Hostages' sudden movements sparked police action
Police: Training paid off for Montgomery SWAT team, fire officials during crisis
Nearly four hours after James J. Lee took three people hostage in the lobby of the Discovery Building in downtown Silver Spring Wednesday afternoon, officers in the county's Special Weapons and Tactics team were forced into deadly action when the hostages suddenly fled without warning, police said.
Some time after police first contacted Lee, several members of the Montgomery County Police's SWAT team, armed with M4 carbines, managed to enter the building without Lee's knowledge in case the crisis needed to be ended violently, said Capt. Darryl McSwain, director of the department's Special Operations Division.
Once police observed the hostages' movement, Lee's fate was sealed, despite the fact that further investigation revealed the handgun he was armed with was a starter pistol, police said.
"The hostages began to flee in different directions on their own initiative," McSwain said Friday, describing the tactical team's decision to fatally shoot Lee at 4:48 p.m. "After we heard what we believed was a shot from one of his starter pistols, officers moved in very quickly and shot him multiple times to prevent him from harming the hostages."
McSwain declined to comment on specifics regarding the shooting, but multiple officers opened fire on Lee, who was struck multiple times from inside the building with .223 caliber rounds fired from more than one M4 carbine, McSwain said.
A clear policy examining the use of force by officers is included in the department's protocol. The policy rates the use of force into four categories with the use of deadly force described as the use of a firearm or other device "intended to, or likely to, cause death or serious physical injury,"being the highest category.
"Officers may use deadly force to defend themselves, or another person from what they have reasonable cause to perceive as an immediate threat of death or serious physical injury," the policy states in part.
The policy gives officers a wide berth in making the decision to use force including deadly force depending on the circumstances at hand or the situation facing the officer. The same standards applied during the hostage situation Wednesday, McSwain said.
"We were very confident that he had very little regard for life; not only his own but that of the lives of the hostages," he said, explaining that Lee had at various points expressed suicidal thoughts to negotiators. "He was a very angry individual, irrational, with little regard for life, and that was very apparent form the very first conversation we had with him and throughout the ordeal."
McSwain also mentioned the canisters strapped to Lee's body and the packages placed on the scene by Lee as major factors in the tactical team's ongoing evaluation of the hostage-taker's threat level.
"The explosive device and its ability to be detonated was a major concern of ours and was a factor in when we would utilize deadly force if necessary," McSwain said, praising the poise of the SWAT team despite the danger. "It's a testament to their courage and skill level; they understood that they were in harm's way."
An explosives expert from the county fire marshall's office was nearby when the takedown was made, and several Montgomery County Fire and Rescue officials, including explosive experts, were in joint command at the county police's command center from the beginning of the crisis, McSwain said.
While a device appeared to go off immediately after SWAT officers engaged Lee, McSwain declined to comment on the nature of the devices or the consequences of the detonation. MCFRS officials were unavailable for comment as of Friday afternoon.
County police employ 11 full-time SWAT team members in a centralized unit as well as 25 decentralized team members available for deployment from the ranks of the department's patrol officers, McSwain said. Bomb experts from other agencies regularly train with the team in anticipation of such incidents.
"The full-time officers train for a number of different types of events, to include hostage barricade situations, several times per month and also attend various training venues around the country," McSwain said. "We have been training regularly with members of the fire department for events such as this and that joint training proved to be invaluable in this instance."