The 25-hour standoff last month that led to the death of Kobus, an Omaha Police Department K9, was the longest stalemate the department’s Emergency Response Unit has been involved with in at least a decade, said Lt. Jay Leavitt, head of the unit.
The long hours mixed with frigid overnight weather tested the unit’s resources and endurance. Douglas County sheriff’s deputies were the first to respond on Jan. 22, but the harsh conditions required them to call upon Leavitt’s staff — which consists of the SWAT team, the bomb squad and crisis negotiators — to help end the standoff. A typical standoff is resolved in significantly less time, so Leavitt’s response team took some of the burden off the deputies, allowing for shifts of rest and recuperation.
It’s all in a day and night’s work for Leavitt and his unit.
With at least six standoffs happening in the Omaha area in the first two months of the year, the 45-member Emergency Response Unit has been on its combat boot-clad toes. In 2015, Leavitt said, his unit responded to five standoffs the entire year. In both 2014 and 2013, police negotiators responded to six barricaded suspects, and there were 10 incidents in 2012, according to the department’s annual reports. Leavitt said he doesn’t believe there’s any specific driver behind the surge in Omaha-area standoffs this year.
“We’ve had barricade situations in all four corners of the city, involving males, females, people of all races and ethnicities,” Leavitt said, “so I don’t think there’s a specific profile of who gets involved in these situations.”
The Omaha SWAT team trains two days each month to prepare for any possible scenario. The unit conducts joint training sessions with other area SWAT teams and its own members, practicing situations they’ve previously encountered, situations other units have encountered and situations that may only happen on the training field.
“You want to try to train for as many possibilities as you can think of because if you can think of it, it can happen,” Leavitt said.
The way the unit approaches each scenario changes based partly on the suspect’s condition, Leavitt said. If someone with a mental illness is unarmed inside a home, trained crisis intervention officers try to get the person to surrender and get the help the person needs before resorting to further action. If the suspect has committed a violent crime or if the person is firing shots in a public place, such as the Feb. 10 standoff at Parliament Pub southwest of 168th Street and West Center Road, those standoffs are more dangerous, Leavitt said.
“Those are the types of situations that are more difficult because the subject has more to lose,” Leavitt said. “They’ve ramped it up.”
After each deadlock is de-escalated, the unit debriefs as a team, discussing which practices worked and which ones need to be improved.
“We go through everything to decide how do we best prepare for the next situation when it comes up,” Leavitt said, “whether it be the next day or six months from now.”
Leavitt has been with the Omaha Police Department for 17 years, leading the Emergency Response Unit for the past two. The average tenure of an Omaha SWAT team member is 10 years, and the current 25-member SWAT team has served more than 11,000 high-risk search warrants.
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