By: John Elliott

When people are in danger and in need of help, they typically call the police. When the police need that extra presence to control potentially violent scenarios in a highly professional, timely, and effective manner, they turn to their “Special Weapons and Tactics,” or SWAT teams.

I served as a member of a SWAT team in Rhode Island for 11 years. Before my job with SWAT, however, and before SWAT was invented, I was involved in a shootout that was one of the events that inspired the creation of SWAT teams as we know them today.

At the tender age of twenty-one, I joined a large county-wide law enforcement agency in what was then rural northern Virginia, right outside of Washington, D.C. There were no such things as SWAT teams back then, at least not in that part of the country, but I sure wish there were! You see, just three days after graduating from the police academy, and while still trying to find my way around the county, my partner Ed and I were called to the scene of a possible disturbance at a farmhouse miles away from civilization.

We arrived at the house, and while cautiously walking up to the front door, came under heavy fire from a man barricaded within the house. He was shooting at us from a second story window. My partner and I sprinted for cover, Ed initially tripping and falling on the uneven ground, but thankfully making it to cover behind two large elm trees, while the man fired away at us, round after endless round.

My only weapon at the time was a .38 caliber Colt revolver, with six rounds in the chamber, and another twelve rounds on my belt. Ed, hiding behind the other elm tree about sixty feet or so away, also only had a revolver, and neither one of us had been issued portable radios we could use to call for help. Both trees were being peppered by rifle bullets as we shouted back and forth, making the decision that Ed, since he was closer to our patrol car, would try to run to the car to call for help, while I would unload my revolver into that second story window.

When my partner gave me the signal, I quickly fired all six rounds into that window, shattering the glass, while Ed sprinted off toward the car. Quickly reloading, I began to fire the next six rounds in rapid succession, but suffered a slight grazing wound to my upper left arm, as the shooter fired back at me. There wasn’t any pain initially, but I noticed I was bleeding profusely from the wound, and within a few seconds, the burning sensation started.

I hugged that wonderful elm tree, my nose pressed against the bark, while loading the last six rounds into the revolver, and fired one last round into the window at what I thought was the shadowy silhouette of the man. I didn’t fire the remaining five bullets, thinking instead I should probably save them. But the barricaded man stopped shooting at us. It was eerily silent all of a sudden; the only sound to be heard was the quick beating of my heart, loud in my own ears.

I remained standing behind that old tree, ordered to do so by my responding supervisor until backup ascertained if the shooter was awaiting fresh targets. My partner lay hidden on the ground behind our car.

We heard the wails of approaching sirens, and I remember looking up into the massive branches above me and seeing the vibrant colors of the leaves changing with the fall weather. Seeing them brought me some comfort.

Five long hours later, while still behind the tree, and while holding tightly to the flesh wound on my arm to slow the bleeding, the drama at last came to an end. The dozen or so officers who arrived on the scene crashed through the doors of the house and found the shooter lying dead on the floor right below that second story window. My last round had apparently found its target.

A subsequent investigation revealed the man was a young veteran of the war in Vietnam, who had served three combat tours of duty with the Marines and may have been suffering from the debilitating effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The weapon he was using was a former military M-16, and there were well over two thousand rounds of ammunition still left unused in his room.

I’ve reflected on that day at work many times, a day that was actually the catalyst that caused my department to create a “combat team,” which would, a few years later, became a fully functional SWAT team. It was fashioned after the Los Angeles Police in California created the very first SWAT team in the country back in the 1960s, and, after several years of trial and error, and a constant training regime, evolved into a first-class division of the police department.

By that time, all those years later, however, I had moved on and received a lateral transfer to a city agency within my home state of Rhode Island. And two years later almost to the day, I was chosen to co-lead one of the very first SWAT teams in that tiny state, a team that was kept busy with constant calls for action nearly every week.

And now, whenever I see that slight scar on my upper left arm, I’m reminded of that day in Virginia all those many years ago, and it’s a reminder of the dangers all law enforcement officers face on a daily basis in our country. Yes, back in Virginia the .38 caliber Colt revolvers were soon replaced with high-capacity 9mm semi-automatic pistols, and every officer was quickly outfitted with portable radios and body armor. Training requirements changed too, as it was apparent the curriculum at police academies had to be modernized to reflect the growing trends of violence and unrest in the world. And, yes, whenever I now see a beautiful old elm tree, the memories of that day still come flooding back.

John Elliott is a forty-four year veteran of law enforcement, writing from Illinois. Contact him at [email protected].