Book excerpt: STANDOFF: Race, Policing, and a Deadly Assault That Gripped a Nation
An account told through the eyes of those at the center of the events of July 7, 2016, when five Dallas police officers were ambushed and killed and 11 injured
The following is excerpted from STANDOFF: Race, Policing, and a Deadly Assault That Gripped a Nation by Jamie Thompson published by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2020 by Jamie Thompson. All rights reserved.
Chapter 20: The Breacher
SWAT officer Jeremy Borchardt crept through the second floor of the community college, his M4 raised. He was an assistant squad leader and one of the most experienced on SWAT, a former rifle instructor, a rappelling master, and one of the team’s lead breachers, authorized to carry a cache of explosives in a locked crate in his Tahoe. As he entered the college, Borchardt listened to the police radio on his vest. He heard SWAT break in between the shouts of patrol officers, alerting the team that they had a shooter pinned down on the second floor. He could hear the stress in their voices. They were somewhere inside this rambling building, and he needed to find them fast.
As one of the team’s master breachers, Borchardt’s job was to help get SWAT around barriers—a critical part of any operation. Breachers were thinkers and problem solvers. These “lead sled dogs,” as supervisors thought of them, had to be able to pick up a trail on any path, lead the way. Whenever the team got an infusion of new guys, supervisors studied them to see who might make good breachers, searching out those with a natural mechanical ability, men who weren’t afraid to take risks but also had a high maturity level, creative thinkers who were ice-calm under pressure. They had to be skilled at mechanical tasks—picking locks, running chain saws, “breaking and raking” windows. Breaching required an understanding of how things were put together, in order to take them apart. It was about exploiting weaknesses, finding vulnerabilities.
Borchardt could spend hours roaming the aisles of Home Depot, searching for some tool or fitting to use on a breach. He’d performed more operational breaches than any officer in the history of Dallas SWAT. Although Borchardt used many tools, his passion was explosives. “I could talk for hours,” he’d say, “about blowing shit up.” The team used explosives sparingly, on a couple dozen calls a year, but that was more than in times past. Borchardt had been drawn to the specialty because of its competing demands of precision and creativity. The act of exploding your way past a barrier was limited only, Borchardt believed, by a breacher’s imagination. He’d never excelled at math in school but enjoyed the equations of explosives, calculating room volumes and standoff distances.
Now, as Borchardt rounded a corner, he spotted his teammates pointing rifles in the other direction. He locked eyes with Canete, who looked back at him with a mixture of relief and anger—what had taken him so long? Canete pointed to where the gunman was hunkered down. All Borchardt could see was a small sliver of hallway. This position is shit, he thought. If the guy came out shooting, they wouldn’t see him until the last moment. It would be a draw at best.
Borchardt looked around and studied the Sheetrock walls, pulverized by bullets. So many rounds had been fired, he couldn’t believe no one had gotten hit. It was only a matter of time. Borchardt knew better than any of them the danger of working such unprotected scenes. He’d been shot through a hotel wall early in his career. He had a half-dollar-size bullet hole and a six-inch scar on his leg that testified to what could happen up here. He still had nerve damage, and his toes burned when the weather turned cold.
Borchardt urged the men to pull back farther into the stairwell. While their visibility wouldn’t be as good, they’d at least have protection of concrete-block walls. “We’re not safe here,” Borchardt said. The men looked back, annoyed. No shit. Borchardt left to scout out the rest of the second floor, trying to come up with a plan.
* * *
Borchardt was thirty-nine with short blond hair and bright blue eyes. He’d grown up on a pig farm outside a small town in Minnesota, raised on the belief that almost anything could be fixed with baling twine and duct tape. He knew the basics of welding, plumbing, and construction. He got a degree in social work from Abilene Christian University, and he and his wife spent their early twenties as house parents at a ranch for troubled boys. He’d grown up on the good lawmen stories of old westerns and wanted to become a cop. He enrolled in the Dallas police academy in 1999, and his wife took a job at a women’s shelter. They were devout Christians who believed in forgiveness and grace.
Crime and criminals had been arm’s-length, theoretical constructs to Borchardt. Back in college sociology class, he’d believed that most people turned to crime because of poverty and circumstance, conditions he’d been lucky enough to avoid. The experiences of his first months on the job whittled away at Borchardt’s farm-boy outlook. On his first night, he arrived at an apartment where a guy had been playing Russian roulette and lost. As Borchardt stepped around the bloody remains of the man’s head, he thought, What did I get myself into? Like most rookies, he’d been assigned to deep nights, the dark hours between 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. Cops encountered a certain kind of person at three o’clock in the morning. Very often someone up to no good. It was a time of day when everyone lied about everything, Borchardt learned.
In the crowded urban environs of Dallas, he met men and women who seemed to live by a different set of rules. They’d shoot, kill, maim, whatever it took to get their way. Most people who ended up face-to-face with crime weren’t doing what they were supposed to be doing, Borchardt came to believe. In a lot of cases, what happened to them actually was their fault. People did incredibly selfish, stupid, and brutal things. He encountered a level of darkness he hadn’t fathomed. He began to understand why, when summoned to the latest drug murder, veteran cops were unmoved. One less shitbag.
As a patrol officer in 2006, he’d arrived on the fourth floor of a Radisson Hotel early one morning to help a woman who was being beaten. As he stood outside the hotel room, inserting the key card into its slot, a bullet punched through the wall and spiraled into his thigh. Some cops didn’t recall feeling pain when shot, but Borchardt felt as if someone had pushed a red-hot poker through his leg. He saw blood spurting, fountainlike, as he hopped away from the door, yelling, “I’ve been hit.” Other officers dragged him down the hallway, and he passed out. A severed artery is what cops called a three-to four-minute wound. That’s about how long it takes to bleed out. In the back of the ambulance, a paramedic sat on top of Borchardt, pressing a knee into his thigh to slow down the flow. After he regained consciousness at the hospital, a trauma surgeon told him they’d pumped ten pints of blood back into his body, which held a total of about twelve.
Borchardt spent six months doing physical therapy, and when he was well enough he went back to the Radisson, found the room on the fourth floor, and stood outside. He ran his hand along the wall, feeling the bullet holes, now covered by wallpaper. Could he continue walking up to doors like that? The visit calmed him. Maybe it was because he hadn’t seen the suspect’s face, but the shooting hadn’t felt personal. He realized he could accept it for what it was—part of the dangerous job he’d chosen. As soon as the doctor cleared him, Borchardt returned to the streets.
He’d been back for about a month when he joined officers in pursuit of a car possibly involved in a murder case. The Chevrolet Caprice spun out, clipped a curb, and skidded to a stop. The lead patrol officer jumped out and ran toward the car’s darkly tinted windows, gun in hand. It was a tactical error; after a chase, officers are supposed to draw their weapon from a distance, staying behind cover. The officer, Mark Nix, rushed to the car and brought his baton down against the passenger-side window. But the glass held firm. Now Nix put his gun on the ground, grabbed his baton with both hands, and raised it into the air. From inside the car, the suspect fired one shot. The bullet struck Nix in his badge and pieces broke off, hitting him in the face and neck. He dropped his baton, grabbed his face, and collapsed. Borchardt and other officers fired into the car, unloading close to sixty rounds, wounding the shooter but not killing him. One officer ran up and dragged Nix into the back of a patrol car. Borchardt climbed in and pumped on Nix’s chest all the way to the hospital. After turning Nix over to nurses and doctors, Borchardt stepped out into the hospital parking lot, where he stood, covered in blood, beside the patrol car. “Fuck, fuck!” he yelled, kicking the car hard enough to leave a dent. Nix was soon pronounced dead. Borchardt was angry for months. At the suspect, but also at Nix, for approaching the car so rashly.
After his second shooting, Borchardt’s supervisors told him to pick a desk job. “I’m not a desk guy,” he’d said. Police who weren’t chasing dope and putting criminals in jail weren’t real police, he said. He spent two years as a rifle instructor, then endured an unsuccessful stint on narcotics. Even when he grew a beard and wore dirty clothes, people seemed to know he was a cop. “Five-Oh!” they’d yell as he climbed out of his car. In 2009, he finally got a spot on SWAT, which had been his dream all along.
During his two decades as a cop, Borchardt’s life changed, and not all for the better. His wife spent years on antianxiety medication after his near-death encounters, consumed by the idea that next time he’d get killed, leaving her a widow and their three children fatherless. He never seemed to leave work behind. He always required her to walk on his left, so he could reach for his gun. He taught their kids how to use tourniquets in case a shooter showed up at school. He insisted on picking their seats in church, scouting out pews with tactical advantage. Before a crowded Christmas Eve service, he whispered to her and the kids: “If anything goes down, here’s where we’re going to meet.” His wife rolled her eyes. Can’t we just enjoy the service? Borchardt watched people coming and going during the sermon, scanning the exits. To him, policing wasn’t a job, it was who he was.
Over time, Borchardt began to see himself as a modern version of the western lawman, part of an army that kept society’s dark underbelly at bay. He came to believe that without cops standing ready with firearms, the world would devolve into chaos. He believed in the quote often attributed to Winston Churchill: “We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”
* * *
Tonight, before the team could make a plan, their first priority was “hardening” their position, establishing cover so they could work safely. Usually they arrived in two Lenco Bearcats, vehicles constructed of steel and bullet-resistant glass that they could work behind. Inside the college, they’d have to get creative. The team carried up ballistic panels, two-by-four-foot sheets of Kevlar that they locked into place to create a makeshift wall. It was only about chest high, so they’d have to duck their heads. They ripped down a panel of lights from the ceiling to darken their position.
They needed to set up a perimeter across the second floor, blocking every possible path the gunman could use for escape. Borchardt’s biggest worry was that the guy would slip out and kill more cops or civilians. They’d managed to hem him into an alcove, and if he got loose they’d have to start all over again. Still worried about cops getting hit through the drywall, Borchardt positioned one of the team’s small fleet of robots as a sentry in the hallway. Its camera sent live video feed to a handheld monitor, allowing the team to move farther back. If the gunman came out, it would give them an extra second or two of warning.
By about 10:00 p.m., roughly an hour after the first shots were fired, SWAT had the gunman at least somewhat contained. The call began to shift from the chaos of an active shooter situation to something more like a barricaded person call, what SWAT called a BP. These were bread and butter for SWAT; the team handled them nearly every week. The best case for any BP was to coax the suspect out peacefully. Tonight, with the gunman boasting about how many cops he’d already killed, that seemed impossible.
Borchardt and a couple of other officers began walking around the second floor. They had a general protocol for BPs, but they’d never faced a situation like tonight. There’s no set manual for any SWAT call; each occupies an unfamiliar scene with unique variables. To figure out what to do, officers flip through a mental Rolodex of previous calls and stories they’ve heard from other teams, searching for solutions.
One of the first ideas was to toss something into the suspect’s hiding spot. The team considered tear gas, which prompted many to surrender. But this call had happened so quickly that many officers didn’t have their gas masks. The gunman, on the other hand, might well have brought one, for all they were learning of him. The goal of tear gas was to force a suspect out, and Borchardt didn’t think that was necessarily a good idea—he’d likely come out shooting.
Borchardt crept quietly along hallways near the gunman, trying to figure out his exact position as he yelled back and forth with negotiator Gordon. Maybe they could attach an explosive to an adjacent wall and collapse it on top of the guy. Or maybe they could blow a hole in a wall to give a sniper a shot. Borchardt took out a pry tool, trying to open a locked door, but the gunman heard. “What the fuck was that?” he shouted at Gordon. Borchardt stopped; he didn’t want to agitate the gunman into shooting again.
One officer suggested shooting the gunman through the wall with the team’s powerful .50-caliber rifles, but the team didn’t like the idea. They didn’t have a good enough sense of the gunman’s location to aim with precision. They’d have to “spray and pray,” and that seemed irresponsible in a building full of cops; they still weren’t certain they’d cleared it of students and teachers.
Borchardt walked through the college library down the hall, studying the building’s beams, walls, and doors. Could they use explosives to drop the ceiling on this guy? Blow a hole through the floor? Borchardt shook his head. It would take a giant bomb to collapse the concrete and steel structure.
Borchardt thought about their robots. One had an arm that could hold a 12-gauge shotgun. What if they drove it down the hallway and fired on the gunman? It might work, but the robot moved slowly; there was a good chance the suspect could take it out before it fired.
A couple of months back the ATF had lent them a robot capable of carrying explosives. Borchardt had been using it to put small charges on doors, which was often safer than sending guys to the threshold. Borchardt wondered about equipping a robot with a bigger charge and detonating it near the gunman. That did not require precision; they’d just need to get it close enough.
Borchardt started discussing the idea with his sergeant, Josh Hertel. The men had worked together for years on SWAT. Before being promoted to supervisor, Hertel had been one of the team’s best breachers. He seemed interested in the idea, but Borchardt could see the other man’s gears spinning on all the potential problems.
Borchardt went back through all the other options they’d considered, explaining why he didn’t think they’d work, then circled back to the robot bomb.
“How much explosive would you need?” Hertel asked.
“I’m thinking a pound,” Borchardt said.
“What?” Hertel said, as his eyes widened. “No. No fucking way.”
They typically used very small amounts—grams, not pounds. It was one thing to slap a charge on someone’s front door; another to blow a pound of explosives in a community college downtown. “What the fuck are you talking about?” Hertel said. “We couldn’t be anywhere near that thing.”
The sergeant spelled out his concerns. The first was overpressure, the air-blast shock wave created during an explosion. If the team was too close to the blast, it could damage ears, injure internal organs, and cause brain injury. Most of the breachers had been hit by hot charges and gotten headaches or concussions. SWAT had detonated a pound of explosives indoors during training, but always in controlled environments, where they could safely retreat. In the confined space of the college, the overpressure would bounce off the floors and walls, multiplying by—well, they didn’t know how much. Hertel was also worried about the team pulling too far away from the gunman. If they used a pound, would they have to evacuate the floor?
“We’ve got him contained now,” Hertel said. “We’ve got to stay on top of him.”
What if the device failed and the gunman escaped, killing more people? Hertel asked.
“I know you guys may be pissed at me tomorrow, but I’ve got to think about the safety of everybody else,” Hertel said. “One pound—do you have any idea what you’re talking about?” He seemed to doubt commanders would go for it.
Borchardt kept pushing. “Look,” he said. “We’re authorized to use deadly force. That doesn’t mean we have to shoot the guy.” Their general orders authorized officers to use any weapon available to them in a deadly-force situation. If an officer lost his pistol in a gunfight, he could reach for a rock and shatter a man’s head. How was this any different? The bomb plan might not be ideal, but sending any officer down that hallway was sending him to his death.
After more back-and-forth, Borchardt could see he’d persuaded Hertel. But there was no telling whether commanders would approve.
“Y’all start building,” Hertel said. He asked the breachers to call a longtime explosives expert they knew and get an opinion on how much to use and how far to pull back