Things were going from bad to worse. What had begun as a seemingly typical SWAT callout was rapidly escalating into a crisis. The team had just run out of options, and everyone knew it. Cpl. Chris LeBlanc, a 40-year-old, 10-year veteran of a mid-size urban department and eight-year veteran of a multi-jurisdictional tactical team, would be the first through the patio door. He knew he might be taking fire as soon as he got inside, but his only option was to make the entry and hope for the best.
The incident had begun about an hour earlier with a barricaded subject at a home in a residential neighborhood. This was a common job for SWAT, and LeBlanc wasn’t particularly concerned. Any tactical operation has its risks, and he had a healthy respect for those risks, but there was no reason to expect a higher level of danger than usual. A short time later, as LeBlanc battled morning rush hour traffic to get to the scene, communications advised that the suspect had fired shots at the officers on scene, raising LeBlanc’s concerns, but only slightly. It wasn’t especially unusual.
As he arrived a few blocks from the scene at a street clogged with patrol cars, he spotted Deputy Scott Holmes, another member of the SWAT team and decorated combat veteran who had done a tour in Afghanistan, pulling up nearby. Both officers suited up, donning full SWAT vests with shoulder pads and helmets, and carrying long guns—LeBlanc with his HK MP-5 and Holmes with a Colt M-4—and headed for the scene. As they got closer, they saw patrol officers and several Career Criminal Apprehension Team (CCAT) detectives securing a perimeter around a single-story frame home. One of the detectives, a former SWAT team member named Gordon Conroy, explained that a 29-year-old armed robbery suspect named Matthew Hastings had barricaded himself inside the residence when CCAT went there to arrest him. This was about what LeBlanc had expected to hear, but then Conroy added that Hastings was possibly holding a hostage, adding a dangerous new dimension to the situation. They now had an innocent citizen to worry about, and all else would have to take a backseat to his safety.
As time went on and more senior members of the team arrived, the React Team (four tactical officers designated for quick action in an evolving situation when immediate action is required), comprising LeBlanc, Holmes, County Sgt. Scott Schanaker and Officer John Key, deployed in front of the garage. The garage, a snout-like structure extending out from the front of the residence, offered a good visual of the front of the house. It was also just a few yards from the front door, making it a good place from which to launch a quick entry if needed. LeBlanc was assigned to go in first, followed by Holmes and then Schanaker and Key.
Much was happening during this time—most of it not good. As LeBlanc and the others prepared their breaching tools and planned for a crisis entry if needed, radio traffic indicated an ominous escalation in the threat to the hostage. Apparently, Hastings had warned that he would come out with a gun, and then stated that he was pistol-whipping his hostage, who was now bleeding profusely. He had also advised that his hostage was “developmentally disabled” and that he had bound him with duct tape and laid him on a bed. It occurred to the team that Hastings was possibly planning a “suicide by cop,” but nothing was certain except the growing risk to the hostage. Then, as if to make his point, Hastings fired a shot from the back of the residence.
Hastings’ apparent eagerness for a fight hinted that he may have prepared defenses, which could well include barricading the front door. After officers in the back reported a rear sliding glass door with no visible obstructions beyond it, the decision was made to change the entry point to the slider.
As the React Team took up their positions at the back of the house, they heard a transmission that left no doubt about their next move: Hastings had warned that he would “shoot the hostage in a non-lethal area” in five minutes, and then “start sending out body parts” to prove his earnestness. Once a hostage-taker issues a timeline, SWAT can’t afford to risk that he’s bluffing. The only question remaining now was how much time the officers would have to prepare before they made entry.
As a lifelong martial artist, LeBlanc knew the importance of mental control, so he used the little time he had to prepare his mind and body to meet the danger. His every instinct told him he would come under fire as soon as he entered the residence, but he refused to let fear set in. Instead, the approaching danger brought even greater commitment and clarity of thought as he focused on deep breathing and what he would have to do once he got inside. He double checked his weapon, and looked through the patio door into the residence, searching for any sign of the suspect or hostage.
What LeBlanc and everyone else didn’t know was that the “hostage,” a 33-year-old meth user named Ronald Akins, was not a hostage but a collaborator in the strange game being played by Hastings. His exact motives for helping Hastings have never been determined with certainty, but it’s believed he was playing along because Hastings had promised to supply him with meth. Interestingly, Hastings never revealed the motives for his actions either. He may have been trying to commit suicide by cop in a blazing gun battle with SWAT, or perhaps he just wanted to kill as many officers as he could before he surrendered. The only thing that’s clear about his mindset is that he was prepared for a fight and had a good understanding of SWAT tactics.
The timeline had just slipped past the one-minute mark when the team got the signal: “Go!” An instant later, the glass in the patio door cascaded away from the blow of a break-and-rake tool wielded by a fifth tactical officer that left the frame free of any dangerous shards of glass that might impede entry. LeBlanc, followed by the others, moved quickly through the door into the living room and immediately heard muffled gunshots coming from the bedroom area to his left, but saw no muzzle flash or gunman. Although LeBlanc wasn’t aware of it at the time, Hastings was firing at them through the walls.
LeBlanc headed toward the entryway into the kitchen just beyond the living room, cleared the kitchen and then looked down the hall that led from the kitchen to the bedrooms. He could also see the front door off to his right and noted that a reclining chair was shoved up against it. It would have made an effective obstacle if they had entered there, leaving them all dangerously vulnerable to an ambush.
The gunfire had stopped for the moment, still too early to tell where it had been coming from. Meanwhile, Schanaker, who had moved ahead of LeBlanc while LeBlanc cleared the kitchen, headed down the hallway toward an open door on the right. As LeBlanc started to follow to cover his entry, gunfire erupted from inside the bedroom to his left.
It was a bad spot to be standing, but at least LeBlanc had located the shooter. He kicked the door. It flew open, and then immediately bounced back and closed again. During the brief moment the door had been open, LeBlanc had seen a mattress behind it. He kicked the door again, and it stayed partly open this time. The room beyond was dark, illuminated only by a muzzle flash that appeared to come from deeper inside the room and to the right. From what LeBlanc could see, it appeared the shooter was firing through the wall toward the patio door, which was now being used as the entry point for the follow-on team members.
The room was a master bedroom in a roughly L-shape configuration, with a small bathroom situated just to LeBlanc’s right and the bulk of the room to the right just beyond the bathroom (see Figure 1, p. 35). Hastings had boarded up the room’s only window and shut off the lights, making the interior dark as night. It was also heavily cluttered with furniture and debris.
But LeBlanc was determined to rescue the hostage. Using the light on his MP-5, he pushed through the debris, turned the corner into the main room, and immediately caught Hastings in his light beam. The man was just 10 feet away, but only his head and right arm were visible. The rest of his body was tucked inside the bathroom, and he was holding a .45 in his right hand. Instantly, the .45 boomed, spitting hot flame from its muzzle. The bullet whizzed past LeBlanc as he raised his weapon, taking just a split second to find his iron sights. Too late! Before LeBlanc could get the sights on target for the precision shot he would need to ensure Akins’ safety, Hastings ducked into the bathroom and slammed the door.
Hoping to get in close enough for a contact shot, LeBlanc lunged forward and crashed into the door to push it open. But Hastings had already dropped to the floor, held the door closed with his feet, and opened fire though the closed door. LeBlanc sensed a heavy impact in his left shoulder, a deep surging pain, followed instantly by a lesser impact in his upper back. Thinking his body armor had taken the hit, he backed away from the door, tension now coursing through his shoulder, and sat down on the bed.
Holmes, who had entered the room just behind LeBlanc, stepped up to the door in his place and cracked the door with his weight. He saw the muzzle flash from Hastings’ gun pinpointing the gunman’s exact location. In an effort to at least disarm Hastings before he could kill his hostage, Holmes held the muzzle of his M-4 just inches from the closing edge of the door, pointed it down toward the spot where he had seen the muzzle flash, and he opened fire.
An instant later, the officers heard something over the radio that seemed to make their job easier. “… We got the hostage,” someone said. Having just heard that the hostage was safe, Schanaker—who was just seconds behind Holmes—moved forward and fired through the door in an effort to stop the barrage of lead coming at them from inside. But just seconds later the officers came to the quick conclusion that, with the hostage now safe, they needed to break contact with Hastings.
After making an orderly withdrawal from the room, they soon discovered they had been mistaken. As more information became available to them, they learned that the radio transmission they’d just heard had been a question, not a statement. Someone had asked “Have we got the hostage?” However, through all the noise and stress, possibly exacerbated by a radio delay, they had misunderstood the transmission to say that the hostage had been rescued.
By this time, LeBlanc found he was feeling progressively worse. His breathing was becoming labored, and his breaths had taken on a crunchy, watery feeling. Looking at Officer Key, he said, “I think I’ve been hit.”
After hearing this, Key called for assistance, and LeBlanc was rushed outside, where a medic soon discovered a bullet hole in his left armpit. The armpit area is one of the chinks in modern body armor that, if found by a bullet, carries a significant risk of mortal injury. The realization that Hastings’ bullet had found this breach angered LeBlanc. Nevertheless, he no longer felt like he was getting worse, and he refused to dwell on the negative. He stayed focused on his deep breathing, living in the moment and monitoring his condition based on the medical personnel’s inquiries. By the time he reached the hospital, he felt absolutely confident that he would survive and make a full recovery.
In the meantime, Hastings remained holed up in the house with Akins until the following morning as a negotiator tried to convince him to surrender. Eventually, he released Akins, who it turned out had been in the bathroom with Hastings during the gunfight and was wounded in the stomach. It was never determined whose bullet caused the wound, but it most likely belonged to Schanaker or, possibly, to Hastings. Later, when negotiations had reached a dead end, tear gas was employed, and Hastings surrendered without further incident.
Hastings was later convicted of four counts of attempted murder and several felonious assaults, and sentenced to 120 years in prison.
Akins recovered from his wound. Although it was strongly suspected that he had been acting as Hastings’ accomplice, it couldn’t be proved and he was never charged.
The bullet that struck Leblanc shattered one of his ribs and partially collapsed his left lung, but it missed all major blood vessels and nerves, and stopped in his back just inches from his spine. It was removed the next day, and LeBlanc returned to work about two months later. He’s still with the same department, where he’s currently assigned to the training division and continues to serve on the tactical team. He and the rest of his team learned a great deal from the shooting, and have since incorporated those lessons in their preparation, tactics and training.
Discussion & Analysis
For good reason, hostage rescues are almost always the responsibility of tactical teams. They are enormously dangerous to the team members and hostage alike, and are best conducted with weapons, protective gear and tactics only available to SWAT. For these reasons, some of the learning points in the analysis are specific to tactical officers. However, the hard truth is, there are times when officers must take action to save lives when no tactical team is available, especially when responding to active killer incidents. In addition, many of the lessons to be learned from this case are as applicable to other police officers as they are to tactical officers, and these will be addressed in the analysis as well.
There is a great deal that can be learned from this incident—lessons that can save lives—and we owe it to Cpl. LeBlanc to learn as much as we can from them.
An in-depth analysis of this case reveals a number of crucial learning points, including lessons related to complacency, the false sense of security in numbers, hostile gunfire through doors and walls, crisis room entries, unexpected developments during a crisis, fire discipline, training and winning mindset.
Space limitations prevent us from printing a full discussion of these hard-won lessons in our magazine, but a thorough analysis of this critical incident is posted on our Web site at www.lawofficer.com/officerdown. Before you read it, however, review the discussion questions on p. 36 and work through your own answers.
1. Hastings initially fired at the officers through the walls, and then shot through the bathroom door. What are the best ways to deal with this threat?
2. Few situations are more dangerous than high-risk room entries. How can they be made more safe? Flash-bangs are probably the best option, but they are only available to tactical teams. What could a patrol officer use instead in a similar situation?
3. Probably the most crucial point in this incident was when Hastings barricaded himself in the bathroom and then fired through the door, because it essentially eliminated the possibility of stopping him without extreme risk to Akins. The officers soon realized this, and retreated, but only after briefly exchanging fire with Hastings. Why did this occur? What can be done to help prevent this from happening to other officers in a similar situation?
4. Two of the officers fired through the bathroom door in an effort to stop Hastings. Although they had good reason for doing so, is it ever appropriate to fire when doing so may put innocent parties at risk? Could the way the human mind functions under stress have caused this problem? What can be done to help prevent this from occurring in similar situations?
5. None of the officers deployed flash-bangs. This was probably because the team rarely used them during training, so no one thought to deploy them. How important is it to train regularly with the equipment we are likely to use under stress? How important is realism in training?
6. Although this case clearly appeared to be a hostage situation, it was actually an ambush. How can we do a better job of training for unexpected radical changes in circumstances?
7. In what way did the officers’ attitudes and actions exemplify winning mindset and warrior spirit?
LeBlanc is quick to point out that tactical team members are prone to complacency, just like any other police officer. Like officers in less risky assignments, they can become victims of their own success. Even though they are well aware of the risks involved in their work and use caution when entering hazardous situations, the fact that they are rarely wounded or killed tends to slowly desensitize them to danger. This isn’t surprising considering how the human mind works. After experiencing success after success in any high-risk activity, we begin to become more confident and at ease. This can be a positive thing, because confidence reduces stress, which leads to clearer thinking, improved problem solving and better decision making. However, it also leads to complacency and, in some cases, overconfidence.
LeBlanc believes that, although he and his team were far from complacent about the danger confronting them they tended to underestimate Hastings’ level of preparation and skill. Besides having practiced thoroughly with his firearms, Hastings also knew a lot about SWAT tactics, which is something that LeBlanc had never encountered before. While it’s hard to say if a more accurate view of Hastings’ capabilities would have significantly changed the outcome, it may have prompted the officers to deploy a distraction device before entering the room and/or convinced them to equip at least one entry team member with a shield. A flashbang might well have distracted Hastings enough to allow LeBlanc to enter without coming under fire, and a shield would have enabled him to assault the bathroom door without exposing his vulnerable armpit to Hastings’ gunfire.
LeBlanc points out that tactical officers—and other officers as well—should frequently remind themselves that even a person with minimal firearms skills and little or no tactical training can be very dangerous if he is determined to fight back, especially if he has carefully planned his defenses. Most people are caught off guard, intimidated and/or overwhelmed by SWAT, but there are also rare individuals who don’t care or who may even welcome the opportunity to confront the police. Hastings appears to have been one of those individuals, and his actions should serve as a reminder to always plan for the worst. The nature of police work demands such an approach, whether you are in tactical operations, patrol, investigations, undercover or any other assignment.
Safety in Numbers
Closely associated with complacency is the tendency to believe that there is greater safety in numbers than actually exists. To some extent, tactical officers may be more prone to this problem than patrol officers. Despite the fact that they frequently deal with high-risk situations, they grow to depend on their fellow team members for backup. Regardless of their assignment, all officers can fall into this trap when it appears that they have numeric superiority. Although it’s true that offenders are less likely to resist when significantly outnumbered, some don’t care, and a bullet can find you in a crowd just as easily as it can anywhere else. In fact, in some cases superior numbers can cause confusion, cross-fire problems and unnecessary risk taking. Worse, it can sometimes lead to hesitation as each officer waits to see what the others will do before making a decision.
This problem can be countered by making a commitment to take responsibility for your own safety, regardless of whether you are working alone or in a group. In addition, it is important to include incidents that require individual decision-making into our reality-based training exercises and mental imagery scenarios.
Shooting through Walls & Doors
The safety and effectiveness of any entry, no matter how well executed, is severely hindered when the suspect is ready, itching for a fight and willing to shoot through walls and doors. Although gunfire through barricades is not likely to be accurate, the recent tragedy in Oakland, Calif., in which two SWAT officers were killed by such rounds while attempting to apprehend a suspect who had just killed two other officers, provides a poignant testament to how deadly it can be. In addition, it creates one of those unexpected changes in circumstances that can cause confusion and disrupt an otherwise well-conducted operation. Considering the danger associated with this tactic, it is essential that police officers—and especially tactical teams—find effective ways to counter it. Probably the best option is to use ballistic shields and helmets. All tactical teams should be equipped and well trained in their use, and—considering the increasing number of active shooter situations that are plaguing our world today—so should patrol officers.
Another option that can be used, preferably in conjunction with shields and helmets, is distraction. Flashbangs are the most obvious tool for this purpose, but other options include breaking windows with less lethal munitions and/or port and cover tactics, explosive or shotgun breaching, and otherwise forcing a door. Many of the devices needed for these distractions are not available to anyone except tactical operators, but when immediate action is needed to save lives and a tactical team isn’t available, less sophisticated distractions can be used. These include breaking windows with a rock, baton, etc.; kicking doors; or throwing a large, noisy object, like a wastebasket, into a room. Distractions may not necessarily prevent a concealed assailant from shooting through doors and walls, but they are likely to confuse him enough to slow him down and/or cause him to fire less effectively.
Hastings was waiting when LeBlanc came through the doorway and had deliberately placed the mattress and nightstand in the entryway to impede entry into the room. Few situations are more dangerous than door entries under such circumstances, even if you have the advantage of superior weapons and numbers. Rapid movement may not be enough to keep you safe, and even if there are no obstructions to slow you down, it is nearly impossible to get into position, scan for your assailant, locate him, identify him as a threat, get on target and fire before he does.
This is where distractions and flashbangs can be invaluable. However, most of LeBlanc’s team did not routinely carry flashbangs on missions, and Schanaker was the only React Team member who was carrying one at the time. Further, LeBlanc didn’t think to pause in order to allow Schanaker to deploy his flashbang, and Schanaker didn’t think to tell him to stop so he could do it. During subsequent debriefings on the operation, the team concluded that this was because they rarely practiced actually deploying the devices and therefore didn’t think to use them under the stress of the situation (more on this in the Training section of this analysis). In addition, they also took steps to make sure that team members carry flashbangs during all future operations.
It’s also important to keep in mind that patrol, narcotics and other officers besides SWAT may find it necessary to enter a room in high-risk situations, and they aren’t equipped with flash bangs. In that case, one alternative is to throw a light stick into the room just before entering it. Although lacking the intensity of flashbangs, light sticks provide a very effective distraction that disrupts the thought processes of anyone inside the room, especially when accompanied by a sudden loud noise, such as the shattering of a door frame and/or shouted orders. Because the eyes naturally follow any item that crosses their field of view, the sudden moving light will almost certainly cause anyone inside to take their eyes off the door long enough to throw off his aim and/or cause him to hesitate. Light sticks are also inexpensive, lightweight, small enough to be carried at all times and, unlike flashbangs, readily available for patrol. They also don’t have to be aimed at any particular spot in the room and may, in fact, be more distracting when bounced off doors, walls, furniture or even the suspect as they fly into the room. Lastly, light sticks are considerably less effective when thrown into a well lit room, but the sudden appearance of the quick moving, spinning stick may cause enough of a momentary distraction to give you a little more time to enter. Also, keep in mind that other items from inside the building can be used to distract the room’s occupant(s), such as a kitchen chair, pan or trash can. In some cases, another option may be to break one of the room’s windows.
LeBlanc moved rapidly to close the distance after Hastings shot at him. Had it been known that Akins was actually Hastings’ accomplice, this would not have been necessary. In fact, the team would never have entered the residence in the first place, and would have negotiated instead. But LeBlanc had every reason to believe that Akins was a hostage whose life was in grave danger if his rescue was delayed. Under the circumstances, he believed that his only option was an immediate rescue and that a direct assault on the door was the best way to get it done.
In retrospect, however, we can see that Hastings added a whole new dimension to the problem when he ducked into the bathroom and slammed the door. By squeezing in behind the door and wedging it closed with his feet, he made it very difficult for LeBlanc to force his way inside, and impossible for LeBlanc to get him in his sights. At the same time, he was in an excellent position to fire through the door to good effect.
With the closed door now blocking immediate access to Hastings, there was no effective way to stop him quickly enough to keep him from shooting Akins first. This was a new, unexpected twist that changed the whole situation and necessitated a complete change in the team’s approach. In retrospect, we can see that further assault was no longer a viable option, at least in the short term. Later as time went on, it may have been possible to breach the door with a rapid, well-orchestrated assault—possible after quietly clearing away some of the debris in the bedroom, detonating a flashbang outside the bathroom and using heavy rams on the door—but that would have taken a considerable amount of time. For the time being, it would have been best to back off, secure the room and initiate negotiations.
As LeBlanc readily admits, this was the most crucial point in the incident, because it was the point at which the risks to Akins and the entry team outweighed any gains the officers could have reasonably expected to achieve. Interestingly, the decision to withdraw was being made even as the gunfight went on. As soon as they mistakenly heard that Akins had been rescued, the team decided to withdraw, but by then LeBlanc and Akins had already been shot. The problem here was that it is very difficult to make such a radical switch in thinking from one course of action to another under the stress of a gunfight. Nevertheless, such mental flexibility under fire is sometimes crucial to winning real world gunfights.
But how often do we train to deal with unexpected developments during a crisis? We tend to use training to practice techniques rather than to train our minds. Granted, we often train in high-stress situations in order to make it more realistic and job relevant, but unexpected events that force drastic changes in our thinking and approach are rarely incorporated into such training. Although we don’t usually think about it in this way, we need to recognize that the mind can be trained in the same way as the body. By simulating conditions that require the mind to work in a particular way—in this case to switch gears under stress—we exercise it so that it becomes better and better at it. This can be accomplished by working scenarios into our reality based training that require trainees to respond to increasingly more difficult unexpected events. Considering the importance of developing this kind of mental flexibility, such training should be part of every agency’s simulated firearms training program.
LeBlanc’s MP-5 was not equipped with an electronic optic or any other low-light option except its weapon-mounted flashlight, and the bedroom was nearly pitch black. Despite the fact that he was well trained at low-light shooting, iron sights are significantly slower than optics, especially in the dark. As a result, he was unable to take a precision shot quickly enough to hit Hastings before Hastings ducked into the bathroom. If LeBlanc hadn’t been concerned about the possibility of striking Akins with his gunfire and/or the room had been better illuminated, this would not have mattered, but as it turned out it cost him the chance to terminate the threat before the situation escalated out of control. Although it’s a mistake to become overly dependent on your equipment for safety, there are times when the right tool for the job can make a big difference. Officers should be equipped with the best equipment available and then fully trained in its use, because lives may hang in the balance.
Holmes and Schanaker both shot at Hastings through the closed bathroom door, but with somewhat different goals in mind. Holmes, who knew that Akins might also be in the bathroom, aimed precisely at the spot where he believed Hastings’ gun hand was in order to avoid hitting Akins. Schanaker, on the other hand, was going for center mass hits, but only after the radio traffic had led him to believe that Akins had already been rescued. In each case, the officer’s decision to shoot through the door was a high-pressure response to the serious threat to their own lives, the confusion about Akins’ whereabouts, and the apparently pressing need to rescue Akins before Hastings killed him. This is understandable considering the way the human mind works under such intense stress. Stress is the great enemy of mental flexibility, and it requires a lot of mental flexibility to instantly switch from offensive to defensive action when under fire. This is because stress causes mental tunnel vision and—like visual tunnel vision—mental tunnel vision shuts out all but the most immediate need confronting us, thus making it difficult to even think about other concerns. When the confusion, rapidly changing circumstances and sensory overload of a situation like this one are combined with conflicting concerns, mental tunnel vision becomes very hard to overcome.
Nevertheless, it’s dangerous to fire at a target you can’t see, and it’s our responsibility as police officers to protect the innocent. This creates a dangerous dilemma. Simply writing a policy that forbids officers from shooting if innocent parties may be threatened, as many agencies do, is not enough, nor is it practical to expect officers to follow such a policy in the real world. Training is also required. Granted, we cannot train for every conceivable possibility, but we can and should put all officers—and tactical officers in particular—through simulated firearms scenarios that require them to withhold fire because of unforeseen threats to innocent parties. Mental imagery can also be used in lieu of, or preferably in addition to, reality-based training to prepare us to withhold fire when required. Finally, officers who are preparing to rescue a hostage should get into the habit of reminding themselves that the situation may change so that a rescue will no longer be the best option, and to imagine what they will do if that happens. This will help to precondition them to withhold fire if necessary.
LeBlanc credits his training with helping him deal with his wound as well as he did. His mental preparation and winning mindset, honed to a sharp edge by years of tough training, helped him remain calm while focusing on his ability to recover from serious bullet wounds. He had also trained extensively in martial arts and studied the physiology of lethal combat, which he feels contributed to his ability to cope, as did his high level of physical fitness. Training, study, fitness and a solid commitment to winning are all crucial not only to winning lethal encounters, but to recovering from the wounds as well.
However, LeBlanc believes that there were also some elements of his training that were lacking (it is to his team’s credit that action was subsequently taken to correct them). First, although they had conducted a considerable amount of reality-based training with Simunitions weapons, he feels that it was not realistic enough. As with most training, the setting for most of the training was a rather sterile environment with little of the noise, clutter or chaos of a real-life shooting. In addition, some shortcuts had been taken during training to save time and money. Most significant of these was the fact that the team had rarely used flashbangs during training, with the result that no one thought to use them during the operation. As mentioned earlier, there is no way to know for sure, but it is likely that the use of a flashbang would have disoriented Hastings enough to enable LeBlanc and the other officers to control him without injury to them or the “hostage.”
In addition, LeBlanc believes that in order for training to be truly realistic it must include unexpected changes in circumstances. In the real world, things go wrong, mistakes are made and people do the unexpected. This is especially true if we underestimate the suspect’s abilities, level of planning or willingness to fight. When training is too easy with no unexpected twists, officers never get the chance to learn to deal with mistakes or adapt to changing circumstances.
On the other hand, it is counterproductive to add unreasonable surprises that set officers up for failure, because failure can destroy one of the most essential ingredients in winning—self-confidence. The goal is to challenge without discouraging, and the key to doing that is to add unexpected events and chaos in gradual doses as trainees grow increasingly more proficient. Make them work ever harder for success, but be careful not to force them into exceeding their capabilities. In addition, it is important to allow officers to re-do any exercise or scenario that they perform unsatisfactorily so they can learn to correct mistakes and succeed. This builds mental flexibility, and allows officers to leave training with confidence in their skills.
It’s also important to remember that mistakes during training can actually be a very positive experience if they are handled properly. Because mistakes happen in the real world, it is best to experience them in training before they happen on the street. When they happen, the instructor should insist that the trainees keep going until they have met their objective. This teaches them to stay focused on the objective during a crisis, calmly analyze problems, assess their resources and use those resources to resolve the problem. Later, the mistakes should be discussed during the debriefing, with a focus on open participation, constructive criticism and positive problem solving. This will help to further develop the trainees’ mental flexibility, critical decision-making and confidence.
It’s important to note here that although this discussion about training has been focused on tactical teams so far the principles set forth are not limited to SWAT training. Officers in other assignments are no less vulnerable to mistakes and unexpected changes in circumstances, and they may in fact be even more vulnerable to them because of the unpredictability of the dangers they face. They need high-quality, street-relevant training every bit as much as tactical officers do.
Driven by a selfless commitment to protect others and accomplish his mission, LeBlanc withheld fire rather than take a risky shot that might endanger Akins, and then put himself at risk by rushing forward for a contact shot. Even though the effort failed in this particular case, it is important to remember that such a focus on the safety of others is a critical element of the warrior spirit and winning mindset. By turning our attention away from ourselves in favor of the needs of others we focus away from negative thoughts, like fear and concern for our injuries, and stay focused on the only goal that really counts—eliminating the threat. This helps us to more effectively make decisions that enable us to do whatever it takes to overcome obstacles.
LeBlanc’s efforts to quickly rescue Hastings may have failed, but the driving force behind them was his ability to focus outward on the needs of others. Later, when he realized that he had been shot and was facing the frightening uncertainty of that realization, that focus turned inward, but with the same positive attitude as before. He focused on helping the medics assess his injuries, and on the fact that most bullet wounds are survivable. He had confidence in his ability to heal and turned his attention to doing what he could do to help in that healing process. This is what winners do. They assess what needs to be done and then stay focused on making it happen.
Sometimes this means taking risks, especially when the lives of others are in jeopardy, but, as LeBlanc points out, warriors must be willing to take those risks. They must weigh the need for action against the risks and then make a calculated decision based on that assessment. In this case, things didn’t turn out very well, but it wasn’t because of any lack of effort or commitment on the part of LeBlanc or his fellow team members. In fact, it was later learned that in the moments leading up their crisis entry, Key had experienced a devastating premonition that he would be killed during the operation, but in a silent display of valor and commitment, he had done his job in spite of it.
Certainly, mistakes were made, but the team made the best of it. They took a long, hard look at their actions, and, with an honesty bred from confidence in themselves and commitment to duty, they learned from those mistakes. It is this kind of commitment to excellence that sets warriors apart from all others.
 For those who are not familiar with the term, mental imagery is a process in which the person achieves a relaxed state, and then imagines an event, such as a shooting, in great detail as if it were actually happening to him. He proceeds through the event slowly at first—imagining all the sights, sounds and other sensory input as he does so—and then repeats it several more times at increasingly greater speeds until he imagines it at full speed. This creates a memory of the event that the subconscious believes to have been a real-life occurrence. By imagining a favorable outcome, the individual creates “experiences” that increase self confidence and create a sense of control over similar events. Mental imagery is a technique that is often used by safety conscious officers to mentally prepare for the street.
 For those unfamiliar with the term
port and cover,
port and cover tactics entail breaking out a window or sliding glass door, and either entering the room through the opening or getting into position to provide cover through the opening from outside it.