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Time is On Our Side Not Necessarily

We hear it all the time. On television, in movies, and sadly even in press conferences with police chiefs and sheriffs who should know better. "Time is on our side." This is usually uttered to the media during or after some type of standoff situation involving an armed suspect and a SWAT team. In spite of the number of times it is repeated, this statement is not true and never has been. The facts are that time is not necessarily on our side in standoff situations.

On the other hand, time is not always against us in standoff situations. To quote Ron McCarthy, LAPD SWAT, "Time is on the side of he who uses it to tactical advantage". Hopefully, that is the police, but it could also be the suspect as well. It has never been automatically on the side of the police, and history is full of examples of suspects who used time to their advantage with disastrous results.
Of course, one of the best examples is the BATF standoff in Waco. During that standoff negotiations continued for 50 days and ended with the deaths of 76 men, women and children. During the 50 days of negotiations the suspects inside the compound used every second of the time given to them to plan, prepare, rehearse, and construct the deadly, suicidal ending to the standoff, which they executed with military like precision as soon as tear gas was deployed in an attempt to end the situation safely. Despite this, there are those to this day who vainly cling to the belief that simply giving them more time would have resolved the situation without bloodshed.

Where did this myth come from? Those who advocate it will point out that when given more time a reasonable suspect will calm down, see the futility of their situation, come down off of the drugs or alcohol that they me be under the influence of, and initiate a reasonable surrender. This is all well and good and in many cases the situation will go down in exactly the manner described, but many times it does not.

The main problem with this theory is the “reasonable person” aspect. SWAT teams generally do not deal with reasonable people. If the person cannot or will not be reasoned with, giving them more time will simply allow them to plan and prepare for inevitable law enforcement use of force. There is no negotiator alive who can guarantee success in every situation and there are no magic words or techniques that will work all the time.

If talking long enough always worked, we would not need handcuffs, pepper spray, batons, TASERs or firearms. We would just say the magic words and with time all would end well. Any experienced police officer knows that this is not the way it is, and some people will refuse to act right even if doing so would get them out of trouble and make them money in the process.

Put yourself in the suspect's shoes. If you were in your home, surrounded by a SWAT team who intend to take you into custody for some reason, and you had no intention of surrender what would you do with the time you were given? Would you get out the cordless drill and start screwing 2x4s across the doors? Would you put mattresses or blankets over the windows to defeat tear gas grenades? Would you place wet towels under the door of an interior room with a water source to defeat the effects of the tear gas? Would you load magazines, prepare weapons, or construct booby traps? Would you review and refine your escape/resistance plans? Would you tell negotiators the things you think they want to hear in order to hold them off longer?

Of course you would do these things, and suspects do them as well. I have experienced suspects doing each of these in past situations. Which would you prefer? For the police to initiate action in the early stages of an incident while your planning and preparations are incomplete, or have them wait until you have completed all of your goals to your satisfaction? Obviously you would want as much time as possible and so do suspects.

Part of the problem is that many police commanders see time as a tool or a tactic. It is neither. To once again quote McCarthy, "Time is an element of an incident, not a solution". Virtually every tool SWAT teams have at their disposal the potential for resolving a situation and can be listed in a Use of Force Continuum. Your presence, your negotiations, your less lethal and lethal options. Time is nowhere to be found in the Use of Force Continuum because it is not a tool.

If time was a tool that could resolve situations on its own we would merely surround a location and start the stopwatch. When situations that go on for great lengths of time are resolved successfully it is good negotiations, less lethal or lethal actions that resolved the situation, not time. It is true that all situations end with time, but to simply wait until it resolves itself is to allow the suspect to determine the outcome, not the police.

In many cases the outcome will not be to our likening. Remember the concept of the Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) loop? Why allow the suspect to force us to react to him? Is it not better to force him to react to us?

I once was in charge of a situation involving a very intoxicated suspect who was armed with multiple firearms and holding his newborn infant with serious medical needs hostage. It was clear that the suspect was incapable of providing the needed medical care to the child because of his drunken state and negotiators had lost contact him for several hours. I approached the relatively new Chief with the situation and told him I thought it was time to initiate a tactical resolution for the safety of the child. He swallowed hard and said 'I think we will just take this one slow and see how it turns out".

My reply to him was "What if it turns out really bad and the child dies as a result?" He rethought his plan and the go ahead was given. A dynamic entry with multiple diversions was executed and the suspect was found passed out and taken into custody. The child was saved. In this case would it have been better to have waited until the suspect sobered up and found the child dead? Of course not. In this case time was not on our side.

In a nearby county, a man went to the home of his estranged wife, shot her in the leg with a shotgun and sent his children out to call the police. When officers arrived he fired at them and a standoff ensued. During negotiations the man made it clear that he had no intention of surrender. His wife told negotiators that she was getting weak from blood loss and might pass out soon.

The suspect wanted the police to deliver a pizza from their favorite restaurant so that they could have one last meal together before he killed her and himself. Multiple times snipers had clear shots at the suspect but they were ordered to hold their fire while arrangements were being made to deliver the pizza. Options for an entry were not good. Fortunately a sniper from another agency arrived and his supervisor ordered him to take a shot at the suspect if the opportunity presented itself. It soon did and the situation was ended with the suspect dead and the hostage saved.

Clearly the Incident Commander who ordered snipers to hold their fire believed in the myth that time is on our side. Once again it should have been clear to him that it was not. If a tactical option was not the appropriate response in this situation just exactly when would it be appropriate? What would the outcome likely have been if the suspect were simply given more time? Just what did the suspect have to do in order for the Incident Commander to act?

This is not to say that there are never situations in which I believe prolonged negotiations are the best option. Depending on a suspect’s state of mind, weaponry, fortifications, threat to innocent people or officers, and our available tactical options, negotiations may be the best and safest option no matter how long they take. It is the negotiations however that are being used to resolve the situation, not time. Time should not be a primary consideration in an incident, only the best tools and course of action based on the totality of the circumstances.

Do not set arbitrary deadlines, i.e., we will wait until noon just because I think noon sounds like a good time. If we are ready now, why not now? How do you know that the situation will be better for us at noon and not worse? Do not escalate just because you are tired of waiting or impatient. If you are not comfortable with your tactical options prolonged negotiations may be the best option.

Tactical situations are nothing more than a use of force situation. Keep them simple and identify immediately what level of force is justified. In the case of an armed barricaded suspect without hostages less lethal force will almost always be justified from the very start, and depending on their actions lethal force may be justified. There is no law that requires officers to use lower levels of force than are justified, but there is nothing to stop you from trying them if desired. If you establish negotiations and do not get the desired results you can go to the justified level of force whenever you decide it is best.

Once verbal contact has been made, the suspect understands our intent and refuses to comply, there may be very little to gain by waiting. Once less lethal measures such as chemical agents are readied their use can be justified immediately. By deploying them quickly and safely early on you may interrupt the suspect’s plans/preparations and force a quick surrender, thus making the situation safer for everyone. Is there anything to prevent you from negotiating for hours or days if you wish? No, but is that the best and safest option under the circumstances? What guarantees do you have that things will get better with time and not worse?

I recall a situation in which an armed barricaded suspect prompted a SWAT call out. He was abusive and hostile towards negotiators and there was no indication that continued negotiations would produce better results. I recommended deploying chemical agents early on but the Incident Commander decided to wait and see if more time would resolve the situation. Soon afterwards the suspect started filling the home with natural gas, climbed out a third story window and stood on the top of the home threatening to jump.

Planned tactical options that had a high probability of success had just been rendered useless by the suspect’s actions. Did waiting make the situation better or worse? Safer or more dangerous? Fortunately we were able to shut off the gas, get him back inside with a ruse, and deployed less lethal force ending the situation safely. We were lucky, as it could have ended disastrously.

There is no law that specifies you must wait any specific amount of time before using appropriate force. I recently testified in Federal Court in a lawsuit involving a barricaded suspect incident. The expert for the other side was a “time is on our side” proponent who stated in court that in an armed barricade without hostages negotiations should continue as long as it takes, even if this means months.

He also admitted that negotiations do not always work and that there was no guarantee that waiting longer would have ensured a safe outcome. If that is the case how does one negotiate as long as it takes? Fortunately it only took the jury a couple of hours to find the good guys not liable and the Judge found the officers were entitled to qualified immunity as well, quoting the expert’s ridiculous claims as a basis for her decision.

In most cases the decision to escalate up the use of force continuum or continue with prolonged negotiations will require a judgment call. Base your decision on the totality of the circumstances and make sure that your actions are lawful and performed for good defensible reasons. A good commander should know when to talk and when to act, and should not be afraid to use either option. And can we please as a profession recognize and vocalize that time is not always on our side!

Lt. Kevin Zelt is the Commander of the Ft Wayne, Ind Police Department Emergency Services Team (SWAT). He has been with the unit for 22 years and has been Commander for 12 years. He is a Regional Representative for the Indiana SWAT Officer’s Association and has taken part in 1400 SWAT. He may be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Dec 2011

Rating : 9.0

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