Breaking News
More () »

SWAT expert reviews standoff, rescue of Sacramento Police Officer Tara O'Sullivan

It took 44 minutes to rescue Officer Tara O’Sullivan after she was shot while on a domestic disturbance call in north Sacramento. A SWAT expert explains why.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — On June 19, 2019, while out with a training officer responding to a domestic disturbance call in north Sacramento, Officer Tara O'Sullivan was shot as she was helping the victim gather her belongings. Hours later, police confirmed O'Sullivan died in the hospital from her injuries.

ABC10 sat down with retired FBI agent Don Vilfer about the hours-long standoff. What follows is a selection from the extended interview with Vilfer, some of which appears in the video above. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Lilia Luciano: So, there have been a lot of questions about what happened last night. What could have been prevented? Joining us is Don Vilfer. He is a former FBI agent. He is an expert at these kinds of circumstances because he was part of the FBI SWAT team for five years. Thanks for talking to us Don. So let's get right to it. One of the big questions that people have is “Why 44 minutes to be able to rescue Officer O’Sullivan?” What comes to mind after hearing the scanner audio clips?

Don Vilfer: Right. I've listened to some of the radio traffic and looked at the scene that they were at. Here we have a shooter that had a high-powered rifle working in a close area-- backyard, front yard --laying down all kinds of rounds, all kinds of shots fired in a two-story building, so he could shoot from an elevated position. And so, all of that created a heightened risk.

Lilia Luciano: So, from what we know, Officer O'Sullivan was responding to a domestic disturbance. I am not a police officer. I have never worked in law enforcement, but I imagine that's kind of a traditional thing that happens every day. Were they prepared enough, do you think that the protocol was the appropriate one to show up at the scene?

RELATED: 'More inherently dangerous and unpredictable' | Why ‘Disturbance’ calls are a wildcard for police

Don Vilfer: I think every police officer knows a domestic disturbance is potentially a most dangerous thing that they could face.

Lilia Luciano: Why is that?

Don Vilfer: You have a lot of tension between the parties involved. The victim could become the aggressor and turn on law enforcement, for example. And there's this heightened tension because of the relationship issues. People turn to violence sometimes. But from the radio traffic that I heard here, they probably ran his background. They knew that he was potentially dangerous and that he had a criminal record. They brought with them additional officers, initially, before they made contact with him, from what I heard on the radio traffic.

Lilia Luciano: So, they were informed enough to suspect that this guy could be very dangerous?

Don Vilfer: Right.

Lilia Luciano: Let's talk about the actual rescue. It sounds like they showed up, they were waiting for this BearCat (armored vehicle) to arrive to be able to place it in between Officer O'Sullivan and the house. What did you pick up from that rescue. How did it take place?

Don Vilfer: From the radio traffic, within just three or four minutes a police team probably quickly assembled on site and says, “We've got a shield team ready to go.” A shield team is basically officers who can go in a stack behind a barricade that they are moving, maybe laying down cover fire against the subject, and pull the officer out of there. And you know, within minutes after making that announcement that we're ready to go, somebody made a command decision, "No, that's too dangerous," which is a reasonable call here, and said let's wait for the BearCat. BearCat's on the way. They needed an armored vehicle because of those circumstances. High powered rifle at close range, very accurate weapon with bullets that can penetrate vehicles. So, you know, you need something to protect the other officers going in.

Lilia Luciano: I read some comments online. People are wondering why not just police respond with fire and start shooting into the house rather than having to wait?

DON VILFER: There was a... I think it was in San Bernardino County a couple of years ago where a fugitive was inside a cabin, was laying down fire, and they basically brought in a tank and set the house on fire, and killed the subject. So, that has happened in the past, but this is a neighborhood where rifle rounds--the police officers' rounds--can go through walls, go through multiple walls, and hurt other people. From what I heard on the radio traffic, they're not just going to fire indiscriminately.

Lilia Luciano: How common are these BearCats? I mean, how many agencies do you suspect have these vehicles and how available are they?

Don Vilfer: At least a few agencies in the Sacramento area have those and years ago the federal government was making available to local law enforcement -- at no or low cost --a number of military vehicles that could be converted to civilian use for these kinds of things.

Lilia Luciano: And what else are they used for?

Don Vilffer: Sometimes these vehicles, because they can drive over fences, they can go through walls, they can pull down gates, so they'll be used for things like that, and to deliver a SWAT team closer to a target without coming under fire. 

Lilia Luciano: So, let's talk about communication between officers and the person who is in the house at this point. During the press conference that I attended, Sac P.D. was saying that there has been no verbal communication yet, and this was close to 9 p.m., maybe 8:30, I can't remember. But... hours had passed. What's the usual protocol for a situation like that where there's a standoff and the person is already shooting?

Don Vilfer: There's no usual protocol, but you want to establish communication and you want to stop the gunfire by talking some sense into the person, presumably. So, they will try to deliver something to talk to him. They'll find his cell phone number to try to call him or a local landline number at his house. They'll say, "We're bringing you a phone," something like that.

Lilia Luciano: I think another thing that was very surprising to me, but I had never covered anything like this, was that this went on until 2 a.m. It's such a long time and it's one person. Why is that? What do you think they were attempting, protecting, preventing?

Don Vilfer: The kind of long, long ago SWAT method was to bust down the door and everybody go running in with guns blazing. That changed maybe 10, 15 years ago to more of a slow, methodical approach that's safer. So, there's nobody else is going to get hurt because they've evacuated the neighbors from their homes. They have the area cordoned off. There's nobody else inside the house. So, there's no rush. You know, let's talk some sense into him. Let's not get other officers hurt.

Lilia Luciano: Something that they mentioned last night during the press conference, there are more women in the force and therefore it makes sense that... we have lost two young female officers in just a few months. I can't help but consider that this was a domestic violence abuser. I know you were not an FBI profiler, but what can you talk about when it comes to, well, maybe he could have targeted her because she was a woman.

Don Vilfer: From what I read about his history, he had an extended history of violence against women, juvenile females, adult females. So, that could be that he picked from his sights the female officer.

Lilia Luciano: And is that something that happens? I mean, are women more at risk in any way?

Don Vilfer: No. From my experience, women are generally more accepted by people in the criminal world. They're more likely to talk to them when being interviewed, more cooperative even to make statements against interest, or confessions. But here we have a unique individual who's had this problem with violence against women before.

Lilia Luciano: Thank you so much for your time.

WATCH MORE: Flags at half-staff for fallen Officer Tara O'Sullivan

Before You Leave, Check This Out