I Go Inside a Police SWAT Team Responding to a Mass-Shooting.
All Photos and Story By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
The day before the tragic Dallas police shooting on Thursday, July 7, 2016, where five policemen were killed and nine other persons injured, I was invited to embed with a Dearborn Police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) training operation by SWAT Team officer Sergeant [name withheld for operational security].
I did not know the techniques employed by Dearborn Police SWAT would be showcased in international headlines 24 hours later in Dallas.
The Dearborn Police simulation a day before the Dallas shootings was hauntingly similar. What is it like to be a Police SWAT Team operator entering a building with a deadly shooter barricaded inside? Come inside a SWAT team operation and find out…
0830 HRS. Wednesday, 6 July, 2016: Joint Dearborn Police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Team, FBI, U.S. Army Training Operation; Ford Research and Innovation Building (RIC), Village Road, Dearborn, Michigan.
John David Smith is dangerous.
Anxiety, depression, paranoia and substance abuse. Coworkers reported his angry outbursts to managers. They counseled him, offering help on three occasions. Today he must be separated from the company.
Smith knows this, and he is irate. He puts a hunting shotgun and a homemade pipe bomb in a garment bag and drives to work.
0843 HRS. Wednesday, 6 July 2016: SWAT Training Simulation; Ford Research and Innovation Building (RIC), Room 2155.
The Ford Research and Innovation Building is where vehicles of the next decade are engineered today. PhD engineers keep Ford Motor Company at the top of market share with innovation for 2020 and beyond.
The Ford RIC building is a modern facility in the center of a large complex across from The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village and next to the luxurious Dearborn Inn. It is a safe place to work, with OSHA compliant safety placards and employees certified in safe work practices. A massive decade-long rebuilding of the complex was announced earlier this year. This is one of few buildings modern enough to remain as building the new complex begins.
Workers in Room 2155 see John Smith storming toward their office. He is bent over at the waist; head down, carrying a stiff garment bag. Smith has always been standoffish, but staff is trained to engage with dissatisfied employees and make conversation to lighten the atmosphere.
Smith responds by pulling a pump action shotgun from his garment bag and shooting them.
A mass shooting from a mentally disturbed assailant has begun at the Ford RIC complex.
0851 HRS. Wednesday, 6 July, 2016: SWAT Training Simulation; South Parking Lot, Ford Research and Innovation Building (RIC).
I am embedded with the Dearborn Police Special Operations, Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Unit. I will move as part of the team, “stacked up” in the line with their rescue and assault element. The special police officers carry advanced first aid equipment, breaching and rescue gear, bulletproof shields, surveillance equipment, and an array of cell phones and tactical radios. They are also armed with M4 rifles with holographic sights, handguns, smoke, tear gas and stun grenades.
In the training scenario an explosion of 911 calls arrives at Dearborn Police Dispatch miles away on Michigan Avenue in east Dearborn.
“Someone is shooting!” “We hear screaming.” “It sounds like bookshelves fell over and people are running up the hallway.” There is no clear picture.
Through the confusion dispatch officers trained to make order of chaos alert the SWAT team. Regular officers and Ford Security have cordoned off the building with an expedient security perimeter. SWAT positions their vehicles inside the secure perimeter at a concealed location in the south parking lot. The team is gearing up and getting their briefing. It only takes minutes.
By most comparative metrics Dearborn has one of the best law enforcement units in the United States. The department is modern and practices advanced training around the U.S. and the world. Its Special Operations SWAT Team is made up of officers with diverse backgrounds and extensive training, most with military experience, some with combat tours. But this is a civilian setting, vastly different- and more complex- than a battlefield.
The SWAT team leader is one of the older operators. His name is withheld here for security reasons. With his team in a tight circle around him the team leader briefs his men in calm tones:
“One shooter. Our objective is to get to him as fast as possible and neutralize the threat.” He shares the intelligence gathered from 911 calls, Ford Security and from cell phone communications with employees still inside the building being evacuated.
This is a near worst-case scenario: a shooter inside a massive building a city block in size. It’s an ant-maze of cubicles, engineering spaces, workshops, laboratories and vehicle service bays. There are flammable chemicals, explosive gases and high vantage points. Hundreds of places for a gunman to take hostages and barricade himself for a standoff that could end in the loss of innocent lives. The shooter can move with impunity and has demonstrated that he is willing to kill.
While hundreds of people are running out of the building, these men in black uniforms with Spartan patches on their body armor are running in.
We quietly cross an open zone behind ballistic shields and make entry. Fire alarms are blaring. The emergency exits are flung open by escaping employees. It is impossible to communicate above the din.
The team enters against a rushing tide of fleeing, panicked employees. They jam up in an emergency exit. The SWAT operators calmly establish order and clear the evacuees to open the exit. They do it without a word, quickly searching the evacuees and signaling them to raise their hands. The shooter could be concealed among them. Fast action by the team insures he is not. Police outside secure the evacuees and move them to a safe assembly point.
Once inside the team separates into two elements without a word. They are each lined up, or “stacked” behind a thick bullet-resistant shield wielded by point men. If they come around a corner and find the shooter, the operator holding the ballistic shield will stop the incoming bullets at point-blank range while his teammates neutralize the target.
We split the team. One assault element moves to an area where there may be hostages. They operate on sketchy intelligence gleaned from 911 calls that keep coming in, keep changing. The second element, the element I am with, moves immediately to the top floor. We begin a top-down clearing of the building, room by room, in case the first team cannot locate the shooter.
The fire alarm stops blaring. It falls deathly silent in the building. And it is getting hot. The team’s intelligence support unit operating in a large black van outside the building has disabled phones, Internet and air-conditioning. It is critical the suspect shooter does not have access to media. He could use it to watch live video about police response.
First problem: Research equipment in the building is interfering with the team’s tactical radios. The team leader commandeers the radios from Ford Security that are still working. They do a communications check on cell phones and radios. Within seconds new communications are improvised and tested. Problem solved. Forty seconds.
We are sweating now. I carry three heavy cameras and some extra equipment and wear a similar uniform as the SWAT operators. They carry 6-pound rifles, wear heavy body armor, and have on large backpacks with first aid gear, crowbars and door breaching tools. Each man has at least 40 pounds of gear on his back in addition to his ballistic helmet and eye protection. They wear special lightweight tactical boots that make no noise on the floors as they move and provide traction on wet floors. Each one wears hard-shell kneepads in case they must kneel or dive to the prone position.
I’ve done Ironman triathlons and can barely keep up with the team on the stairs with only half their load. These men are in superb condition. When we reach the top of the stairs the only sound is my breathing.
Element 1, the team moving to the possible assailant location, has located an “IED”, an improvised explosive device. A bomb. The U.S. Army and other law enforcement/intelligence units are here for the exercise to provide support and to learn from the operation. I am not allowed to photograph the techniques used to disable the bomb.
In only minutes the EOD team announces “clear”. The bomb is disarmed. There are two (simulated) casualties. SWAT operators use marking pens to write a letter on the casualties’ hands coding their condition for triage by EMT’s once the building is safe.
Our team silently rounds another corner in the systematic sweep of endless corridors.
There is carnage.
The floor is slick with (simulated) blood. There are… 10, 12… 14 casualties down in the hallway. Some dead. Some wounded. Some dying. Some screaming.
It has gone from a hostage situation to a mass shooting, and a small tactical team in a huge building with limited emergency medical capability must make an instant, and agonizing decision: stop and render aid to victims or continue the search for the shooter- who may be creating more victims elsewhere in the building at this moment.
This is a test. A test of the team’s training in decision-making and prioritization. Like most decisions made under extreme circumstances there is no perfect outcome, only a “least bad” choice. Training and mission dictate that choice, and it is made instantly and without hesitation.
The team leader radios the first element. They move to link-up with our team in under two minutes. Instead of briefing the first team members when they arrive, which would take valuable seconds, the team leader briefs them over the radio while en route to our position in the casualty hallway. Seconds are everything.
Wounded people see us. They are screaming for help now. They may be rigged with explosives, one may be the shooter, the shooter may be in any of the doorways emptying into the hallway.
This is a kill zone filled with casualties and the team must manage the conflicting priorities of saving lives and avoiding becoming another victim. The first rule of rescuers: don’t create new victims.
We split again, assault element sweeping to the front of the hallway, our medic moving behind us while the assaulters secure the hallway in front of us. None of the victims are rigged with explosives. None of our victims match the description of the shooter. In seconds the team has swept an adjacent office, secured it, checked the casualties for explosives and weapons and begun treating them. Regular Dearborn Police are pressed into service to help evacuate the wounded. Several victims are dead. We leave them behind. There is a (simulated) bloody bandage stuck to my boot.
After the shock of seeing shooting victims it’s hard to get back into stealth mode. It’s hard to calm my breathing. I look at the operators around me; their faces are neutral with focus.
We enter a meeting room. One operator sweeps left, one right, without a word, skirting the walls of the room with their M4 rifles in the ready position, weapon moving as one with their eyes. They avoid the fatal “funnel” inside the doorway where a shotgun blast from the shooter could cut the team down.
I’m momentarily puzzled when one man scans above us for disturbed ceiling tiles. The other checks a large waste container. The shooter could be anywhere- hiding in trash, concealed in the drop ceiling.
Top floor. We have cleared the entire upper building. The shooter has moved and intelligence suggests there may be hostages since the count of employees rescued, the wounded in the hallway and the number of people who are supposed to be in the building does not match.
Intelligence and training suggest the shooter has moved down to a place where he can secure his hostages and remain defensive. It is rapidly evolving to a standoff hostage situation.
That situation must be avoided.
From the top floor both elements move quietly and quickly to the bottom floor engineering spaces. In total with have covered more than a mile of hallways and stairs. The Ford Security workers show signs of stress, their uniforms soaked through with sweat. I could use water. The building continues to get hotter.
The lower floors are not office cubicles. They are shop spaces and laboratories. Hundreds of places to hide. Flammable chemicals. Gasoline. We enter a large garage area with shiny, new F150 pick-ups hooked to test equipment. The team leader looks in the cab of each truck. Another team member checks the bed of the truck.
There is a voice. Shouting.
At the end of the garage, through a high, clear garage door we make contact with the shooter. It’s the first time we’ve seen him. He is a big man, face contorted in a mix of anger and fear. It occurs to me that the role player simulating a deranged mass shooter must have experience with real shooters like this. His performance is convincing. There are several members of the simulation team I am not allowed to photograph for security reasons. He is one.
The team forms up behind their ballistic shields. They remain quiet. The shooter is shouting something, muffled by the clear garage door that separates us. One team member, our sniper, speaks quietly:
“I have a shot”.
Our team leader must make a decision: Let our sniper take the shot or advance closer in an attempt to assault the garage where the shooter is, potentially apprehending him alive and securing the hostages.
“Move up.” The team leader directs.
We advance along the wall out of sight of the shooter.
There is no hesitation. A concussion grenade cracks blinding light. The team pours into the room, flowing along the walls, weapons tracking the shooter who is now stunned by the deafening noise of the flash-bang grenade. His next flinch decides his fate, and it is a fatal one. He begins to raise his shotgun.
Two shots. Center mass. It is over.
I’m soaked in sweat, my hair is wet. My back hurts from the tension. The team begins an immediate, systematic search of the hostages. There could be an accomplice. It is too soon for “Stockholm Syndrome”, a psychological phenomenon when hostages empathize- and even defend- their assailant. There is an additional search for explosive devices.
More than anything else the team demonstrated their training enabled them to keep the momentum of their search high enough to end the standoff quickly. There are no easy choices when a life may be taken, and that is weighed against innocent lives being saved. The weight of that decision balances on a delicate fulcrum played out in the court of public opinion and the media days, weeks and months after a real incident takes place.
Drenched in sweat and looking for a cold drink I set down my cameras and loosen my boots. The operators converse in measured tones, attentively critiquing the exercise. The outcome of this exercise will be evaluated for months and even years as a way to assess and modify doctrine against evolving threats. If the situation that happened in Texas ever comes to Dearborn our own SWAT Team is more than ready; they are trained, proficient and experienced in meeting the challenge optimally.
Writer/photojournalist Tom Demerly is a former Army Long Range Surveillance team member and has written for numerous military, aviation and specialty publications while traveling to all seven continents, including Antarctica. He is from Dearborn, Michigan.
I was the Security Account Manager that over saw the exercise. Could I please get this sent to me in an email so I can share? I only see share for Facebook and Twitter. Thanks!
Yes Sir. Please send me a quick e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org Sir. I’ll forward the link immediately.
I was the “dead” person you saw with a bullet hole on the forehead!
Hi Shankar, I certainly hope you’re feeling better Sir!
Tom D. 🙂
Well written and informative. Good article.
This is a great article…is it a blog or was this published?
Thank you for reading. Well, a blog is publishing. 😉 This site gets about 1000 views a day. This story was also printed on the front page of the Dearborn Press & Guide’s Sunday edition and on a popular firearms website, so it has gotten pretty decent traffic. It was a very fun project.
All the best you Sir,