Last Thursday evening the Davis police received a 911 call from an individual identifying himself as Joseph. He calmly told police that there were two dead people – a 27-year-old female and a 23-year-old male. While he described this in the third person, the police later learned that he was describing himself just before he would take his own life.
Immediately, both dispatch and the police sergeant in command believed that this was a credible call. And when the individual’s phone pinged to the house, they feared that this was a situation where the individual wanted to take his own life by provoking the police to shoot and kill him – suicide by cop.
The events of last Thursday have drawn a lot of community conversation and reinvigorated debate over the use of two MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles). Questions have arisen and the Vanguard went to the police station this week, on Friday, to meet with Chief Landy Black and Assistant Chief Darren Pytel to get some answers.
Assistant Chief Darren Pytel explained that the philosophy of the Davis Police Department has, in recent years, moved away from the use of dynamic entries. He told the Vanguard that the courts are continuously pushed for police departments to delay entry, negotiate.
Assistant Chief Pytel said that not only is this what the courts are telling police departments, but what he believes is the right decision. He believes that time is on the side of the police and the longer they can wait, the more likely they can deescalate the situation.
Chief Landy Black told the Vanguard, “We are constantly aware there was an opportunity to preserve life.” He added, “There is no higher mission than preserve every life.”
Therefore, as Darren Pytel stated, they operate in a “slow kind of deliberate way.”
A dynamic entry would end the potential standoff very quickly but, at the same time, greatly increase the chance of a confrontation and therefore the opportunity that the subject could provoke a confrontation that would force the police to kill him. That is what they wanted to avoid.
Two of the questions that have come up were why the police needed two MRAPs, as well as why it took so long for them to call for the MRAP in the first place.
Following the 911 call, the police and dispatch tried numerous means to establish contact with Joseph Hein. But all attempts had been unsuccessful. They were able to ping the phone and identify it as being inside the home. A spotter noted that the female’s dogs were inside, and her car being parked outside led them to believe that she was inside as well.
Darren Pytel said that, even before he was on scene, he was in contact with the SWAT team in West Sacramento and made the determination that SWAT was warranted for this incident.
One of the police officers began searching and found Mr. Hein’s Facebook page. It had a picture of a military grade rifle. There was a comment about how he enjoyed shooting.
Most ominously was almost an obituary post where he had a black entry which listed his birthdate and a 2015 date for his death.
Mr. Pytel told the Vanguard that, while the Facebook photo was the chief piece of evidence, they had other intelligence including the fact that Mr. Hein had a recent purchase of a handgun and other information that Mr. Pytel wouldn’t divulge that made him believe that Mr. Hein may well have a high-powered weapon.
The weapon on Facebook alarmed him, as he stated, “That will go through anything we got.” It was at this point – about an hour into the situation ‒ that they decided to call in the MRAP.
Darren Pytel argued this was based on “the totality of the circumstances.” Part of that was the scene itself. He said there was limited cover for the police. There was also an apartment complex across the street that made for multiple access points and proved very troublesome to plug. Every time they thought they had cleared the area, another student showed up.
They tried to evacuate outside of the “kill zone” or the area where the rifle could reach with deadly force.
The MRAP would house a small team of people that would be able to do a dynamic entry on short notice should the need arise. They wanted to be able to deploy the robots – one large and one small. The large one would breach the doors while the small one had the maneuverability to make the entry, go inside and be able to assess the situation and perhaps communicate.
Darren Pytel stated, “People can shoot all day at the robot and the response doesn’t have to be to shoot back.” Even if the robot incurs damage, it’s just a piece of equipment. That means that “the person who tries to shoot at a robot can’t provoke the police to shoot in return.”
The house was a two-story home which added to the difficulty in a number of ways. One is that they could not have a team breach with shields, as the shields can protect frontally but not upward.
Throughout the incident they would announce what they were doing over the PA. In part this was to alert the neighbors, and in part they were hoping the person inside would talk to them.
The use of the second MRAP was not a quick decision. They had originally planned for the Peacekeeper to be used. However, when they realized that the weapon rated above what the Peacekeeper would resist, they called out a second MRAP in order to protect the operator of the small robot.
The problem that they have with the robot is that they need line of site in order for the remote to work. So one MRAP housed the small team that would react in case of the need for a dynamic entry. The other would house the operator of the robot.
Darren Pytel argued that, fully equipped with gear, only eight people could fit in the back of the MRAP. Moreover, with a second-story building, they could not simply use the backside of the MRAP as protection.
As it turned out, Joseph Hein did not have the high-powered weapon the police feared. He had a 9 mm gun.
The police are still investigating the incident. Hein had no criminal record. The motive is officially still undecided, however there are some theories. One that seems prominent is that he had romantic interests in the victim but she did not reciprocate.
Darren Pytel would not elaborate, but there is evidence that Mr. Hein suffered from troubling mental issues.
Mostly, Darren Pytel pushed the Davis Police principle of surround and call out, as opposed to dynamic entries. He argued that the courts are asking police to slow things down. When things go to lawsuits, experts are called in and they cite best practices.
He stressed that this is a policy he very much agrees with, even though many departments continue to use dynamic entries ‒ with problematic results at times. He said there has been a change in thinking, away from rushing in to quickly shut down a situation. He said, “I think that’s a good thing.”
He argued that such policy requires armor. He said if you don’t have armor, you rely on the shield. That is minimal protection for dynamic entries. Armor allows to turn what could be a two and a half minute process of clearing a home, where it takes about two hours for a dynamic entry. For a surround and call out, it triples the time.
He argued that you can’t have your team that will react “getting small for five hours.”
The situation also dictates the use of equipment. In this case, there was almost no cover for the police. They were on a street where an MRAP would have access. For an apartment with narrow space, an MRAP could not be used.
Darren Pytel stressed that it does not have to be an MRAP. He said, “We understand the issue on MRAP.” He added, “We also know what it’s like to be using other types of vehicles… there are real advantages to having a more civilian modeled vehicle, including the size.” The size and speed of an MRAP are a problem for urban use. Assistant Chief Pytel expressed concern about apartments and tight quarters in Davis.
As we now know, both individuals were most likely never alive when the police were there. While the coroner has yet to officially establish time of death, the police never heard shots fired and the reports were that they were fired prior to arrival.
The coroner’s report found that death was instantaneous.
However, the police did not know this at the time and had to operate on the assumption that Mr. Hein was alive and armored with a weapon that could pierce their body armor.
From the police’s standpoint, that is why they needed the armor. It will be for the council to determine whether it should be something other than an MRAP.
—David M. Greenwald reporting