Lessons learned: Dissecting a dangerously close call

Supervisors must assume a risk-analysis perspective when managing critical events and balance the need for immediate action against the consequences of acting prematurely


With apologies to author Bulwer-Lytton, it really was a dark-and-stormy night on my very last shift before I was to retire after a 29-year career. I was an FTO sergeant with two recruits assigned to my team. It was approximately 2030 hours and the dispatcher was sending several of my units, including both recruits, to a burglary-in-progress call. The reporting party stated that she and her boyfriend had gone into the backyard of a friend’s house where she had been allowed to leave her dog for the day. As they passed a side door with a window to the kitchen, they saw a male wearing a stocking mask wandering around inside the residence. They walked to a nearby corner and called 911 from a cell phone.

As my units responded to the call, they began to coordinate their response and asked for clarifying questions and updates from the reporting party via the dispatcher. So far, so good. This residence is in the heart of a heavily gang-infested neighborhood. I called up the location on my GPS and noticed that it was at the very top of a “T” intersection with a clear view down the intersecting street. Behind the house was an elevated freeway. The only thing separating the back yard from the freeway was a wooden fence and an inclined berm.

As I drove toward the call I heard a Special Operations gang-enforcement team arrive to assist.

“Excellent,” I thought.

As I listened to how the operation was progressing, however, I had some concerns. The units were setting up a perimeter but without directing arriving units to avoid driving up the intersecting street, which would put them in the line-of-sight of the target residence. One officer stated that the backyard did not need to be covered because of the freeway to the rear. I also heard one unit state that he was making contact with the reporting party. A short time later however, he advised that he was putting together an entry team and had left the reporting party. He just abandoned our best intelligence source.

I was still several blocks away at this point and my experiences with such events told me something was not adding up. We do not generally have residential nighttime burglaries in our city. The reporting party’s ability to see into the residence at night meant that the window coverings were open and the lights were on. This was confirmed by perimeter officers. This does not match the pattern of a burglar’s normal M.O. I also noted that the reporting party stated she knew one of the two female roommates who rented the residence, but she did not know the other.

I was beginning to wonder if this was not a burglary at all, but instead a home-invasion call?

Home invasions are more prevalent in the evening hours. Check.

Home invasions involve masked suspects. Check.

But, home invaders want privacy and are not going to leave the window coverings open. And, the reporting party had stated that the one roommate she did know was not home.

Was it a sexual assault in progress? Perhaps, but the dots were not connecting. I could detect from the radio traffic that the gang-enforcement team members were ready to move up to the residence and make entry.

As I was now only one block away I called a pause to any further action until I arrived. As I was arriving, so was the sergeant of the gang-enforcement team. A fellow alumnus of our SWAT team, he also was concerned about the backyard perimeter position. He volunteered to walk the perimeter to ensure its integrity.

The residence was a converted garage behind the main house and at the end of a long driveway. Several gang and patrol officers were standing on the sidewalk in front of the driveway, and therefore in a direct line of sight of the converted garage. One of the most senior and most tactically sound officers on my team took charge of these officers and directed them to a covered and concealed position.

The gang-unit sergeant soon returned and advised me that the perimeter was tight. I then walked to the location of the reporting party. Because no officer had stayed with her, we didn’t know that she had called her friend who lived in the residence, and that the friend was now on-scene.

I asked the female who lived in the residence if she had any idea who might be inside. She said that she did not.

I asked her if her roommate was inside. She told me she was at work.

I then asked her if she had to make a guess as to who might be inside who would it be. She thought about that for a few seconds and said that her roommate’s father sometimes stops by. I asked her to call her roommate. She immediately got her roommate on her cell and asked if she knew who might be in the house.

You guessed it. Her roommate’s father.

At that point I heard the gang-enforcement entry team yell to me, “Sarge! We’re ready to go!”

I know each and every one of these officers well. These are hard charging cops; men of action. My kind of guys. I yelled back that the man inside was the roommate’s dad. They then said, “Ok, he’s looking out the front window at us.” How was he seeing them out the front window? They apparently didn’t listen to the senior officer and never left the driveway for a better covered position. Oh well. No harm, no foul I guess — at least, not this time.

We made contact with the occupant and verified his identity. He was, in fact, the father of the roommate who was still at work. No crime in progress of any kind. The stocking mask? He was getting ready to take a shower and it was a shower cap.

Lessons Learned
Once we cleared the scene I took my patrol team to a nearby secure location to conduct a debriefing. I asked my two recruits to give me a list of “takeaways” from this event. With just a little bit of coaching they came up with the following:

Sustain:

• Teamwork: Patrol officers and gang enforcement officers worked enthusiastically together to resolve the call.
• Professional: All involved responded calmly and were clear with their radio traffic.
• Containment: Officers understood that the first course of action on this type of incident is to establish a perimeter.

Improvement Needed:

• Coordinated response: It’s important to make sure that arriving units are directed into the location in a safe and tactical manner.
• Cover: Perimeter, arrest and REACT teams must when possible make use of covered and concealed positions.
• Information versus Intelligence: In this incident we simply had information that an individual was inside a residence. Because we lost contact with the reporting party we were not developing actionable intelligence. This had the potential for serious consequences.

Summary
While this turned out to be a minor call, it had the potential to be a significant event (and like all calls, it was an excellent training opportunity). We might have had a burglary, home invasion, or sexual assault in progress. However, we just as likely may have forced a confrontation with a legitimate occupant of the residence should we have acted without all the information available to us. All personnel involved had the fundamentals in mind. However, a bit more sophisticated thinking and planning were necessary.

Tactics generally take precedence over investigation, but application of the two works in tandem and in a circular manner. Intelligence will dictate some of our tactics and tactical deployment should develop additional intelligence. This emphasizes the importance of establishing a perimeter, assigning an arrest team, and if necessary, a chase car. Next, someone has to take charge of developing good intelligence. That usually means contacting and staying with your last-best source of information. In this case it was the original reporting party. Finally, develop your strategic and tactical plans to resolve the event.

Supervisors must assume a risk-analysis perspective when managing critical events and balance the need for immediate action against the consequences of acting prematurely. Identify the potential threats to victims, bystanders, officers, and suspects. Estimate the probability and the criticality of the risks posed by those identified threats. Put appropriate safeguards in place to counter those risks. Draw upon your experience and intuition to mentally “game” alternative courses of action and you will be well on your way to making good decisions. Doing so will maximize your chances of successfully resolving every incident you oversee.

About the author

Sergeant Steve “Pappy” Papenfuhs is a police training specialist recently retired after serving 29 years with the San Jose, California Police Department. During his career he worked Patrol, Field Training (FTO), Street Crimes, SWAT, Auto Theft, Sexual Assaults, Narcotics, Family Violence, and supervised the department’s in-service Training Division. He is the developer of the Defense and Arrest Tactics program currently taught at the San Jose Police Department, and the police academies at Evergreen Valley College in San Jose, Gavilan College in Gilroy, and Monterey Peninsula College in Monterey. He holds a Force Analysis certification from the Force Science Research Center, and is a certified instructor with the California Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) in several disciplines including: Firearms, Defensive Tactics, Baton, Force Options, and Emergency Vehicle Operations (EVOC).

Contact Steve Papenfuhs.

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