Come out with your hands up: How Oklahoma law enforcement agencies handle standoffs
NORMAN — At 8:55 a.m. on a recent Thursday, a Cleveland County emergency dispatcher received a call from a woman near Sunnylane Estates Mobile Home Park at 17200 S Sunnylane Road.
“There’s a man got out of his car, pointing, he cocked the gun, pointed it at his wife, said he would shoot her in the face, and there was three kids around, probably about 4-year-old, maybe 10- and 13-year-old something,” the woman said.
The dispatcher asked if the man was still there.
“I left as soon as I seen the gun and stuff, but I’m pretty sure he is,” the woman said. “He made the girl go in the house and he went in after her, but I know he has guns. More than one.”
When sheriff’s deputies arrived at the scene, the family members inside the mobile home left the residence. They told deputies that Justin Sammuel Tucker, 30, was still inside, armed and refusing to come out.
During a standoff or barricade situation, each environment presents unique challenges to law enforcement personnel who are trying to keep the public safe while obtaining a peaceful outcome with suspects. Geography and terrain may dictate the tactics involved.
A mobile home park can be densely populated. Deputies immediately established a perimeter to keep people out of harm’s way while attempting to communicate with Tucker.
“Protecting victims and the public are the highest priority,” Cleveland County Sheriff Todd Gibson said. “One of the first things we want to do is contain the suspect and the situation. We strategically position deputies between the suspect and any innocent bystanders.”
An hour into the standoff, Tucker was still refusing to communicate with deputies.
The mobile home park, while outside of Norman city limits, has a Norman address. Gibson, who served on the Norman Police Department’s SWAT team for 16 years, five as commander, said his former team was called into help.
“A SWAT team has the tools to better obtain a peaceful surrender with no injuries, which is what happened in this case,” Gibson said. “These men and women are awesome, and they have an incredible success rate for bringing these types of situations to a peaceful conclusion.”
SWAT teams — special weapons and tactics — are armed with all manner of firepower, from rifles and Tasers to bean bag guns, stun grenades and tear gas.
Sometimes all they need is a sausage biscuit.
Chad Vincent, commander of the Norman Police Department’s SWAT team, recalled a 12-hour hostage situation in which a suspect barricaded himself inside a residential bathroom.
SWAT ran out of food so they ordered some grub during the call.
“At some point, the suspect smelled the food outside and decided that he was hungry and was ready to come out and surrender,” Vincent said. “If we only knew that a sausage biscuit would have encouraged him to come out and visit with us then we would have certainly got him a biscuit 12 hours earlier.”
The Norman SWAT team has had standoffs lasting nearly 14 hours. Some end before SWAT arrives on the scene. In many cases, suspects will surrender when they learn that SWAT is on the way.
SWAT will take on “inner perimeter” duties so that patrol officers can move further back and create an “outer perimeter,” Vincent said.
Officers are rotated out for breaks as needed, and because law enforcement agencies work together, they are prepared to be on the scene for days.
During standoffs, deputies, officers and trained crisis negotiators must quickly find out if they are dealing with a hostage crisis.
“The primary factor that we evaluate is, are the subjects inside free to leave or are they being held against their will?” Vincent said. “When a suspect is holding someone against their will, then we will typically treat the call as a hostage situation. In any scenario, our first objective is to deescalate the situation and then determine if anyone is injured and then render aid if possible.”
While managing a crisis on the ground, sometimes SWAT teams face challenges in the air. News helicopters can potentially give away SWAT officer positioning, which not only puts their safety at risk, but could compromise the tactical plan.
“With that said, we have built great relationships with the local media and they have always been willing to accommodate any of our requests,” Vincent said.
Medics on standby
After a nearly four-hour standoff, Tucker was arrested. No injuries were reported.
Within the Norman SWAT team there is a smaller tactical emergency medic unit ready to render aid to citizens and officers.
Jim Winham, president of the Emergency Medical Services Authority, said these units are in law enforcement agencies across the nation. Winham spent about 10 years as a medic with Oklahoma Highway Patrol.
“The things that can kill the patient before they get to the hospital is what we want to take care of, which is why most if not all law enforcement agencies have a medic embedded into their teams,” he said.
When EMSA gets the call about a standoff, barricade or other potentially deadly situation, ambulances are deployed near the location.
“You can call it a standby,” Winham said. “We don’t want to send an ambulance in when it’s happening. Predominantly, the medics are there to take care of the officer or if anyone gets hurt in the vicinity. It’s the same thing for bomb threats, even a working house fire. Triage, when you know you’re going to have a lot of patients, we will establish an area like that. That’s a function of fire paramedics and our paramedics, to get the most critical patients out first.”