In the late ’80s, I conducted maritime law enforcement and search and rescue operations for the U.S. Coast Guard at a small boat station on the East Coast. I had many unusual and even dangerous experiences, but one, in particular, stuck with me.
One summer afternoon, we got a call from a charter vessel conducting an inland cruise. They reported an armed assault on a crewmember by a knife-wielding passenger whom the crewmember had come upon snorting cocaine in one of the heads. The passenger held a knife to the crewmember’s throat and threatened him.
We responded out with a three-person boarding team. We were to provide backup for the state police vessel that was also en route. Shortly after the initial call, the charter contacted our station for an ETA, causing concern that the situation may have escalated.
We discovered as we arrived that the state police had only sent a one-person unit with no boarding personnel to escort the charter to the harbor. It became evident that we would take the lead and detain the suspect ourselves.
As the last of them cleared away, the subject was suddenly on his feet and moving toward us with a
six-inch-long knife in his hand.
Our 44-footer bucked up and smashed down in the water; it was difficult for our pilot to keep us steady and close as we climbed up and over the fantail railing of the much bigger craft. A crewmember was waiting on the charter to take us to our suspect. We went with the crewman as directed by our boarding officer, who went to the bridge to make contact with the charter’s captain.
We followed our guide to and through a bank of doors into a crowded ballroom, and then serpentined our way through a dense crowd on the dance floor. The music was loud, and strobe lights were like a flashbang in your face every few seconds.
There were rows of 15-foot-long rectangular dining tables loaded with seated passengers. The crewman pointed out a male subject at the far end of one of the tables. He was sitting with his arms folded and head down, appearing to be asleep. He was not easily accessible, as a bulkhead and passengers made for a tight fit.
Quietly, with hand motions, we directed the passengers to stand and clear out as quickly as possible. As the last of them cleared away, the subject was suddenly on his feet and moving toward us with a six-inch-long knife in his hand. He held the blade up along his wrist, trying to conceal it. I drew my Beretta 9mil, sighted in and yelled out, “Knife!” My partner simultaneously did the same.
We repeatedly ordered him to stop and drop the knife. He refused to acknowledge our commands and kept coming. As he closed the gap between us, I stepped toward him, intending to fire my weapon and wanting to shorten my shooting distance in the crowded room. Our eyes locked, his eyes widened and he dropped the knife.
We moved in, grabbed and cuffed him, and then found ourselves facing a wall of angry people, demanding that we let him go. They threatened to take him from us and surged forward en masse. I drew down and ordered them back. Someone in the crowd overhand-grabbed the slide of my weapon, but I was able to pull free. My partner pushed our prisoner along as I covered our egress, the mob following closely behind.
Back on the fantail, our boarding officer now rejoining us, we found ourselves trapped, unable to turn from the crowd and safely transfer back to our own boat. Then, a torrent of debris rained down from the upper decks. Word had quickly spread, and a full-blown riot had broken out.
We took cover under an overhead ladder, tucking our detainee in a corner. We all three turned, guns at the high ready, and faced off with those in front of us. They shouted threats and spat on us, and some grabbed at our weapons.
The blur of chaos made it hard to know how long the siege had lasted. The heat and humidity were suffocating. We heard sounds of breaking glass and the gong of solid objects bouncing off the metal around us. There was an occasional hand jutting through openings in the ladder above us, trying to grab us by our hair and shirts. We expected at any moment to have to take deadly measures in defense of ourselves. Then we saw the first boats gaining on us. The cavalry had arrived.
It seemed like every agency in the area had sent help. Uniforms poured over the sides and swept the decks clear. Some were in riot gear, others with their K-9s. Finally, order was restored. Only the shattered debris left behind told the story of what had just happened.
Safe, back on our own boat, with the prisoner in state trooper custody, I reflected on the incident and the lessons I would operate by during my subsequent years in law enforcement: One tactical failure can instantly create an escalated and uncontrollable situation. Ask questions. People won’t think to tell you what you may need to know. It won’t even occur to them. Had we known that the suspect’s friends surrounded us, we could have considered a different location of arrest. Know what’s around you, and plan your alternative actions. We had to push back through the crowd to get out because we were only aware of the doors we had entered and weren’t mentally prepared to utilize other routes of withdrawal. The 21-foot rule for edged weapons is sound. Respect it. The suspect went from a seated position, 15 feet away, to almost on top of us in a blink. On a positive takeaway, I also learned that staying calm and keeping a cool head, even when seemingly overwhelmed and short on options, can lead to a much better outcome.