Democratic Underground

The SWAT Team On Mulberry Street
April 11, 2001
by TygrBright

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If you live in small-town rural America, your chances of seeing a full-dress SWAT team deal with a hostage crisis at first hand are bound to be more limited than if you live in inner city America, right? I would have thought so, until yesterday, when I looked out my front window to find a State Police SUV cordoning off the end of our bucolic little street.

At first my mind leapt to the possibility that something was very wrong at the little cottage hospital whose staff parking lot dead-ends our street a block and a half to the south. Radiation leakage from the equipment, perhaps? Ebola virus on the loose? A mental patient with a Molotov cocktail? The only constructive action I could think of was to get out the cat carrier in case we were evacuated.

When I stuck my head out the door to ask what was going on, I was told by the earnest young trooper to "stay indoors, please, Ma'am-we have a hostage situation down there-man with a gun."

"Down there?"

A "hostage situation?"

I looked down the block. The big plank fence that separates the dead end of the street from the hospital has a large opening in it, a pedestrian walkway. I couldn't see any extraordinary activity through the gap, but…

"At the hospital?" I asked stupidly.

"No, Ma'am-one of the houses down there," he nodded toward that end of the street.

I blinked, and pulled my head back in the door. I knew intuitively which house it was.

Three houses down from us live "the unfortunate people," as I'd thought of them since we'd moved here. You have to understand our little subdivision to catch on to the designation. We're not rich. I doubt if there's a house in the neighborhood that would sell for more than, oh, $160,000, max. This little enclave (about three streets, two blocks each, laid out grid-style, no cul-de-sacs here) of brick bungalows and cape cods was built in the 1950s. Some of the houses are still occupied by the people who bought them from the original developer.

Lawns are tidy. Foundation plantings well-clipped. The trees are mature. Trim is regularly painted, and many front walks are marked by artsy-craftsy little carved plaques that say "The Smiths," with painted duckies or geese. Front windows reveal a prim vista of living rooms that would not be out of place in a family sitcom dating from the era of their construction. There are some young white and African-American families here, many older white retirees, a few singles.

But the house at the other end of the block doesn't fit the pattern. Yes, it once looked like every other house. But the foundation plantings have run riot. No tidy flower beds adorn the reaches of its rather scruffy yard. Instead of print curtains drawn wide in innocent display of family life, it features slightly skew-gee blinds and sheets tacked over the windows and rarely, if ever, drawn. Piles of not-quite rubbish adorn the bottom of the driveway, and there are often several vehicles parked along the cross street. They're generally reasonably new and expensive-looking. There's a boat - a 15-foot runabout with a powerful-looking motor - in the driveway.

The only inhabitant of the house I've ever gotten to know, in this neighborhood of people who bring over cookies to new residents, exchange back-fence gossip regularly, and host neighborhood holiday potlucks, is the little girl who walks the household's three dogs.

She's a nice kid. They're nice dogs-two older ones and an appealingly homely younger one, all mixed-breeds of medium size. The little girl walked them conscientiously, every day, as soon as she got home from school. If I was working in the yard, she'd stop so I could pet them and we'd chat briefly. Not much, just how was school, how was the weather, the garden, etc. I saw her walking back and forth from the store with grocery bags, walking to and from school.

I didn't really know any of the house's other inhabitants other than to nod at. They didn't come outdoors much. From time to time, Bob and Lou, my neighbors two houses down (the ones who live next door to the unfortunate people,) would grumble a little about the lack of yard maintenance there, or the amount of comings and goings. I gathered that the little girl's mother was divorced, that various other adult family members-sisters, in-laws, etc., and significant others were occasional residents. A general sense of tolerant disapproval appeared to be felt by all - but it's a live-and-let-live kind of neighborhood.

And now there was a "hostage situation" there, at about noon on a sunny Tuesday in April. As I watched out various windows, I could see law enforcement vehicles start to accumulate-several parked on the cross street that runs along the side of our corner house. Others were visible from the second-story office window, pulling in near (but not too near) the unfortunate people's house. A van pulled up and someone shimmied up the phone pole, apparently to attach a tap to the phone line.

The State police were there - two SUVs, two cruisers, and the van. The sheriff's department contributed a few more cruisers, another SUV, and a K-9 unit. The local police weighed in with two of the town's three marked cars and another, unmarked unit.

A couple of snipers in full body armor and helmets, armed with impressive-looking guns, traipsed through my back yard and took up positions behind my neighbor's garden shed and across the street, around the corner of the local Lutheran minister's house.

About 2:00 PM Lou called from two houses down. She wanted to know if I'd seen any sign of the elderly lady who lives alone in the house between us. I'd seen her pull out of her driveway in the morning, and she hadn't returned. Lou was relieved. She has a police scanner, she and Bob were listening in on the "situation." The scanner had carried a report of a conversation in which the man in the unfortunate people's house had threatened to "do" anyone who walked in the door. Law enforcement observers with high-power scopes had caught glimpses of more than one gun.

By this time, yellow tape cordoned off our block and the cross-street at the other end of the block. The neighborhood is rarely noisy, but there's always a certain traffic-pedestrian and vehicle. And on such a gorgeous April day there would normally be the sound of string trimmers, maybe even a lawn mower or two, and the odd hollered-across-the-back-fence conversation as people worked in their yards. Instead, it was eerily quiet. The various law enforcement personnel remained quietly at their stations. The sniper teams shifted position from time to time, but silently.

Lou called back a little while later. "I think it might be about to be over… they're saying on the scanner that he threw out his gun… no, two of his guns. No, wait…" I could hear the squawking of the scanner in the background. "No, he's still got at least one gun… With a scope… He's not coming out…"

She'd learned a little more from another neighbor. Just before noon, the area 911 center had received a call from the little girl who walks the dogs' mother - something about a drug overdose. Apparently, by the time the emergency services arrived, the "overdosed" man had woken up and decided that no one was gonna enter the house, but no one. The situation had proceeded to develop from there.

I'd called my husband who was on the road, and warned him what to expect when he came home. At about 3:30, he pulled his car around onto the next block and strolled back to the road block to let the officers know who he was and where he was going. An officer led him across the street, around behind the house to the back door, preceding him to "see if there are any sightlines" - presumably for our whacked-out neighbor to take a potshot across the intervening two back yards. There aren't - there's a high fence in the way. But the officers were playing it by the book.

I heard later, from another neighbor, that at the bottom of the next block over an ambulance and a rescue truck were standing by all afternoon, with a couple more LE cruisers and an unmarked vehicle or two.

There were no crowds to control, it's not that kind of town. The officers had doorknocked all the adjacent houses and asked us to please stay inside, and we did. The occasional walker or biker passing by would blink curiously, stop to ask a question, then move on, maybe with a look over their shoulder. Vehicles routed around the cordoned off area moved away with a backward glance or two, but went about their business.

At about 5:30 Lou called again. "He's coming out. I can see him from my back porch… no, wait… he's going in again." The officers had shifted position a little. I noticed from the office window that a couple of State Police SWAT team members had taken up positions with riot shields between the cars closest to the unfortunate people's house.

I hadn't seen any sign of the little girl who walks the dogs. Either she was in there, or she'd gone to school as usual that morning and had been headed off before going home. I wondered who would walk those poor dogs.

Once I knew what was going on, I never seriously feared that anything really bad would happen. After all, these were our neighbors. Yes, apparently at least one of them had a whale of a drug problem. Maybe they were doing a little dealing-not an asset to the neighborhood, but still - we knew them.

But objectively, I told myself, law enforcement was right to play it "by the book." It's a volatile mix-an addict with an unknown amount of chemicals swirling through his system, who's already made at least one violent threat, and has guns handy. It's an unpredictable situation.

Nevertheless, as I looked out my window at the array of public servants concentrating on our little block of Mulberry Street, I couldn't repress the thought of what this was all costing us. Ten grand, easy. My taxes, my neighbor next door's taxes, Bob and Lou's taxes, and odd change from the other neighbors. Not being spent on improving the decaying county road that leads out to the next town. Not being spent on mosquito abatement, on park improvements, on the library's woefully inadequate selection of new books and magazines, on fixing up the little public housing community down near the elementary school.

So why were we spending all that money? Could it have been avoided? Is there some way we can prevent a repeat of this episode-if not here, in the next town or the next county?

The mix of drugs and guns in the house down the street provided the flashpoint. Some people might be tempted to quick, pass a law! That would prevent this from ever happening again. But what law?

Stiffer drug sentencing? That won't keep an addict from getting, and using, his drug. Our drug sentencing laws are already absurdly overreactive and wildly expensive to maintain, and still these things happen.

More money in anti-drug enforcement? The one poor neighborhood in town already enjoys round-the-clock policing, thanks to a COPs grant. This neighborhood isn't a likely candidate for a live-in squad car, nor would our neighbors thank the police for such intrusive attention. Perhaps the signs of drug use/dealing were there to see-in retrospect I can certainly connect the dots-but when these things happen in isolation, in quiet neighborhoods like ours, they aren't likely to arouse the kind of attention that clamors for more police presence.

Should we have found a way to take away his guns?

How? He's got no felony record. The guns in question were perfectly suited to recreational use-deer and duck-hunting, target shooting. This is a rural area with a long tradition of game hunting. If you tried to round up all the local hambones, we'd be fighting the American Revolution all over again. And I might take the Betsy Ross role-law-abiding sportsmen should not have to suffer because one idiot has an untreated addictive disease that gives rise to a situation like this.

No, it's hard to see how a law could keep this from happening again.

But what about help?

Addiction is a disease - a disease with terrible consequences to the sufferer, their family and loved ones, and the community. Yesterday's foofooraw was just one graphic illustration of the rarely-regarded costs of this disease. Yet we're eliminating the treatment options for this disease left, right, and center. Worried about your addiction? About a family member's addiction? Where do you go?

This is not a disease that can be cured with a pill, or an injection, or surgery, or a radiation treatment. In fact, it's a disease, like diabetes and so many others, that can't be cured at all-but it can be treated, and controlled. People can learn to live healthy, recovering lives.

But not overnight.

Rarely from just an AA meeting or two.

Addiction requires treatment that is focused and long term. It must be quite intensive, at first, to get the addict through the difficult stages of detoxification and self-diagnosis. This rarely takes less than several days and usually takes weeks. It often takes more than one attempt, though if the addict is persistent the long-term prognosis can be good.

Yet our health care system is turning their back on this disease and its far-reaching and costly consequences. It affects too many people, and there's no quick fix. There's no cheap alternative (though treatment need not be terribly costly-there are some excellent low-cost models that produce good results.)

And until we turn this trend around, and make treatment readily available to addicts and their families, the number of "hostage situations" on Mulberry Streets all around the country isn't going to diminish.

Oh, by the way. Our neighbor came out peacefully at about six P.M. No one was hurt. I haven't seen the girl who walks the dogs - or the dogs. I hope they're all right. I hope my neighbor will get a good sound whack upside the head from a judge who will then send him to a mandatory treatment program that will start the process of recovery for him. But I doubt it. I have a feeling that we'll be paying for his incarcerations and arrests and hospitalizations and various other consequences of his addiction for quite a while.

And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street.

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