Police stopped detonating explosives as part of training exercises at the now-closed Aloha Motel on Monday afternoon, Sept. 5, in light of a neighborhood complaint.
SWAT team members had planned to detonate as many as three explosions per hour at the Samish Way motel between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. from Monday to Wednesday. By late Monday afternoon the noise became too much for a nearby business, and officers were ordered to stop.
“When the chief says don’t set off any more explosives — you don’t,” said Officer Josh McKissick, a member of the Bellingham Police Department’s SWAT team.
Training continued at the motel, however, for the four-man squad tasked with breaching doors. On Tuesday in front of a small crowd of media, McKissick demonstrated several tools Bellingham police can use to break down doors — shotguns, Halligan bars, battering rams — in lieu of detonating explosive charges as planned.
If they’re not standing right behind the door, there’s absolutely no danger to them. And this is a lot safer for us.
Officer Josh McKissick, Bellingham PD’s SWAT team
Of course, breaching a door is a last resort for police in an emergency. Often an irritant gas like pepper spray gets used first “to help them decide that’s not a comfortable place to be,” McKissick said.
“We’ve had really good success getting people to come out,” he added. “Most of the time we’re probably not going to try to introduce ourselves to a situation, unless there’s something exigent about it. … Do they have a hostage? Are there innocents? Are there other people who are a higher priority than our safety?”
McKissick showed reporters and TV cameramen, who stood at his back a few feet away, how to shoot out hinges and handles of doors with special shotgun shells that disintegrate into a fine, harmless powder on impact. Another officer, Dion Terry, demonstrated with one swing how to open a door with a tactical battering ram.
The Aloha Motel was bought this year by the city of Bellingham for $1.58 million so it could be torn down and erased as a hub for crime on the Samish Way motel strip. Officers opened up one room to find it still littered with old wooden chairs, a crushed tall pink can of soda, an empty paper coffee cup, a bottle of rubbing alcohol, and a striped Victoria’s Secret bag.
The vacant, soon-to-be demolished building offered a rare chance for the breaching team to practice on real-life doors — even if those doors are old and weak enough that they could have been kicked in by most officers.
McKissick pointed out scenarios where explosive charges are safer than rams or shotgun shells, even if they’re louder and might seem scarier. For one thing, slapping an explosive charge on the door with breacher’s tape takes two or three seconds, McKissick said, whereas battering the door with a ram takes much longer, and that unarmed officer risks getting shot if he or she stands in the doorway too long — especially if the wrong person is on the other side.
Also, McKissick said, explosive charges pose little threat to anyone in the room. Most of the charges weigh an ounce or less. Once the charge is detonated, often beneath an IV bag of water that dampens and directs the blast, almost all of the force goes into the door, but not inside. A falling door can be the bigger danger.
“So if they’re not standing right behind the door, there’s absolutely no danger to them,” McKissick said. “And this is a lot safer for us.”
The city’s SWAT team has members from the Bellingham Police Department and Western Washington University police. They’re on call 24 hours a day to respond to high-risk calls.