After hostage standoff's favorable end, police strategy questioned

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2011; 9:43 PM

When a bank robber's hostage broke free Friday morning and six officers fired their weapons, police deemed the result a success: The hostage at the Takoma Park shopping center escaped with only minor injuries and the suspect, who had emerged from the bank holding a gun to her head, was shot dead.

But were authorities just lucky that the only casualty of the crossfire was a Prince George's County officer who was hit in the leg?

In the aftermath of the dramatic standoff, captured by TV cameras from news choppers, law enforcement experts praised the officers for their courage in a tense, dangerous standoff. But they said the outcome could have easily been much worse, given that officers ended up surrounding the suspect and apparently fired in different directions.

"There needed to be some more command and control and discipline at the scene," said Clint Van Zandt, the FBI's former chief hostage negotiator.

Maj. Andy Ellis, a Prince George's police spokesman, said his department rated the response a success: "I think the results speak for themselves." But he said the shooting would prompt a review of procedures and training.

"Crossfire is always a big concern of ours whenever we have multiple officers on the scene of a critical situation," he said. "It's something that we train for, and it's certainly something that we will be reviewing as we go over this scenario. But you have to remember that this was a dynamic situation. It was rapidly changing, and officers have to make split-second decisions."

When the call came in at 9:25 a.m., police descended on the bank, at New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard, almost immediately. Inside, the robber had a gun to a woman's head. Officers got into position, mostly behind parked cars.

The suspect came out holding the woman in front of him, gun still at her head. Several officers moved with him along the sidewalk, keeping their distance. Then the suspect walked straight toward them.

Several Prince George's and Takoma Park officers backed away, keeping their weapons drawn. One stood his ground, standing directly in front of the suspect, gun drawn.

The suspect, still clutching the hostage, backed off the sidewalk, slipped and nearly fell, The hostage alertly sprinted away toward the officers. The gunman chased her for a few yards as officers opened fire.

Police could not say how many shots were fired.

Inside the Prince George's police force, the officer who stood his ground was hailed as a hero who put himself in harm's way to help free the hostage, sources said. But others said the suspect easily could have shot the officer without giving up the hostage.

"I would hope they learn that you need to have some distance between the law enforcement officers and the subject," Van Zandt said. "And you need to have some discipline as to who would have their guns out and who would be the shooter."

Others said that given the quickly evolving situation, the police - and particularly, the officer who approached the suspect - reacted as they should have.

"They were responding quickly and didn't have time to really get organized," said Neil Livingstone, a counterterrorism expert. "All in all, they handled it reasonably well."

Rich Schoeberel, a former member of the FBI's SWAT program, said officers could have avoided crossfire if they shot the suspect the instant the hostage broke free and before the suspect ran into the middle of the scrum of police.

"They're lucky the hostage isn't dead," he said. "When he made the slip and the gun was no longer at the suspect's head, that's when the shot should have been fired."

Gary Noesner, also a former FBI chief negotiator and author of a book on hostage negotiating called "Stalling for Time," said it was "miraculous" that no one else was shot. But he said the officer who confronted the gunman should be commended.

The suspect "slipped because he stood his ground," he said. "It's one of the most dangerous situations a police officer can be in."

Staff writer Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.

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