The hardest part is getting the door open.
It can take up to 20 minutes, said Sgt. Jonathan Rinehart, the leader of Killeen Police Department’s Tactical Response Unit.
Killeen’s SWAT team includes 30 elite police officers. Held to higher physical standards than most officers, this “brotherhood” is on the front line of Killeen’s most dangerous situations.
As daylight peeks through the front door of a vacant home on Waterfall Drive, an officer points his pitch black .40-caliber P226 inside.
Kneeling down, he lightly nudges the door open during a training exercise. An officer behind him levels his Bushmaster M4 carbine assault rifle above the officer’s head.
The door groans lightly. An officer places his hand on the point man’s shoulder. All motion is stopped.
Most SWAT members are part of KPD’s patrol unit, though the team also has members from Killeen Fire Department’s fire marshal’s office who serve the dual role of SWAT member and on-site paramedic.
On Thursday, the SWAT team converged on a vacant home in western Killeen to practice stealth entries. They hone their skills for a situation in which they enter a home without alerting whomever is inside.
Clearing a fully furnished 2,000-square-foot home can take up to an hour, Rinehart said.
Clearing a home
Officers enter the home in a six-person snake-like formation called a “stack.” Some keep a hand on the shoulder of the SWAT member in front of them so they are always aware of each other’s locations.
Silence is key. Bumping into a fellow officer can create enough noise to alert a suspect, and then there could be a real problem.
The officers inch forward, pointing weapons in every direction. Rinehart and fellow SWAT member Christopher Ache whisper pointers to members of the “perimeter” team — the less experienced group of SWAT officers who will usually man the outside of a building in a standoff. The more senior “entry” team has already finished its training for the day.
Ache tells one officer to get down on a knee so he has a better vantage point of an upstairs balcony that overlooks the empty living room. It allows an officer at his back to get a better angle on the landing at the top of a staircase.
On Sunday, the SWAT team responded to a home on Tatonka Drive for about 15 hours, engaged in a standoff with assault suspect Sean Michael Denny. He threatened to kill himself and barricaded himself inside his home, according to an arrest affidavit.
The call was particularly exhausting for members of the SWAT team, who were forced to stand for hours wearing dozens of pounds of extra gear. “You can’t prepare for a 15-hour standoff,” Rinehart said.
Because of this, KPD holds members of the SWAT team to more extensive physical tests. To become a member, one must be able to run 1.5 miles in a little less than 13 minutes and be able to do 44 push-ups without stopping.
They are encouraged to work out in their free time.
Always on call
SWAT team members’ personal lives also are held to a higher standard.
KPD can’t afford to rely on an officer who may go out drinking regularly. Each member is essentially on-call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
SWAT members are typically provided a take-home squad car, so they are able to pack their equipment and head to a call at a moment’s notice. Rinehart said every night when he goes to bed, he lays out a change of clothes, just in case a situation develops.
“You never know when that call out is going to come,” he said.
During the extended response to Sunday’s standoff, several of the SWAT team’s eight trained negotiators used various means to stay in contact with Denny.
“They have to empathize a lot more,” said Rinehart, noting that negotiators’ personalities are different from the typical SWAT operator, who is more of an “alpha.” “They’re kind of a special breed.”
The object is to talk the subject out of a house, to give their target rational reasoning to determine that their best course of action is to surrender.
In the case of Denny, officers waited until nearly dawn Monday to enter the home. Some believed he may have killed himself.
It turned out Denny was alive. As the SWAT team went through the home, Denny attempted to escape through a window. He was greeted by members of the perimeter team. He surrendered and was peacefully taken to jail.
With not a single shot fired or person injured, the SWAT team could call the incident a success. The resolution fits well with a team that sports the motto, “Where failure is not an option.”
Contact Philip Jankowski at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7553