How visualization and contingency planning help SWAT operations

All SWAT officers should use pre-mission visualization and try to plan for every contingency – both as a team and as individual SWAT operators – because it can mean the difference between life and death


Life and death in a SWAT operation can often come down to how well the team plans for contingencies as "Plan A" often has a tendency to suddenly go out the window. 

Several years ago, our agency received information from an elderly resident that his adult son, who has schizophrenia, had demanded his father purchase a shotgun so the son could commit suicide. To ensure that his father complied with his commands, he informed his father that if he did not return with the shotgun, or if he contacted the police, he would kill his mother.

The father felt his only option in order to save his wife and his son was to notify our agency of the situation. The father reported to the desk commander that his son was holding his wife hostage and that he was armed with a knife. It was quickly determined that this was a barricaded situation with a hostage. 

The SWAT Callout

The officer in charge notified the SWAT commander, who then activated the team. The team was assembled, briefed and deployed to set up a perimeter on the residence. Several plans were discussed, but due to the suspect’s mental state – and the threat that he would kill his mother if the police were notified – it was decided not to contact the suspect to try and reason with him.

The objective became to lure the suspect out of the residence and away from his mother and subdue him.

Eventually it was decided to have an ambulance drive code three past the suspect residence and stop several houses down. The hope was that this activity would draw him either out onto the porch or at least to the front door.

The mission phase was to have a reactionary team staged at the corner of the residence and if the son exposed himself, to use whatever means necessary to secure him. 

The ambulance drove past the suspect’s residence and staged several houses down. The son opened the front door to investigate and stood partially exposed in the doorway. At that moment, the reactionary team broke from cover and moved toward the suspect. 

The lead officer at that time was armed with a TASER, and deployed the cartridge when he was within 10 feet of the suspect. The first probe struck the suspect in the left shoulder, the second probe lodged in the door jam. Because of the poor connection, the desired affect didn’t occur and the suspect retreated back into the residence. 

Of the four officers on the reactionary team, two immediately ran to the rear of the residence while the other two entered through the front door in pursuit of the son. Almost immediately upon entering, the officers entered into the living room area and observed the son in the corner of the room standing behind his mother who was seated in a recliner. The son had a large butcher knife held to his elderly mother’s throat and was holding her tightly against him. The son was frantic – his eyes were opened wide and watery, he was breathing rapidly with his mouth wide open and frothing. 

This was the moment that everyone had hoped to avoid – a mentally deranged son who was armed with an edged-weapon apparently intent on killing his mother. While the officers were trying to grasp the severity of the circumstances, both cops knew action had to be taken. 

The one officer – still armed with the TASER and supported by the second officer who was armed with an MP5 sub-machine gun – began to give verbal commands to persuade the son to drop the knife. The officer with the TASER reloaded another cartridge, raised it toward the suspect and fired. This time the probes hit their mark and the suspect yelled out as he dropped the knife and fell to the floor. The officers immediately moved in and secured the son and the weapon. The mother was escorted out of the residence and reunited with her grateful husband.

Debriefing the Operation

The team discussed the operation and what went right, what went wrong and what could have been better.

The team agreed that up until the point that the probes missed their intended target things were going as planned. However, there had been no contingency in place if the initial plan had failed.

Once the suspect retreated back into the residence, the team went into freelance mode. The team splitting up to enter and cover the rear of the house was never discussed. Once inside and confronted with a deadly-force scenario, the officers had to come up with a new plan ASAP. 

The officer armed with the TASER stated that prior to making contact with the son at the door, he had rehearsed in his mind that if he missed, he would reload. He said he actually practiced visualizing the reload prior to it happening. The officer with the MP5 stated that he was in the process of taking out slack in the trigger when the suspect was hit with the probes and went down.

You cannot plan for every contingency but you can do better than we did on this occasion – simply, we didn’t have a contingency plan for when the probes failed. The old adage “predictable is preventable” applies here. We could have – perhaps should have – had a reasonable expectation that the initial plan would falter if the TASER didn’t have the desired effect. 

All SWAT officers should use pre-mission visualization and try to plan for every contingency – both as a team and as individual SWAT operators – because it can mean the difference between life and death. 

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