Austin Police call 31-hour SWAT situation “lengthiest in recent memory”

Austin

SWAT team expert weighs in on tactics utilized, after photos show significant damage to home involved

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A SWAT situation at a home in south Austin that started Wednesday afternoon ended late Thursday night, more than 31 hours after the initial 911 call.

A spokesperson for the Austin Police Department called it the “lengthiest SWAT call out in recent memory.”

The man is now in custody, facing charges for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Police initially said they were called out Wednesday afternoon to a person barricaded inside a home on Garbacz Drive near Menchaca Road.

They later said a caller reported her husband was walking down the sidewalk when a neighbor came out with a weapon in hand, threatening him. The husband ran back inside his home, but over the 911 call, you could hear gunshots in the background. This call came in around 3:37 p.m. Wednesday. Officers said the caller reported the person was actively shooting a gun.

“The primary motive is always safety, so you can’t put a time on that.”

Richard Whitehead, Former SWAT team commander, Law Enforcement Training Expert

Officers then responded and set up a perimeter around the reported gunman’s home. Police tried to convince him to exit, but he refused. SWAT was called out to the scene around 6:10 p.m., which is APD’s standard procedure for these situations.

The spokesperson for APD said their SWAT team is currently not responding to mental health calls where someone has barricaded themselves, unless they believe the person has access to firearms or it is a hostage situation.

“The goal in not responding is to de-escalate the situation and shrink the footprint of the call,” she said. “Once the SWAT team is activated, the actual tactics remain the same.”

Police reported the gunman is in his mid-30s, and APD is familiar with him. Police said he suffers from mental illness, and they believe he was having an episode. In the month of August alone, APD said police are believed to have responded to his house more than 15 times, but up until now no weapons were ever involved.

She noted the APD Crisis Intervention team was on scene, along with hostage negotiators once SWAT arrived. At the beginning of the second day, mental health experts with Integral Care were brought in, but the spokesperson said the man was unwilling to communicate.

Richard Whitehead, a former SWAT team commander who now trains law enforcement officers, took a look at the tactics used in this situation.

“There’s not really a length of time on it, and you really don’t want to put a time on it, because the primary goal is safety–that’s safety of the responding public safety, the safety of the people involved, the suspect and any hostages or family, and the surrounding neighbors or businesses,” he said. “As long as they are talking, then that minimizes a violent response.” 

On Wednesday, officers reported the man said he would come out peacefully, but would erratically changing his mind. As of Thursday, they said it was still an up-and-down, fluid situation.

They said their main goal was to calm him down enough to have him exit the home peacefully. They shut off power to the house, and negotiators — as well as family members of the man — were on scene to help draw him out.

Police evacuated residents nearest to the home and did not allow them to return until after the man was arrested. That means they were kept out of their homes for more than a day.

One neighbor across the street sent videos to KXAN, showing an armored vehicle puncturing windows and plowing through walls of the house where the man was barricaded.

The spokesperson for APD told KXAN “at some point we have to start to remove those barriers” between the subject and the officers. She also noted this is a tactic used when subjects are “hiding.” She said they needed to see what was going on inside the home, for the safety of officers and the man himself.

“You can’t let him leave, when it’s already a lethal situation.” Whitehead explained. “When he’s ignoring commands, has a weapon and is reaching for other weapons… it has to stop before someone else gets hurt.”

Whitehead also noted departments must be aware of their resources in a situation as lengthy as this one.

For negotiators and officers on the “front lines” of a situation, he suggests rotating shifts every one to two hours.

“To have fresh minds, fresh set of eyes there, and to let the other person relax and de-stress a little bit. Get some water, relief, take care of their needs,” he said. “For a 31-hour SWAT mission you go through a lot of personnel to keep everybody fresh, but when you lose that freshness is when mistakes are made.”

APD said there were two shift changes over the course of the call, plus the Williamson County SWAT team was asked to cover the city while APD’s SWAT team was being utilized.

“There will be overtime costs associated with the incident, but we don’t have an estimate at this point,” the spokesperson said.

On Friday, Chief Brian Manley thanked all those who were involved, and thanked Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody for having his SWAT team on standby in case another situation arose.

“I want to commend all the officers who worked tirelessly and admirably to bring a safe end to a tense 30+ hour SWAT situation,” Manley tweeted. “They even brought in mental health professionals from TC Integral Care to assist. Thank you to the neighbors as well for your patience.”

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