The black ballistic helmet sits atop a cabinet in my office. It has “POLICE” in white letters on the front and “29” (my badge number) on the back. There are autographs from current and former Lodi Police Department Special Weapons and Tactics officers on it — team members who served with me during my nine years as the SWAT commander. They presented me with the helmet when I rotated off the unit in August after 20 years as a SWAT team member.
It was 1993 and I had only been on the team a few weeks when my pager went off one night. (Yes, a pager.) I called the station and the dispatcher told me there was a man with a rifle barricaded in a house across the street from Lodi Lake. I was excited and blurted out, “Are you serious?” She replied slowly like she was talking to a first grader, “Yes ... I’m serious.” My first callout.
I participated in more than 200 operations during my two decades on the team and served as E-1, the first guy in the door for almost half of those missions. Upon learning what my role would be on the team, my grandfather said, “Can’t they find a safer job for you?”
As anyone who has served in the E-1 role will tell you, there is a tremendous amount of pressure that comes with the assignment. You are at the front of the line and everyone is following you as you step from the armored car. You have to make sure you are leading them up to the right house. I used to write the address numbers on my left wrist just to be sure. You have to be ready to react to a hundred things, ranging from being shot at as you walk up to the porch to dealing with a front room full of hostile people to angry dogs and scared kids. I had to remind myself to breathe and keep my feet flat on the ground.
But I knew no matter what I was going to face, I could always rely on the guys in the line with me. I believed my fellow SWAT officers would keep a level head, use proper tactics, take care of each other, and complete the operation, even in the most dangerous of circumstances.
Our unit was full of competitive personalities who liked nothing better than to finish first in a shooting course or foot race, then brag about it to the group. Yet they also understood the team concept, the importance of training hard and being accountable, and how vital it was for the guy next to you to know you had his back.
I’ll always remember how the SWAT van was filled with good-natured ribbing one minute, then suddenly grew very quiet when we turned onto the street where the bad guy lived. Each officer was preparing himself in his own way. Only a SWAT guy knows that feeling when you step from the van into the early morning light. The air is alive as you slowly walk up to the door towards the unknown.
There were countless trainings and dozens of operations over the years. They were stressful, demanding, exciting and sometimes funny. There was the time Mark Clary and I negotiated with a meth cooker in a dark basement on Lodi Avenue as a fresh batch boiled on the stove about a foot to my left. It wasn’t “Breaking Bad,” but it was bad enough.
Or the time I was so intent on getting to the suspect’s bedroom on Winchester Drive that I accidentally hooked my vest on a set of drawers and dragged the dresser a down a narrow hallway. Mark eventually caught up to me and tactically detached me from the furniture.
Then there was the Grass Valley SWAT competition. It was one of the most demanding SWAT competitions on the West Coast. We finished dead last in the 12-team competition our first year. We were so bad one of the proctors prefaced his criticism of our performance with, “Well, some of the better teams did it this way.” We weren’t one of the “better teams” then, but through hard work and perseverance, we were champions two years later. We finished first three out of the last four years, beating big city SWAT teams from throughout the state.
I was always proud to wear the gold SWAT pin on my uniform, but the time came to take it off for good. I did so with the consolation of knowing I’ll always have a bond with the guys I served with over the years. I also know it will be hard for people who weren’t there to understand what we went through. Like they said in the movie, “Either you’re SWAT or you’re not.” Well, in my heart, I was and always will be.