When guns are drawn: Police handle standoffs case by case

Critics worry about the proliferation of SWAT responses

Courtesy: CNN

ATTLEBORO, Mass. (AP) — The scene has become familiar this summer: Officers, guns drawn, surround a home where a man, reportedly armed, has holed up. Cruisers block off nearby streets. SWAT vans barrel onto the scene, disgorging police who look like combat troops.

A few hours later, the standoff resolves peacefully.

Since July 10, Attleboro, North Attleboro and, twice, Mansfield have faced tense encounters between policeand barricaded men that fortunately have ended without incident.

A variety of situations have triggered the aggressive responses.

No specific protocol dictates when calling in a SWAT team is appropriate, local police leaders and a criminal justice expert say. Instead, incident commanders make the calls, case-by-case.

“Each incident is dynamic and presents different variables,” Police Chief Kyle Heagney said in an email.

Factors include “time, location, type of threat, weapons, hostages and police manpower.”

On July 10, a man in Mansfield allegedly threatened to commit suicide and to harm others with a gun. Two weeks later, an allegedly armed and suicidal man again drew a regional response team to the town.

In Attleboro last week, an aggrieved landlord allegedly fired into the home of a tenant. In North Attleboro, a domestic dispute recently escalated to the point where a man allegedly brandished a knife at his toddler son and later refused to leave the apartment unless “in a body bag.”

Attleboro and Mansfield are members of Metropolitan Law Enforcement Council, or MetroLEC, a regional response team comprised of 45 police agencies.

Heagney said that if an incident commander determines the MetroLEC SWAT team can best resolve a situation, the request goes out to the SWAT control chief, who vets the call and decides whether the team should respond.

“The safety to the police officers and citizens is always the number one priority,” he wrote.

North Attleboro, not a member of MetroLEC, relies on the state police Special Tactical Operations team. On Aug. 16, North Attleboro Police Capt. Joseph DiRenzo decided to call in the team after the suspect made disturbing comments.

“Even though he let the baby out, there was no way he was coming out,” DiRenzo said.

The aggressive police response unnerved some neighbors at the center of activity on Elm Street. As rifle-toting state police in camouflage and bullet-proof vests rushed through their yards, they wondered if they were safe.

DiRenzo said that typically officers would try to allay neighbors’ concerns, but that situation had escalated too quickly for the usual assurances.

Sometimes, DiRenzo said, perception is a secondary concern.

“In that moment, all we can think about is the safety of the individuals in the house and the safety of the officers on the scene,” he said.

Critics worry that the proliferation of SWAT responses is part of the trend toward a militarization of police.

“Since the federal government has passed on militaristic weapons— tanks and the like —in every little policedepartment, there is a SWAT team,” said sociologist and Northeastern criminal justice professor Peter Manning.

In 2014, thanks to military surplus, Rehoboth ended up with a mine-resistant armored truck and Norfolk policereceived an armored personnel carrier and two Humvees.

“The Week” reported last year that SWAT team use had jumped from around 3,000 strikes per year in 1980 to as many as 80,000 raids a year recently.

Manning said intense responses do little to build a positive relationship with a community.

“The job of police is to increase trust. That is the primary product, aim and purpose,” he said. “Paramilitary intervention scares people and decreases trust.”

Manning added, though, that Massachusetts police departments tend to show more restraint and responsibility than those in other parts of the country.

And, he praised those departments that call in trained professional negotiators, as local police have done in the recent incidents, rather than jumping to quick action.

“Police like to act quickly, thinking quick action helps,” he said. “Well, that’s a possibility. But, there are times quick action is not the best approach.”

Heagney, the Attleboro police chief, said that trained negotiators called in with the SWAT team resolve 95 percent of barricaded subject calls peacefully.

___

Information from: The (Attleboro, Mass.) Sun Chronicle, http://www.thesunchronicle.com

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press

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