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SWAT Officer James Gnew: The "war horse"

If anyone ever makes a movie about the life of Officer James Gnew of the Cleveland Police Department, it will be a “must-see” for all cops. Because an injured hamstring hobbled him, James Gnew recently stepped down as the last original member of Cleveland’s illustrious SWAT Team. Although he completed the SWAT Run in 14 minutes, he was in pain and knew the injury would never allow him to run it in 13 minutes.

He retired from SWAT, but not the department.

The team felt his wisdom, knowledge and experience were too valuable to lose so he continues with the team as their training officer.

Jim’s life of service began in the United States Army, where he served honorably in Viet Nam 1966 to 1968. Ever the sheepdog, he left the service and proudly put on the uniform of the Cleveland Police Department. In the 1970s, the department administration realized that special people with special skills were needed for high risk situations so James was appointed to the “Tactical Unit” before there was a SWAT team. James said the unit consisted of officers with special skills and experience due to their military background, or police backgrounds, where they had already survived gun fights. This unit handled special high risk calls, but really had no special additional training or equipment, other than they worked well together and trusted each other.

In 1978 Jim joined the newly-formed SWAT Team. Much has changed since then, but it all started there. The unit sought out and developed tactics and skills that now are the staple of SWAT Teams all over the nation.

Jim said that the public took a wait-and-see attitude on SWAT, wondering if they were all about, “coming on like Gangbusters,” or serving and protecting. Slowly but surely, the public (and more importantly the criminals) began to realize that these officers were more than good at what they did and they were incredibly successful at resolving the worst situations. They also were experts at bringing in suspects who were not inclined to surrender without a fight, and they became known for the lives they saved rather than the lives they took.

One such incident occurred in 1985. An emotionally troubled woman killed her husband and went to the Hopkins International Airport. She went to a loading area and shot the ticket woman at the boarding gate and got on a plane. Once on board, she took about 45 people hostage.

A negotiator was able to secure the release of 40 of the people, but then things went haywire and a psychologist came to the conclusion she was going to kill the remaining five hostages, which included a baby.

Gnew and his teammates had practiced a rescue on a similar plane, so when they got the call to make entry they were ready. After deploying a diversion, Gnew entered with the rest of the team and discovered the woman was not distracted by the diversion—even worse than that, she was waiting for them. When the woman stepped out and shoved the gun into the Jim’s chest, Gnew was able to deflect the woman’s gun hand and the round she fired skimmed his vest and lacerated his knee.

His partner then shot the woman. She survived and was later taken into custody.

Gnew said, “You know, after the female was in custody the passengers applauded.” It was high-profile successes like this hijacking in Cleveland that secured demonstrated SWAT to be an effective tool in modern law enforcement.

Jim’s team was active throughout his career, conducting approximately 400 high-risk searches and 25-35 barricades per year, and Jim has taken part in most of them.

Gnew said the basic skills and advanced skills of a SWAT Officer have been what made his SWAT Team successful. He says there have been incredible advances in technology such as improvements in communications, protective equipment, weapons, robots, and his personal favorite the TASER. He says, “Bad guys would rather be shot with his fire arm than hit with the TASER.”

Jim says that it concerns him that the new generation might become too dependent on the technology and abandon the development of skills and ingenuity that are the trademark of SWAT.

Jim now teaches all over the country about active shooter response. In his career he has been involved in seven police shootings, but his most dynamic is a story he shares in this training. In 2003 Jim and his team, were called to the Peter B. Lewis Building on the campus of the Case Western Reserve University, where a gunman was firing. Jim said he remembered feeling fear at this call out. “Most cops do not want to admit fear, but I think it’s a good thing if you know how to use it to your advantage.”

Jim said when his team and he engaged the suspect and he fired back there was no more fear. The team had a running gun battle with the suspect, which lasted more than seven hours. When it was over, no team members were injured but the suspect lay wounded. When the team cleared the building they realized they were able to locate and rescue 93 people who were hiding throughout the building. All 93 were saved because the team took the fight to the bad guy and kept the pressure on until he was down.

When asked, “What would you tell a young SWAT officer who was just starting?” Jim said, “I would tell them to keep their mouth shut and listen. When you have a question ask, and learn from the masters, who know. Then give 150 percent to your training!”

Good advice from an honorable blue knight in black armor who has seen “The Elephant” and lived to tell about it. Thousands of years ago, men like Jim Gnew inspired the term: “The War Horse.”

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