'Our job is to save lives'
The SWAT team. The negotiator. The Throwbot. Inside the Emergency Response Unit.
Rochester Police Lt. Ryan Lodermeier, with a single swing of something called The Enforcer, battering-rams open a locked door, draws his handgun, and begins to visually “sweep” the room—bobbing and weaving as he searches for threats from just outside the now-open doorway.
At least most people would call it a doorway.
To Lodermeier and the members of the Emergency Response Unit, though, this is the “fatal funnel.”
This is the threshold you know you have to cross, Lodermeier says, “when you’ve run out of options, when the situation has become too dangerous to do anything else.”
This is the scenario you do everything to avoid, for you and the people inside.
This is the scenario where you might have to shoot somebody. This is the scenario where you might get shot.
After visually clearing as much of the room as possible, Lodermeier and the five-person entry team from the Emergency Response Unit willingly, knowingly, step into that doorway.
Into that fatal funnel.
‘We train hoping we never have to do it’
Fortunately, for Lodermeier and his team, the only people inside this house are makeshift mannequins.
And the house itself is actually a scenario building, part of the Rochester Training Center.
That team, the ERU—which includes the Rochester/Olmsted County version of a Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) team—is trained to “conduct critical incident operations that require the use of specialized equipment and methods to promote safe resolutions. They mitigate complex and dangerous incidents that often exceed the capabilities of patrol officers.”
That means standoffs. That means hostage situations. That means the team that breaks down that door, tosses in those flash bangs, and willingly walks through that fatal funnel.
“These calls have one thing in common,” says Lodermeier. “They’re tense, they’re uncertain, and they’re rapidly evolving.”
First put together by the Rochester Police Department (RPD) in 1983, the original ERU consisted of 10 officers and a few pieces of heavy duty equipment.
Today, the 40-member ERU includes 24 officers from RPD, 10 deputies from Olmsted County, firefighters from the Rochester Fire Department, EMTs from Mayo Clinic Ambulance Service, a “tactical physician” from Mayo Clinic.
These 40 members, who have either volunteered or been prodded to join, must receive a recommendation from a supervisor, pass a decision-making evaluation, and get through an oral interview.
“The number one priority is the ability for ERU members to make sound decisions,” says Lodermeier, who, as the tactical commander of the ERU, oversees all operations from an on-site command post. “A lot of the situations that my operators are put in require quick decisions under great stress. Something may happen that you may not expect, but we encourage and we expect our operators to think critically. All of our operators on this team are very intelligent people and have this trait.”
The law enforcement members must pass the ERU obstacle course and firearm proficiency evaluation.
The timed obstacle course includes running uphill in full gear, crossing a balance beam, climbing through a window, dragging a large and heavy dummy to safety. Then—during the course—comes the firearms test. Time out of the obstacle course, and you fail. Miss a single shot at the firing range, and you fail. Bomb out of the oral interview, and you fail.
“Maybe 50 percent of the officers fail on their first try,” says Lodermeier. “If you fail, you can try again next year.”
Today, and every week or so, various ERU members practice their skills at the Rochester Training Center, the four-acre facility just across West River Parkway from Rochester Police Department’s new North Station, between the Water Treatment Plant and almost as far south as the parking overflow from Watson Fields during soccer Saturdays.
On the north side of the four acres, a dozen or so seized and forfeited cars and trucks—though they’ve had RVs and Bobcats—sit in a fenced-in lot just waiting to be moved to auto auctions around the state. In 2021, RPD seized 57 vehicles, including two motorcycles. The city then sells these vehicles—which have been seized for everything from DUIs to drug busts—to outstate auctions. Mostly so the previous owners don’t have to see their forfeited cars cruising around town.
And in the center of the property sits that 4,000 square-foot scenario house. Inside, the lightweight furniture can easily be reconfigured to represent different rooms. The plywood and particle board walls rest on rollers, so they can be slid into new spots to simulate different floor plans. Head-sized saucers with numbers on them can be rearranged throughout the rooms. Trainees need to call out those numbers during room-clearing exercises. First timers often miss the one hidden behind that just-opened door.
Later today, a few new RPD hires will practice those techniques. Learn the roles of the various entry team members. Learn to avoid that fatal funnel.
At the on-site, 15-lane firing range, officers shoot handguns and rifles at targets up to 100 feet away.
“We are really fortunate to have a training facility like this to utilize,” says Lodermeier, an RCTC grad who was drawn to law enforcement after taking a ride-along with RPD when he was 18. “We’re always ready for the worst case, but we’re hoping we’re preparing for something we never have to use.”
Those ERU members are not doing it for the extra pay, which is zero.
For Lodermeier, who has served 10 years with RPD, “It’s just something I’ve always been drawn to,” he says. “It’s definitely a challenge, that’s for sure. It’s also an opportunity to acquire some skills that I could apply while working on the street.”
“But we do everything we can to keep a situation from ever escalating to this,” he says, “We always want it to end peacefully. And that starts as soon as we get the call.”
Olmsted County’s emergency dispatchers handle 4,000 or so 9-1-1 calls per month.
A baby’s choking. A man is trying to kick in his ex-girlfriend’s apartment door. A husband and wife are punching each other in front of a kid just old enough to dial 911.
Some guy has O.D.’ed on 20 “oxy-something” pills. A woman is passed out on Broadway. A skunk is hiding under a car hood.
Many are the kinds of calls that, if you were the one making them, could be the types of incidents that would, if even just temporarily, tear a family apart. For the operators taking the calls, and the officers responding to them, it’s just another day on the job. Everyone involved realizes this. It’s something the RPD officers and the emergency dispatchers talk about constantly.
“We’re dealing with our neighbors, our community members,” says Lodermeier. “We just want to help keep everyone safe.”
In the city of Rochester, those calls are dispatched to one of RPD’s 140 or so patrol officers (well, except for the skunk).
Even a call that might warrant ERU—say, a hostage situation—would be dispatched immediately to one or more of the maybe a dozen patrol cars on duty at any given time.
If officers on the scene have assessed the situation, and determined that it’s a “complex and dangerous incident,” they will contact Lodermeier or Capt. Aaron Penning, a 10-year ERU veteran and Administrative Commander.
That call to mobilize the ERU happens maybe once a month, maybe more.
And that initial call, if the situation is still in the fact-gathering stage, may include The Negotiator.
RPD Sgt. Greg Jeardeau, one of the supervisors on the Crisis Negotiation Unit, says he just “fell into this job.”
“In 2002, I was living in Milwaukee and my wife and I were moving to Portland, Oregon,” says Jeardeau, who also trains RPD officers in those negotiation techniques they have to employ on a daily basis. “I was not in law enforcement, but I saw they were hiring for police officers in Portland. I took the test. Got offered a job.”
After five years with the Portland Police, Jeardeau moved to Rochester in 2007, took a job on patrol with RPD. In 2015, his supervisor suggested he join ERU.
“My supervisor saw that I tend to do well with people that are in crisis and I’m able to communicate with them,” says Jeardeau. “So that’s when I joined the team.”
Jeardeau is one of the 10 official negotiators on the Crisis Negotiation Unit, a joint venture between RPD and Olmsted County that falls under the Emergency Response Unit umbrella.
“Years ago, our two groups—the negotiation side and the SWAT side—were really separated,” says Jeardeau. “And then we’ve grown to really work together. We stand side by side on the scene. I’m able to say to the ERU commander ‘We’re making progress, let’s keep talking’ or ‘We’re not making headway and this is getting dangerous.’ And those guys are ready to go in if they need to.”
The CNU works to de-escalate things so the SWAT side doesn’t need to break down that door. So that the sniper doesn’t need to take that shot.
“That’s what we all want,” says Jeardeau. “Every officer is trained in those CIT calls—the Crisis Intervention Team—and they are doing that daily. That’s something that’s changed over the years in law enforcement, and that has really, really helped.”
When the situation escalates, though, the Crisis Negotiation Unit is brought in.
“What I always try to remember when I’m brought into a situation is that I’m sure, when they woke up this morning, they had no intention of ending up in the situation they’re in,” says Jeardeau. “You’re probably meeting these people on one of the worst days of their life. Imagine it’s one of the worst days of your life. What would people think of you?”
And while the CNU goes through extensive training in situations ranging from hostage-taking to suicide threats, Jeardeau says it really comes down to listening. And trust.
“When I start a conversation in one of these situations, I just introduce myself,” Jeardeau says. “There’s no magic formula. I just want them to know I’m going to try to get them some help, to find them some answers.”
Other officers may be searching for relatives, scouring the subject’s social media for interests, compiling any info that can start a conversation.
“What we’re looking for is something that just gets them talking,” says Jeardeau. “If we find out it’s a guy that’s into fishing, maybe we talk about fishing to get his mind back on good things in life and not the bad things he’s dealing with. And we don’t want to rehash the bad things that led to this situation. If it’s a domestic situation, we’re probably not going to want to talk about the spouse.”
That’s a good lesson for everyone, Jeardeau says. “If your kids or friends are in a bad situation, don’t rehash all the bad things that got them there. Just focus on moving forward from here.”
Negotiators think about every situation like a teeter-totter of emotional versus rational thinking, he says. The higher the emotions get, the lower the rational thinking.
Calm can bring that teeter-totter back into balance. The dissipation of drugs and alcohol in the bloodstream can bring that teeter-totter back into balance. Time can bring that teeter-totter back into balance.
“Trust and time,” says Jeardeau. “Trust and time. I’m going to be honest with the subject. I’m going to build trust. If a hostage-taker asks for a car to the airport, I’m telling him that’s not happening. But if he asks for a pizza I might say, ‘If I get you this pizza, will you give me your word for the next 20 minutes that you’ll just keep talking to me? It’s all I ask. Will you give me your word on it?’ And people, even if they’re in bad situations, people will stick to that. If they tell you, ‘I’ll give you my word,’ it means something to them.”
The SWAT side of the team, though, may be simultaneously preparing for that worst-case scenario. Clearing nearby houses. Setting up a perimeter. Tracking down floor plans of the house or apartment. Setting up snipers.
The commander on scene is getting updates from both the negotiation team and the SWAT team. Making decisions of talking versus tactics.
“If we hear something that makes it sound like things are of immediate danger, they take over,” says Jeardeau. “Look, all of the negotiators are also police officers. We all understand that there are times where talking isn’t going to stop someone. That the only answer is to take action. But first we always try to use every tool we have at our disposal before we need to go in.”
When Lt. Lodermeier gets that ERU call, he—or someone at the North Station—grabs the special gear from his locker.
His helmet. His bullet-proof vest. His leg holster.
One of the team members will, depending on the situation, grab that “specialized equipment”—those tools that put the Weapons in Special Weapons And Tactics.
Like the PepperBall Gun, which looks like a paintball rifle but, shot at a wall in a room, disperses a chemical agent that immediately irritates the eyes and, Lodermeier says, “helps encourage people to come out of a barricaded situation.”
The Tactical Drone, a small, indoor drone with video streaming with a controller that can plug into the officer/pilot’s phone.
And the Throwbot, a plastic, throwable robot—it looks like a small, remote-controlled car—with video streaming that can be tossed into a room and then controlled with a single joystick to scout out a room remotely.
The battering ram. The bulletproof shield. The under-door camera.
The ERU commander may, in a serious situation, call for one of their four armored vehiclesm including the MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle), the 25-foot long, 37,000-pound, $400,000 armored vehicle that was given to the Olmsted County Sheriff’s Office through the U.S. Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office. It’s designed to safely transport up to 10 law enforcement personnel into high-risk situations, and protect them from high-powered weapons.
But even those tools can only do so much.
When the negotiations have broken down, when the special weapons aren’t enough, when the ERU on-site commander makes that call he or she doesn’t want to have to make, the SWAT Entry Team crosses that threshold into that room. Through that fatal funnel.
The Entry Team
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, when we breach a doorway, we want people to know that we’re there,” says Lodermeier, who, as the tactical commander of the ERU is often the person making what he calls that “dreadful decision” to enter a dangerous situation. “’Rochester Police Department! Search warrant! Respond to my voice! Come out to me.’ We want them to know that we’re the police.”
A typical room entry, if there is such a thing, consists of a five- or six-person team.
With all of the info gathered from all of that surveillance, the door is breached, maybe with that battering ram.
“Clearing a room can be very hectic and chaotic at times,” says Lodermeier. “That ability to make sound decisions under extreme pressure is important. It’s why these officers are on this team. And it has to be a team. We have to trust each other.”
All of those classroom lessons, all of those scenario house practice sessions, can’t prepare you for the real thing.
“When we go through that door, we know how dangerous it can be,” Lodermeier says. “That first member through that doorway is relying on the second member, who’s relying on the third member, and all the way down the line. We are flanking each other, giving each other cover. It’s dangerous for all involved.”
And, he says, it’s a necessary last resort. For his team. For the suspect. For the community.
“The ultimate goal is always the same,” says Lodermeier. “Our Emergency Response Unit is a life-saving team. That’s what we want to do. Our job is to save lives.”