For Swat Leader, Preserving Life Took Priority In Standoff

SOUTH FULTON, Ga. (AP) — Benjamin Griggs was enjoying his day off with his wife when a call about an emergency in Union City interrupted brunch.

After he scarfed down his omelet, the couple jumped in the car and made the jaunt from their breakfast date in Cobb County to their home in South Fulton. From there, Griggs was back on the clock, focused and ready to lead the South Metro SWAT team through a “life-saving mission” for the next several hours.

The team of 20 was called to a home where a 23-year-old man had barricaded himself with a handgun, a rifle and other weapons, Griggs said. The man’s overwhelmed mother, fearing for his mental health and his life, called police for help from outside of the home. After four hours of tense negotiations and threats of violence, the standoff was over. The 23-year-old man was alive.

South Metro SWAT has engaged in eight barricades and two hostage operations this year, and only one has ended in death for their subjects following a suicide. The specialized team follows a strict set of protocols aimed at preserving life, but sometimes difficult choices are made. Other times, negotiations fail, and those engaged by the SWAT team end their own lives.

“I was thankful that it ended the way it did because I’m gonna be honest with you, when I was getting the information about the man (making) threats to shoot police,” Griggs said, expressing his worry prior to going on scene. “He has a handgun. He has a rifle. I was like, ‘I know how this ends.’ I wasn’t scared, I was just concerned.”

Three days after the Oct. 11 operation, 42-year-old Griggs spent his afternoon restocking munitions in the BearCat, the armored truck that carried the South Metro SWAT team to that mission and another that happened the following day. Griggs, a corporal who serves as team lead, smiled wide as he recalled the heartfelt text message he received from the 23-year-old man’s mother, expressing her gratitude.

“It was kind of cool to get that feedback from someone outside of law enforcement because that’s not common today,” Griggs said while striding through the Cascade Road fire station, arms full of tear gas projectiles to stock in the truck. “It just kind of validates that what you’re doing is making a difference.”

The Oct. 11 operation was just another day at work for Griggs, who responded to a home in the 300 block of Brannigan Court around noon at the request of South Fulton police. The man’s mother had called 911 reporting her son was damaging property, he said. According to police, the barricaded man was violent and threatened to harm officers, and the SWAT team was called when it was evident his mental health was deteriorating.

Just down the street, the SWAT team came together and set their action plan, knowing it could be altered at any point by the reactions of the barricaded man. Griggs said all operations start without force, by communication, but they have contingency plans ready to go depending on their subject’s every move.

By the time the team rolled up in the BearCat, it had been two hours since the first police interactions soured. They were greeted by the man throwing a cinderblock out of a window, Griggs said. Despite that, negotiations moved forward. A negotiator who is trained in mental health crisis called the man, who stayed on the line but still refused to come out.

“The negotiator did a really good job,” Griggs said, smiling with pride. “He would go like, ‘Hey, listen, we’re here to help, we’re outside, we’re not going anywhere, we want to get you some help, how can we serve you?’”

Griggs said the ultimate goal was to get the man out of his home, where he sets the terms. To encourage him to come out, the team pushed the front door down with the BearCat.

“We’ve burst his bubble because a lot of times if we close ourselves in an area we feel cozy and safe,” Griggs explained, pointing to the metal arms on the front of the truck that act as a battering ram. “After we burst that bubble, now it’s going to create a response.”

However, the man didn’t respond.

Nearly two hours had gone by. And in the heat, Griggs said fatigue can become “an enemy” for his relatively small team eager to bring the standoff to a resolution. Clayton and Fayette counties’ SWAT teams were on standby. Griggs stressed a recent struggle to recruit, making it nearly impossible for his team to respond to two incidents at the same time.

“Now more than ever, you’re seeing violence against police — that’s a deterrent. You’re seeing people make police out to be the enemy — that’s not helping us recruit people,” Griggs said firmly, with his arms crossed on his chest. “So it’s hard to find good quality men and women who want to do this job.”

The team never called in backup. Instead, they started on their next plan of action and introduced chemical agents considered “less lethal” because their intent is “not to kill or cause serious bodily injury,” Griggs said. The corporal fired a total of 14 tear gas and pepper spray powder projectiles through the upstairs windows, aiming toward the ceiling, in an effort to encourage the man toward the front door.

”If used improperly or you were to use it in a manner that was incorrect, like I shoot this and the guy is in the window and I hit him in the head — that could kill him,” he said while placing a projectile among numerous others in a plastic, brown suitcase inside the BearCat.

Though a less-lethal method was successful, “the suspect’s actions really kind of dictate our response,” Griggs said. Since the man had a gun and threatened to harm law enforcement, a lethal plan was already in place if it became necessary, he added.

Four hours in, the man told the negotiator he was coming out. With a few SWAT members behind shields and armed with rifles, the man was ordered to turn around and walk toward the team, Griggs said. He was eventually asked to lie on the ground while being handcuffed. The standoff was over, and the 23-year-old was arrested on charges of criminal damage to property and terroristic threats.

“When you go do these things, (the SWAT team is) responsible for each other’s lives, you’re like, ‘Hey, I know this guy, I know his wife, I know his kid,’” Griggs said. “I want to be able to send him back to that, and it’s vice versa. SWAT is truly a life-saving mission ... because at the end of the day, that is somebody’s loved one.”

In the Oct. 11 incident, the loved one saved was a mother’s son.

“I thank each and everyone involved for showing compassion and having patience while remaining professional in dealing with my son,” the woman wrote in a text to the officers. “It showed that you value the humanity of those that you serve. I am truly thankful that no one was hurt or killed and I will forever be grateful.”

The message was unexpected for Griggs, who noted that the operation was their regular routine.

“I didn’t even think much about (the operation). It was just a typical barricade operation for us,” Griggs said with a chuckle. “And then the mother wrote the message, I was like, ‘Hmm, that’s rare,’ because, remember, I shot out all her windows upstairs (with projectiles).”

Although Griggs did not take the job for the thanks, he said he has noticed a shift since the country was rocked by last summer’s high-profile police shootings and the defund-the-police movement. Not only has recruitment been down, but the way police train and handle force has been criticized more lately than ever before.

In trainings once a month, Griggs said the team runs through realistic scenarios to improve their skills, train new members and build trust. Focusing primarily on slow movements that prioritize communication and life over force and death, Griggs said SWAT training and protocols have changed significantly since 2012, when mobility used to be the goal. Immediate revisions after each operation has also been vital for Griggs, who noted that he will not risk uncertainty in any given operation.

In his 14 years of working SWAT and four years of policing in South Fulton, Griggs said he has never been thanked for his work by someone outside of law enforcement. Prior to the latest operation, he had never thought of himself as someone who actually saves lives.

But the encouraging words from the man’s mother served as confirmation to him and his team that SWAT is truly about the “preservation of life” above anything else.