- Mark Wilson American-Statesman Staff
When Austin police SWAT officers deploy, they can look intimidating. Team members wear beefed-up ballistic vests and armor, and they carry specialized weapons beyond what patrol officers typically carry.
They roll into neighborhoods in armored vehicles, surround houses and block off streets, often prompting confused neighbors to call the media or seek answers on online message boards.
But catching the public off guard is necessary for the job, Assistant Police Chief Frank Dixon said. SWAT officers might need to pull neighbors out of their homes for hours while police try to talk someone into turning himself in peacefully or to surprise a wanted suspect.
A neighborhood where SWAT officers are serving a warrant, for instance, won’t be alerted before the team arrives. The first warning might simply come from a loudspeaker announcing the police presence.
“They’ll say something like, ‘This is the Austin Police Department; occupants of 1234 Smith St., open your door,’ and they’ll repeat that over and over and over again,” Dixon said.
That could be followed by loud pops from flash-bang grenades, or the sound of doors being busted in or windows being broken. Dixon said there’s really no such thing as a “typical” SWAT situation, so officers have to be ready for anything.
A SWAT raid can be jarring and inconvenient, Dixon said, but everything the team does is centered on safety.
“We get it. No one wants to be blocked away from their house for three or four hours. People have to go to work. People have to get their kids home. But we want to be safe, and if we keep you out of your house for a little bit, that’s the reason why,” he said.
This year through the end of October, police had responded to 103 SWAT incidents — including deployments to serve 70 high-risk warrants — and had tallied no serious injuries to officers or to those taken into custody.
“Officers haven’t had to use deadly force at all,” Dixon said. “So for me, the proof is in the pudding. You’ve got (about) 100 high-risk situations that were successfully brought to a conclusion without anyone being seriously injured or killed. I think that speaks to the professionalism and the high level of training that these guys go through on a daily basis.”
Dixon said the SWAT team is generally held back until the threshold of danger to officers or the public reaches a certain level.
“If there are suspected weapons involved, if someone has a lengthy criminal history with violence in their past or if there is some threat (like small children being involved), then units will typically reach out to SWAT because they have special training and tactics that they can employ to keep everyone safe.”
Dixon said the service of high-risk warrants involves meticulous research and planning because the subjects pose a greater risk of danger or violence. Officers will thoroughly prepare for any encounter with the individual they are seeking and whoever lives at the target location.
“They’ll be looking for prior calls at the house; they’ll look at the person’s criminal history, their involvement with police departments not just here but anywhere they’ve lived,” Dixon said. “They’ll look at a variety of things.”
Quicker responses occur when people barricade themselves inside a home.
“I think that a lot of times (when people) look on the TV and they see the SWAT team was called out to an incident and they learn that it’s a barricaded subject, they think that it’s overkill that the SWAT team was used for that,” Dixon said. “Well, that’s easy to say, but we want to keep everybody safe. We’re always going to err on the side of caution, and time is on our side.”
Danger to officers
SWAT officers are equipped with special gear and training for a variety of high-risk calls, but the element of danger remains a constant concern.
During a court-approved “no-knock” raid in April 2016, 18-year-old Tyler Michael Harrell opened fire on officers with an AK-47 as they swept through his North Austin duplex in the 100 block of Morrow Street near Lamar Boulevard and U.S. 183, according to Austin police.
Officer James Pittman came face to face with Harrell as he was walking to the second floor and was hit once in the knee.
“Luckily, the doctors were able to save his leg,” Dixon said. “He spent a lot of time — he still is —rehabilitating his injuries and has since come back to work. But I think that really highlights the danger that these men face on a daily basis.”
Dixon said officers use no-knock warrants only when police believe the person they’re trying to arrest could harm himself or officers coming through the door if given a warning.
For other warrants, officers wait 15 to 20 seconds after knocking and announcing themselves before forcing entry, Dixon said. A no-knock warrant, which must be approved by a judge, allows officers to go in without waiting.
Those seconds are “a lifetime when you’re standing on the other side of the door — I can tell you that,” Dixon said.
Police ask neighbors to stay inside and fight the urge to investigate or get close to film what’s going on when the SWAT team shows up.
“We just want people to understand that because of the threat, the SWAT team is being used. If you take yourself outside and insert yourself into that problem, the chances and the likelihood of you being injured tend to rise,” Dixon said. “We’ve been lucky that we haven’t had any innocent third parties injured in any of our warrant services, but the danger is definitely there.”
During callouts to barricaded residents, police have a better opportunity to get people out of a dangerous area. Officers will usually knock on doors and move residents to a safe location. They can’t force people to leave their homes, but they highly encourage it, and they ask those determined to stay to remain in a part of the house that’s as far away from the target area as possible.
Dixon said supervisors often talk to neighbors after a SWAT incident to provide some basic information on what went on, but residents can call 311 to find out what is happening in their neighborhood or even 911 if they think they hear gunshots.
He urged anyone who wants to learn more about the SWAT team or other Austin police units and procedures to enroll in the department’s 14-week Citizen Police Academy.
“It gives you a completely different perspective on police work. People leave very pleasantly surprised about the information they get, and they leave with a different viewpoint of the Police Department,” he said.