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For SWAT unit, uneventful finish is the goal

Judi Carl’s phone rang not long after midnight on Nov. 26.

A man was holed up inside his home following a family argument that had turned violent. He was reportedly drunk and had fired a gun. His wife and son had fled. Patrol officers had surrounded the home and attempted to talk to the man, with no success.

It was time for Carl – a captain with the Spokane Police Department and the duty staff officer for that night – to figure out what to do next. She was ready. Around once a month – 10 times this year, 14 times last year – someone barricades themselves inside a home with a gun. In all of those recent cases, the SPD’s SWAT team has brought things to a close without anyone getting hurt.

In that sense, the events of Nov. 26 – as distressing and potentially dangerous as they were – were not necessarily unusual.

“I think this was kind of typical,” Carl said. “It was not an unusual event.”

At 12:02 that morning, police received a domestic violence complaint about Steven Zimmerman; details were sketchy, but he had apparently fired gunshots in his home and was considered a threat to his family. The home, in the 4300 block of East Fairview Avenue in northeast Spokane near Minnehaha Park, was surrounded by officers within minutes.

Sgt. Dave Overhoff arrived and oversaw the scene as officers began working to get the nearest neighbors out of harm’s way and to reach out to Zimmerman. At that point, information about what had happened was limited and shifting, from the number of shots fired to whether there were other people in the home to Zimmerman’s state of mind and previous actions. Eventually, officers sorted out a basic template: The man’s wife told them Zimmerman was intoxicated and argumentative and had fired a rifle once. She and her adult son had fled the house, greeting officers when they first arrived.

The main goal, from beginning to end, was to make contact with Zimmerman. Lacking that, that house was a black hole of possibilities. Before Overhoff brought in Carl, officers attempted to call Zimmerman and to get his attention using a loudspeaker. When those efforts didn’t produce any answers, it was time to call in more people and resources.

Carl brought in the specialists. The SWAT team, including snipers. Hostage negotiators. A K-9 team. Chemical weapons experts. Ambulance and firetruck on scene. For all the firepower, the goal remained unchanged.

“What we’re trying to do is establish any type of a connection,” said Detective Randy Lesser of the SWAT team.

Over the next few hours, Carl oversaw the scene from a command van, and police tried a variety of ways of talking to Zimmerman. Meanwhile, they were checking out his background; he didn’t have a record of violent crime or a pending warrant – both red flags – but “he was in our system,” Carl said.

Officers tried to call Zimmerman on his cellphone. No answer. They blared commands through the loudspeaker. No answer. They used a remote control robot to “insert” another phone in the house, and called that phone. No answer.

Meanwhile, they were flooding the house with lights.

“We want him to know we’re there,” Carl said.

At the same time, though, Carl was aware of avoiding the “action imperative” – the impulse or need to leap into action – and trying to be patient and thoughtful. Someone in Zimmerman’s shoes – for all that they didn’t know about him – was in a situation of extremity or distress, and time itself might help bring down that emotional crisis.

Still, after several hours, Zimmerman remained silent inside the home. Dawn was approaching. It was time to consider other alternatives. Carl said they considered trying to send a dog in, but they thought there might be another dog in the house, complicating that option. They decided to try tear gas – at first a variant of pepper spray.

Around 6:30 a.m., more than six hours after the first officers arrived at the home, canisters of pepper spray were fired into the house through windows. There was no response. They tried another round. Nothing.

At each stage of the process, Carl was taking input and suggestions from the people on the ground, and ultimately making the call about whether to take it up another level.

“When they say, ‘Judi, we need to escalate,’ I say OK, that makes sense,” she said. “I know them. I trust them. We’ve all been working together for years.”

Another round of tear gas – more and stronger – was planned. At this stage, after 7 a.m., they decided to also fire tear gas into the detached garage at the home.

That did it. It turns out that Zimmerman had slipped over to the garage, presumably before police first arrived. Zimmerman came out at 7:30, roughly, and was arrested. Neither he, nor his family, nor the neighbors, nor a police officer was injured. Zimmerman faces charges of assault and reckless endangerment.

It was a long, tense night. For the people living in that home and in that neighborhood, it was extraordinary. For the police, it wasn’t.

“It was very efficient,” Carl said. “Very effective. Our goal was achieved – there were no injuries.”

She added, “The point is, this is really a team effort. From the first response officer to the last person who takes down a barricade, all the pieces have to work together.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.