By REID TUCKER
A police tactical team creeps unseen through the shadows of a dimly-lit room of crowded machinery and storage equipment, weapons and sinews cocked back, searching for an armed suspect and his two captives.
Ears strain in the eerie quiet and at any moment someone could get a case of nerves and snap. If that happens, things are going to get really bad really fast. Tension is palpable, omnipresent and oppressive.
In spite of the air of uncertainty and fear, the part of a hostage situation that stands out most is the waiting.
Whether it’s the hostages waiting to see what their captor will do to them or the hostage-taker waiting for the police’s next move, everyone waits, quietly and in the dark, for something to happen. Even the police tactical units, like the Walton County Sheriff’s Special Response Team, that get sent in to resolve these potentially deadly situations are trained to wait it out with hostage-takers, said SRT Commander Andy Casavant. He says suspects invariably mess up sometime, and it’s to the SRT’s advantage to make the most of those mistakes.
“Wait for the right opportunity,” Casavant says, directing his team through a closed-circuit headset. “Capitalize on your opponent’s mistakes.”
Casavant has been involved with training SWAT and other tactical teams since 1978, and he’s published several works on the sixth-century B.C. masterwork of Sun Tzu, “The Art of War,” which Casavant calls “the tactical Bible.” To speak plainly, he’s very knowledgeable and possesses a naturally commanding intensity.
There’s a sudden shuffling of feet and a brief, silent, exchange of fire and the suspect hits the ground. Casavant smiles a little and calls his team with congratulations. One of several training exercises is complete, and it went off without a hitch.
As captives, captor and police return to the impromptu debriefing room in the staff lounge at the Professional Products, Inc. office building on Hugh Adams Road, it’s good to know that what just concluded was a training exercise and not the real thing, but Casavant says the experience is invaluable for the officers of the SRT. There’s no room for error in the event of a real hostage situation, he says. The learning process has to take place in exercises like this one, which the SRT performs about twice a month.
“The most important aspect of any operation is patience,” Casavant said, explaining the most crucial and difficult to master part of the tactical team’s training. “You have to find the fine line with patience where you’re waiting for the right reason. At the same time you don’t want to go so fast that you blow it.”
In the past, Walton County’s SRT has worked with the FBI, State Department, Drug Enforcement Agency as well as other state and federal agencies. The team has also supported other local police forces, thanks to the skills afforded them by their more advanced training. Casavant said this readiness to work with other law enforcement agencies has been one of the main features of his time spent with the sheriff’s office.
“The sheriff is really big on that [assistance for other agencies],” he said. “If there is any outside agency that needs help, he makes sure we’re available.”
The operational scope of the SRT is divided into two types. The first are classified as “dynamic operations,” or those necessitating heavy weapons, body armor and riot gear, such as raid scenarios. Operations of the “covert” variety require a greater degree of discretion since they often involve hostages, and it was this kind of situation the team was preparing for during their last training exercise on Monday, May 12.
The night’s exercise was divided into distinct scenarios, each involving more complex variables than the last. Despite the necessary controls placed on a training exercise, Casavant said restrictions are as minimal as possible so as to ensure the most realistic training experience possible for the team.
For example, when this reporter took a turn in the role of the hostage-taker, there were no time limits on these mock operations. “We let them run their natural course,” Casavant said, referring to the hour-and-a-half game of hide and seek this Herald reporter played with the SRT before being taken down most unglamorously. “We don’t place unrealistic limits on the scenarios. If we did, there wouldn’t be much point to the training. Most limitations are set by the person, not the situation.”
The first scenario the team had to resolve didn’t involve hostages. Rather, a lone gunman was barricaded inside the Professional Products office complex and was holed up, waiting for police. Casavant said this type of situation is potentially more dangerous than those involving hostages.
“In these situations, the general philosophy is to sit out there and wait,” he said. “My philosophy is just the opposite. A barricaded individual is more dangerous to the police than a hostage-taker, since his only focus is on the police.”
The second and third scenarios involved hostages, and as such added a new dynamic to the SRT’s job of solving the problem. In hostage situations the use of a negotiator is critical, officers say, to getting inside a suspect’s head, wearing down their will to resist, leaving the tactical unit free to pursue a means to halt their ability to resist. This forces the hostage-taker to divide his attention between the hostages, the negotiator and the police.
“There’s really no way out for a hostage-taker,” Casavant said. “They already know that the outcome will be one of two things: they’re leaving in custody or in a bag. A hostage taker knows that they’re going to lose, so the only question is ‘how badly do they want to lose?’”
Despite the complexities arising when a suspect takes hostages, officers with the SRT, whose names are withheld due to security concerns, said that hostage-taking is a largely unplanned action, where suspects go into a building with the intent of committing another crime, get trapped and try to use hostages as a bargaining chip. Hostage situations are characterized along the same lines as school shootings, in that they often involve few individuals referred to as “active shooters.” Casavant said the biggest difference was the time-frame involved, as most school shootings are over with in under 10 minutes, while more traditional hostage situations can last much longer than that, bringing the patience element back into the scenario.
“Anything over eight hours is considered a protracted situation,” Casavant said. “We try to end them a lot quicker than that, one way or another.”
The SRT feel that regular training exercises are the best way to prepare for the specific kinds of operations the team is capable of handling, ranging from hostage situations to manhunts, drug raids and school shootings. Casavant said about the only special operation the SRT wasn’t capable of dealing with were counter-terrorism operations, as these situations were simply outside the team’s intended purpose and training.
However, it isn’t just SRT team members that benefit from this kind of specialized training. Three patrol officers were brought in to act as either hostage-takers or hostages, and they learned a lot from their participation in the training exercises as well. Deputy Wendy Ammons said playing the role of a suspect was “a little intimidating, but very beneficial since it makes you really see things from their [a suspect's] perspective.”
Casavant said one of the most crucial aspects of the training exercise is to make sure that the officers involved see the situation from the suspect’s perspective. “Our point of view is irrelevant,” he said, explaining how officers learn from thinking like a suspect. “What’s important is to take consideration of what the suspect hears and sees. Awareness is the key. It’s the little things that get you killed.”
Casavant said he would ideally like to make sure the SRT gets to do a similar training exercise at least once a month, as that’s the bare minimum necessary to keep the team ready for any situation that might occur. He said what’s most important is that the team not rest on its successes and continue to improve its abilities through constant training.
“We’re always going to train, it’s an ongoing thing,” Casavant said. “Police training is depreciable, like any other skill.”
BEFORE THE TRAINING exercise began, the Walton County Special Response Team did a careful weapons check, ensuring that no live ammunition made it into the mock hostage situation.