if your bad guy is a heavily armed and dangerous suspect, barricaded by himself inside a structure? What if he refuses to surrender or fails to engage in meaningful negotiations? Would these circumstances warrant the unusual and possibly very costly tactic of reducing the walls so as to allow visual and physical access to the structure in the safest manner possible?

Barricaded Suspect

A SWAT team combining officers from two Southern California agencies, the Hawthorne Police Department and the Gardena Police Department, faced just that question on Dec. 9, 2009.

The callout began at 5 a.m. when Gardena SWAT attempted to serve a felony narcotics arrest warrant on Michael Hernandez, 31. Hernandez had numerous prior felony arrests, was a parolee at large, and was a documented member of the criminal street gang "Gardena 13" with the moniker of "Villain."

The Gardena PD had received credible information that Hernandez was hiding in the city in a family member's house. Information indicated Hernandez knew he was wanted, did not intend to be captured, constantly carried a 9mm handgun, wore a ballistic vest, and had access to an AK-47 assault rifle, which was in the house with him.

When surveillance failed to turn up any sign of Hernandez, Gardena SWAT was notified and wisely elected to conduct a "surround and call out," rather than force entry. They received absolutely no response to their hails or calls, so the command personnel made a second extremely wise decision, electing to treat the situation as a barricade rather than assuming Hernandez was not home.

Because they needed additional personnel and had worked and trained together on a regular basis, Gardena SWAT called in Hawthorne SWAT for assistance. By 7 a.m. both teams were on scene integrated under Gardena PD's command and working the problem.

Standard barricade protocols were followed with a joint command post, containment, long rifles, and react teams. Evacuations were completed, gas and water shut off, and numerous attempts to communicate attempted.

Gas and Talk

Detectives "pinged" Hernandez' cell phone, which revealed his phone, at least, was inside the residence. By 10 a.m. family members had "mysteriously" arrived on scene and been interviewed. Hernandez' aunt told the crisis negotiation team that Hernandez would not go back to jail and that police would have to "shoot it out" with him. In addition, his girlfriend, though she initially tried to mislead police, eventually admitted that Hernandez had called her on the phone earlier and told her, "The police are here."

Hernandez would not answer his phone. A front window was breached at 11 a.m. and a throw phone was deployed into the residence. Continuous attempts to make contact through PA, house phone, cellular phone, and throw phone all went unanswered.

At 1 p.m. the decision was made to deploy cold gas into the
residence, working from back to front, in the hopes of forcing Hernandez out or at least inducing him to make contact. About 22 rounds of 40mm gas were fired into the house. A male subject exited the front of the residence and surrendered to the React team.

Hot Gas

The male subject was for the most part uncooperative. He did confirm, however, that Hernandez was inside the residence and that he was armed with a shotgun. The subject denied seeing any other weapons in the house.

Cold gas deployment continued until more than 30 rounds were fired into all accessible areas of the home. Despite sufficient "cook time," officers did not hear or see any sign of Hernandez. A gas spear was then deployed to force hot gas into the side of the structure in the area where Hernandez was believed to be bunkered.

One fortunate result of the male subject's surrender was that he left the front door ajar upon exiting the residence. This gave SWAT a clear path to send a robot into the residence to try to locate Hernandez.[PAGEBREAK]

Photo: Ti Goetz.Photo: Ti Goetz.

Unfortunately, when the robot entered the living room, it sucked a jacket into the treads, causing it to be completely immobilized. The robot could not move in any direction, but its camera system was still functional and provided an observation point.

Shortly before 2:30 p.m. Hernandez was briefly observed crawling through the living room. Repeated hot gas deployments continued until all the gas canisters eventually became trapped inside the residence by obstructions.

About 30 minutes later both teams' stock of cold gas had been deployed and all of the hot gas canisters were stuck inside. With the likelihood that entry would only facilitate a dicey shootout, the decision was made to open up the front of the house, by tearing out a large bay window, with a rope and hook kit attached to a BearCat armored vehicle.

Tearing out the window would give containment officers and long rifle operators a clear view into the living room. It would let them cover the entry team better, if it came to that. The gaping hole in the side of the house would also make available an alternate point of entry away from the fatal funnel at the front door.

Knock It Down

Only one problem. While the theory was sound, the attempt to pull out the window failed after both hooks were improperly set. A second attempt was not made, as the Command Post began to contemplate a more radical concept: tearing a hole in the side of the building, with a Caterpillar front loader.

With Hernandez believed to be bunkered in the rear portion of the home between the adjoining garage and front portion of the home, it was believed that the "Jericho Solution" would deprive him of his retreat as well as allow visual access into the building and additional points of entry.

Tearing a hole in this house with heavy construction equipment was no easy decision for Gardena PD's command to make. The proposed action definitely entailed some risk and major liability. The result might entail the partial or total destruction of a $400,000 home, would almost certainly expose the department to a lawsuit, might result in the death and/or injury to the suspect, and might be interpreted by the courts, should it get that far, as unlawful or unconstitutional.

All of these concerns had to be taken into consideration. But Gardena Police Chief Ed Medrano made the bold decision to greenlight the plan, opting to protect the men and women of his department despite liability concerns.

Heavy Equipment

There were still issues that had to be overcome before the front loader could be used. A SWAT operator had to be transported to the city yard where a large front loader was stored and given quick lessons by city personnel on how to work the vehicle. At the same time, an operation began to move four vehicles parked in the driveway so as to allow access to the east side of the house.

A rope and hook was attached to the axle of each car and the BearCat armored vehicle. The cars were then simply dragged out of the driveway. As that operation was underway, Hernandez was observed on the robot camera crawling through the living room. He grabbed two gallon jugs of an unknown liquid, before running to the rear of the residence. It was unknown what was in the containers but a flammable substance was certainly one of the considerations.

After about 30 minutes all four vehicles were moved and the Caterpillar front loader arrived on the scene. With a driver and one cover officer on the machine backed up by additional cover officers nearby, the front loader began pulling down the east side of the house.

Hernandez immediately used his cell phone to contact the negotiators, demanding to know what was going on. For the next hour officers and Hernandez negotiated on and off. Each time Hernandez hung up, the Caterpillar was put back to work until Hernandez got back on the phone.

About one hour after the Caterpillar started to tear into the house, Hernandez picked up the throw phone in the living room and stated he wanted to surrender. He immediately exited the front door and walked partway down the walkway and stopped. Hernandez then began cursing and demanding to know why police destroyed his parents' home. Despite repeated commands from the React team, Hernandez refused to comply with their orders and was dropped with one 40mm sponge round and taken into custody. The incident was over.

Officers searching the residence found an SKS assault rifle, a loaded 30-06 rifle, two shotguns loaded with slug rounds, a handgun, a ballistic vest, approximately 500 rounds of ammunition, and one small bomb used in commercial fishing.

Catching On

The Gardena case is not an isolated incident. More and more agencies are choosing to knock down walls in barricade circumstances rather than make dynamic entries that put officers at risk.

Case in point, a barricade incident involving the Los Angeles Police Department's SWAT team earlier this year. In that incident, a gunman suspected of shooting an LAPD officer barricaded himself inside a house in the San Fernando Valley community of Sylmar.

LAPD SWAT resolved the issue using a nearly 20-ton remote-controlled vehicle called the BatCat (Bomb Assault Tactical Control Assessment Tool). The massive robot uses Remotec Andros cameras and has the power to lift cars and tear into buildings. It's based on a Caterpillar Telehandler, a piece of heavy agricultural equipment.

The BatCat was used to tear down a large section of a residence from which the barricaded gunman had wounded one LAPD officer and was continuing to fire at others. The gunman was found shot dead, likely by his own hand.

Most pundits didn't have much to say at the time about the LAPD's tactics, especially considering the fact that the gunman had seriously wounded an officer. As time goes by, however, and lawyers get involved, the likelihood that procedures, formal guidelines, or legal requirements such as that a warrant be obtained, prior to use, will most likely increase.

Like everything else in life, tactics evolve and change and we must change with them. The Jericho Solution is not a tactic to be taken lightly, nor used in every barricade situation, but it can save the officers' and even the bad guys' lives when used properly.

Ti Goetz is a lieutenant with the Hawthorne (Calif.) Police Department. He has worked patrol, gangs, detective bureau, internal affairs, SWAT, and is now a patrol watch commander.


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