On Sunday, three Cedar Park, Texas police officers were shot responding to a house where a 26-year-old had taken three family members hostage. The 18-hour standoff ended peacefully Monday morning when the suspect surrendered.

PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke to Cedar Park Interim Chief Mike Harmon about his career as a police officer, about the incident, and how his officers are trained to respond to calls involving people in a mental health crisis. 

Chuck Wexler:  First, Chief, can you tell us about yourself?  Did you always want to be a police officer?

Chief Mike Harmon:   Actually I wanted to be a firefighter. Then my brother-in-law, who works for the San Antonio Police Department, became a police officer.  That piqued my interest, and I decided to pursue the career.

Wexler: Tell me about Cedar Park.

Chief Harmon:  Cedar Park is a growing community in central Texas, northwest of Austin. The population is approximately 80,000 and we have about 25 square miles. We have 99 sworn officers in our department.

Wexler:  What happened Sunday and Monday?

Chief Harmon:  It started on Sunday at around 3:00 in the afternoon. We received a call from a mother who said her son, in his mid-20s, came back to the residence to get some items, was really aggressive, and kicked the door in. She called the police department, and our officers responded to the house. They started making entry into the house and found that he had barricaded a couch against the front door after he kicked it in. Our officers had to get past the couch to get inside.

Once they did, they cleared the downstairs of the two-story house and didn’t find anyone, so they started making their way upstairs. The hallway upstairs is very narrow, and our officers were identifying themselves without any response. Once one of our officers reached the top of the stairwell, they were met with gunfire from one of the rooms. All three officers were pinned down in the stairwell.

The first officer at the top of the stairs took a bullet to his left bicep, shattering his humerus. The other officer took a bullet in the left side of her ribs. Fortunately, the ballistic vest did its job and stopped the bullet. The third officer had a bullet graze the top of his head, knocking his hat off and leaving him with a big gash in his head.

They were all able to get out of the house. Other officers were arriving on scene, got them to safety, and drove them up the street where EMS was waiting to treat them and transport them to the hospital.

The three officers who were shot were able to provide intelligence before they went to the hospital. They told us the suspect was upstairs in one of the bedrooms and that’s where the shots were coming from. A little later we learned he had his mother, sister, and brother barricaded in the room with him.

We set up an external perimeter and called the SWAT team in. Once we had our incident command bus there, we set up incident command.

This guy started streaming a live feed through Facebook. He was using that as a platform to talk to people. We learned that they were in the closet.

We knew we had to get that shut down pretty quickly, because we didn’t want the incident broadcast worldwide, giving him an audience. We worked with the FBI and Facebook to get his social media accounts shut down.

Once we did that, the SWAT team deployed a throw phone for him to talk with the negotiators, so we had direct contact with him and he was just talking to us.

We were prepared to be in it for the long haul. Our city manager and city council purchased our mobile command post several years ago, that we can bring to a scene and set up an incident command. As long as we had an open line of communication and he was talking with us, we didn’t see the need for it to escalate quickly.

Wexler: What were his motivations?

Chief Harmon:  That’s what we were trying to figure out throughout the entire process. He told us he was actually having a good day that morning. Something clicked in his head that made him agitated when he got home. He has a very toxic relationship with his mother, so I think her calling the police escalated his anxiety level. When the officers arrived, he didn’t want to go to jail. He told us he was arrested before and had a bad experience with law enforcement and in the jail, so that was triggering some emotional issues for him.

Our negotiator developed a rapport with him right off the bat. They had many conversations, which were kind of all over the map for a while. We got to a point where we were telling him that this was a bad day, and everybody has bad days. We assured him over and over that the officers he shot were okay, and their injuries were not life-threatening. I gave a press conference, and knowing he would watch it, I made a point to get a message to him that the officers were okay. This was a situation that we could work through and get him help or whatever he needed, as long as he released the hostages or came out himself.

Wexler:  What eventually happened?

Chief Harmon:  After a long night of negotiation, I think he was starting to get tired. We negotiated to give him a pack of cigarettes if he released two hostages, and he released his brother and sister. His mother didn’t want to come out because she was concerned for her son. She wanted to stay inside, which alarmed us because those types of situations can go badly.

Early that morning we cut the power to the residence, so we knew that it was going to get hot and uncomfortable in there. We’ve been having excessive heat in Texas, with temperatures up over 100.  He told us that he was getting uncomfortable and wanted the electricity turned back on.

I think the hours of negotiation were starting to wear him down. Eventually they came to a deal that assured him that we weren’t going to come in there guns blazing or throwing him to the ground. We told him we’d take him into custody while treating him like a human being, and that’s exactly what we did. He agreed and came outside with his mother. We ended this situation with the best possible outcome, because everyone walked away alive.

Wexler:  What’s the condition of your officer who is still in the hospital?

Chief Harmon:  He had surgery early Monday morning. It went well, and he’s in there recovering. They’re going to evaluate the progress in about three months to see how it’s healing, and hopefully he won’t need any additional surgery. It’ll take about 9-12 months for a full recovery.

Wexler:  Did your department’s ICAT training influence how you approached this situation?

Chief Harmon:  Absolutely. We went to the ICAT training seminar in New Orleans several years back. We came back, put a program together for our department, and put all our cops through that program. So they were all trained in ICAT de-escalation training.

We emphasize de-escalation and not rushing anything. Mental health patients aren’t always in the right frame of mind or thinking rationally or clearly. So we have to take the extra time to develop a relationship with them and communicate effectively.

Since all our folks were trained in ICAT, that’s the philosophy of this department. Let’s slow it down; let’s think this through; let’s open up lines of communication. And let’s bring this situation to a peaceful conclusion.

Wexler: What did your officers know about this location when they arrived?

Chief Harmon:  They had been there several times before. We had dealt with this subject for an assault case, and with the mother for some very minor offenses. We also had responded to mental health calls at that residence. So the officers were familiar with the address and knew the subject had mental health issues.

Wexler:  There has been a lot of national discussion about the response to mental health calls. What does this experience tell you about how we should respond to these calls?

Chief Harmon: Our officers are trained mental health police officers, which, in Texas, requires them to go through a 40-hour course. They have the capability to assess situations, provide available resources, whether it’s hospitals or outreach programs, and they can do an involuntary commitment if someone really needs it.

So our officers are trained to deal with mental health patients. They went into this house not knowing if there were weapons involved or what his mental state was. They didn’t really even make contact with him before he started firing on our officers.

If you send a civilian in there, you’re sending in someone unarmed, and the outcome could’ve been much different. Our officers’ bravery just blows me away. They were providing medical attention to each other, using tourniquets, and self-aid, buddy-aid. Those are the types of things police officers are trained in, and a mental health worker or social worker probably wouldn’t have that training. Put civilians in a dangerous situation like that, and I strongly believe the outcome would’ve been fatal.

I’m a firm believer that there need to be more mental health resources available both for the patients themselves and for law enforcement to call upon. 


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.