The gunman said he wanted to die.
Barricaded in his Sarasota home, the 44-year-old man claimed he had a Glock 40 handgun taped to his hand and 200 rounds of ammunition by his side. Sheriff’s deputies surrounded the house and sealed off the adjacent streets. Air One, the Sheriff’s Aviation Unit helicopter, patrolled overhead, its lights blinking in the night as it scanned the area with a sophisticated infrared night-vision camera.
Up the block from the gunman’s house, deputies gathered at the back of a squad car to discuss their next move. The night was sticky hot. Deputies were sweating under their bulletproof vests and swatted away mosquitoes. Bug spray, bottles of water and granola bars were passed around in anticipation of a long, drawn-out standoff.
The on-scene deputies radioed dispatch for the shooter’s phone number and were able to get him on the phone. He said he wanted “to go out in a blaze of glory” and dared the deputies to enter his house.
An hour earlier, deputies responding to a domestic disturbance call had narrowly dodged four bullets the gunman shot through his front door. The man’s girlfriend escaped unharmed and reported to deputies that he was suicidal.
Now, sheriff’s deputies and the gunman were stuck at a stalemate, and the potential use of deadly force would hinge on the experience and grace under pressure of one man.
Sgt. Gary Kraayenbrink, a 31-year law-enforcement veteran, was at home sleeping Aug. 2 when he got the call. As a member of the Sarasota Sheriff’s Hostage Negotiation Team, he wears a pager 24/7 and can be called into action at a moment’s notice. By the time he rolled out of bed, Kraayenbrink had transitioned from the mindset of a relaxing Friday night to the stone-cold professionalism forged by 15 years as a SWAT sniper. On the drive to the crime scene he was on his cell phone, gathering as much information as he could about the man with the gun, searching for a way to build rapport and trust when he got him on the phone. That is Kraayenbrink’s tradecraft. He was looking for a way to save the man’s life.
Within minutes, Kraayenbrink was on the scene to take over communications with the holed-up gunman.
“The only thing I wanted to know when I arrived,” Kraayenbrink later said, “is if they were set up for the gunman to walk out and surrender.”
Forty-five minutes later, and without another shot fired, the gunman walked out of his home and surrendered.
“As you spend more time on this job, you have a tendency to go into situations calmer than you would have earlier in your career,” Kraayenbrink said. “Normally these people just want someone to talk to. If they escalate, I’ll escalate. But I always try and treat them like I would want someone to treat my family. And you never lie to them. Because if you lie, it’s over.”
“Sgt. Kraayenbrink is one cool customer,” Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight said, referring to Kraayenbrink’s Aug. 2 crisis negotiation. “You can’t take a person with seven or eight years of experience, send them to one hostage negotiation class and have them perform like that.”
Under the direction of Knight, the Sarasota Sheriff’s Office has made it a priority to retain personnel such as Kraayenbrink, whose decades of law-enforcement experience are a key operational asset and an invaluable resource for mentoring younger deputies.
“You can have training and knowledge,” Knight said, “but actual real-world experience is invaluable. You can’t put a number on the importance of guys like Sgt. Kraayenbrink.”
A June Work Force Study determined that Sarasota’s 4.9% annual attrition rate was well below the average of all Florida sheriff’s offices and just below the rates of comparably sized state agencies.
The study ranked salary increases as the most effective retention technique, followed by education benefits. Pay for Sarasota Sheriff’s deputies, ranging from $40,000 to $60,889, is higher on average than other sheriff’s offices across the state, the study said.
Knight added that the agency’s culture plays a lead role in retention.
“You can’t keep people 31 years if they’re not happy,” Knight said.
When the Sarasota County Jail population peaked in 2009, and it looked like the county would have to spend about $85 million on a new facility, Knight leaned on 33-year law-enforcement veteran Jim Lilly to implement diversion programs to stall prison population growth and avert the need for a new jail.
Lilly said Knight could have gone outside the agency to hire a new head for the jail, but he chose to stick with the Sarasota veteran.
“His (Knight’s) thought is to keep the right people,” Lilly said. “He wants to maintain the culture of the agency.”
Although Knight can point to falling crime rates (down 21% since he took office) to justify his intelligence-led policing model, and he can prove the value of diversion programs after saving the county the cost of building a new jail, he said it’s harder to prove the merits of retention initiatives, such as increased pay and education programs, which provide a more normative benefit to the agency.
“It’s hard to quantify the importance of experience,” Knight said. “But the cost of maintaining good people is worth it.”
Knight said retention also contributes to more effective mentorship and training.
“The younger personnel learn to mirror guys like Kraayenbrink,” Knight said.
“I had a couple guys who I really looked up to,” Kraayenbrink said. “And I took a lot of what they told me to heart.”
The gunman said he would surrender on two conditions — he wanted to meet Kraayenbrink, and he wanted a cigarette. Kraayenbrink went door-to-door in the cordoned-off neighborhood looking for a cigarette before he met the man from the other end of the line.
“If a cigarette is what it takes to get him outside, I’ll go to the store and buy him a pack,” Kraayenbrink said. “You know, when things go right, you feel good and uplifted in a way I really can’t describe. The ones you don’t win are the ones you remember.”
The gunman said he wanted to die.