Officer Jason Lawless, an Oklahoma police sniper, had one chance, one narrow window to save a 2-year-old girl who had been held hostage for hours by an armed man.
The suspect, Salvador Reyes, had barricaded himself inside the Tulsa home of his estranged wife. He was holding a handgun in one hand and the toddler in the other.
Police said the 42-year-old suspect forced his way into the home and started an argument. The woman, her boyfriend and three other children were able to escape while Reyes grabbed his estranged wife’s 2-year-old daughter, prompting a three-hour standoff, Officer Leland Ashley, a spokesman for the Tulsa Police Department, told The Washington Post.
Ashley said a Spanish-speaking police officer tried several times to persuade Reyes to release the child and come out of the house — to no avail. At one point, Reyes went out on the home’s balcony and pointed his handgun at the officers, and then at the child.
When he came out on the balcony again, still holding the toddler, Lawless fired one shot from his .308 semiautomatic rifle, striking Reyes in the head. He died immediately. The child was not injured.
The incident happened early Tuesday, about 14 miles outside downtown Tulsa. Reyes showed up at the home shortly before midnight, Ashley said. He was shot at about 3 a.m.
Ashley said he does not know the nature of Reyes’s relationship with his estranged wife, or what prompted him to take the little girl hostage. The police department is not releasing the names of the others involved in the domestic dispute. Reyes is not the toddler’s father.
Lawless, who has been a patrol officer for the police department since 1998, is a precision rifle operator — more commonly known as a sniper — for the agency’s Special Operations Team, which is often called to deal with sensitive hostage situations.
He did not respond to an interview request from The Post. Efforts to reach a supervisor for the Special Operations Team were unsuccessful.
But Shannon Kay, owner and instructor at K&M Shooting Complex, a Tennessee-based sniper training facility, said the incident sounds like a textbook scenario of what officers like Lawless face regularly.
“Basically, it’s not just to protect and save the lives of those in danger, but also minimize the injuries not only to themselves but also on the first-responders,” Kay said. “He saved a little girl’s life and quite likely, saved potential harm to other people.”
Kay, who has taught snipers for the U.S. military, said the pressure that officers face when dealing with sensitive hostage situations “should not be underestimated.” Usually, when snipers go through training on how to deal with certain types of scenarios, their targets are static and they know what they’re about to face, Kay said.
Real-life situations are different.
“These guys are getting called into a tense situation already. The target is moving,” Kay said. “One tragic mistake, one slight mistake to the level of precision that these guys are shooting can be absolutely catastrophic.”
In the Tulsa case, not only was the suspect probably moving, but he was also holding the toddler in his arms. And Lawless had to wait for the right time to fire, Kay said.
“To me, that shows a tremendous amount of restraint . . . You had to be very deliberate. You’ve got to be perfect 100 percent of the time, and he was this time,” Kay said of Lawless. “I guarantee you all the training he’s been through absolutely prepared him for this.”
How police snipers are trained varies across the country and often depends on a police department’s budget and size. Some train officers in-house, while others go through outside agencies like Kay’s.
If people understood the training that snipers — and law enforcement in general — have to go through, “I think they’d respect them a lot more,” Kay said.
“You think the sniper woke up that morning and said, ‘I want to go take another person’s life?’ No. They want to get up, they want to do their job and they want to come home and raise their family like everybody else,” Kay said.
Lawless has been placed on paid administrative leave, which is standard practice in officer-involved shootings.