SWAT You Talkin' 'bout?

January 5, 2012 

You'd think a SWAT team standoff would make for an exciting assignment. The sight of armored vehicles and assault rifles certainly draws a crowd and the air of potential danger can get your blood pumping on sidelines, but as I wrote before, it's a grueling illustration of "hurry up and wait."

When I started here in 2008, chasing spot news was the most exhilarating part of my job. While I have a better understanding of why we cover terrible things that happen in the community, now my first reaction when the scanner starts wailing is dread.

I won't even try to solicit pity for all the interrupted meals and jogging through backed-up traffic while trying to get to a scene, but Monday's showdown between Tri-City Regional SWAT and Ronald J. Vailencour was especially unfortunate, since I missed my Ducks' shootout win in Pasadena.

Thanks to morning assignments that kept me out of an otherwise empty office on the holiday, I didn't find out about the standoff until about 2 p.m. when reporter Annette Cary, who wasn't even scheduled to work Monday, caught on and tipped me off. It turns out the ordeal had been going on since about 11:30 a.m., and by the end, I was glad I had missed the initial call.

Shortly after arriving, I ran into Mark C. Harper from KVEW, who was driving around to the other side of the blocked street where the central command was set up. From where I was set up, the view didn't look too great from the other angle. And while I have a pretty good working relationship with much of the local law enforcement, being that close to the nerve cluster can seriously narrow your angles.

From my spot along Volland Street, I had a nice look at the SWAT Bearcat,

a view down Hood Avenue,

a sign to work with,

and a peek to the backside of the building where half of the action went down:

If you're wondering why the image quality is so terrible, it's because I had to crop so much for an image shot at ISO 1600. Here's a look at the uncropped view through a lens setup that is equivalent to 364mm on a traditional 35mm frame:

My shot of the police carrying out Vailencour took an even bigger hit:

The composition of the uncropped frame is too embarrassingly slapdash to share here, since I was scuttling around to see what was going on in the fading light, but this shot of EMTs tending to the Tased is about the same distance away:

You can also see where Mark is shooting from on the left side of the frame. Here's what he shot from his spot. It's a closer look than I got for that moment, but I liked being able to shift between the front and back of the buildings. The excuse for quick movement helped keep me a little warmer, though I was seriously regretting not having a hat once the second hour elapsed.

I asked Mark about his vantage point and he wrote back:

I think from that angle we had a better view of the front of the apartment, and that's where the (Public Information Officer) was giving out info, so that was the side to be on. A resident at the apartment invited us onto his yard, which had a good view into the back of the SWAT vehicle and turned out to be a good place to see them carry him out. We could not see in between the buildings.

He also added that he was not zoomed in all the way.

The biggest downside of my spot was how far away I was from officials. Bystanders were telling me all sorts of wild stories with relative certainty. A popular one was that a schizophrenic had taken his ex-wife and child hostage. I saw later that one person commented on the breaking news story with "14 year old girl is allegedly in the apartment where the man is currently surrounded by Pasco Richland and Kennewick police in addition to SWAT."

But aside from a chance to chat with boxing coach Jesse Retana, who lives nearby, and the rabble that arose when this clueless driver didn't realize the cop car and cones blocking Hood Avenue applied to her,

it was a lot of shivering around, hoping for a swift resolution. Sure, the surprise boom got a jump out of me, but I'm still not sure exactly what that was and it would have made for a lousy still photo anyway. There were enough "OK, here we go," moments as teams moved in to apparently place a speaker for communication and eventually to fire in the tear gas,

that the end felt very anticlimactic after a five-hour standoff. A lot of people there were complaining about how long it took, wondering why they didn't just storm in there. It's a sentiment echoed in comments online, and while I'll curse the name Vailencour for years after he reduced my Rose Bowl experience to nervous occasional score-checking on my phone, I trust the methodical approach by law enforcement wasn't to rack up overtime as one commenter suggested.

About a year ago year, a raid down in Greenfield, Calif., turned deadly after a flash-bang set the house on fire, killing a man who wasn't even a suspect in the case they were investigating. Non-lethal weapons don't always stay that way, and while a chaotic outcome like that would have made for better pictures and a juicier story, I'm glad it ended relatively peacefully.

Speaking of pictures that take a long time to make...

Check out this photo by Michael Chrisman of the Toronto skyline that used a yearlong exposure. It's an interesting idea that has already made me damage one of last week's resolutions when I scrolled down to the first couple comments. Taking the time to make thoughtful, original images is even more important in these infinitely motor driven days. Check out the FOCUSED Project for another cool idea in that vein.

Lens has a great read about one Marine's experience with embedded photojournalist Finbarr O'Reilly. The bad apples too often generate the most discussion and it's nice to see such an eloquent and thoughtful public thank you letter.

Craig F. Walker's photo story about Scott Ostrom's journey home from Iraq is inspirational work about a troubling subject. Walker, who won a Pulitzer for "Ian Fisher—American Solider," tells a poignant story with incredible access and keen attention to detailed captions that flesh out the story hauntingly.

And if you want more photos from 2011, Time has 365 for you. I haven't made my way through them all yet, but it'll join the roster of my dozen or so tabs that are perpetually open, waiting to be nibbled away.


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