In face of criticism, police explain their actions during siege

The bargaining key: why Palczynski couldn't talk to his estranged girlfriend

March 23, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Ninety-seven hours of on-again, off-again negotiations between police and Joseph C. Palczynski boiled down to a single, seemingly simple demand: whether to let the gunman talk to his estranged girlfriend.

Palczynski repeatedly threatened to kill his hostages if he could not speak to her. But Tracy Whitehead was the negotiators' only trump card, and they feared Palczynski would end it all once granted his final wish.

So police fed him hamburgers and pizza. They talked to him for hours, listening to haunting background sounds of hostages begging for their lives. They waited through deadlines. They resisted rushing the apartment even after Palczynski fired a shot inside, possibly wounding a captive.

No matter what, they would not let him speak to Whitehead, whose mother, Lynn, was a hostage.

Despite criticism from people who could not understand how a gunman could keep hundreds of heavily armed police at bay for four days, experts in hostage situations said Baltimore County officers took the right approach.

"Mr. Palczynski had already killed four people," said Baltimore police Lt. Donald Healy, a 10-year veteran of the department's tactical squad. "He knows the cops can't make that go away. The only thing they had to bargain with was the girl. If they put her on the phone, they had nothing left."

The criticism has been blunted somewhat by the outcome: The hostages emerged alive and unhurt Tuesday night after making a daring escape that ended with police storming the apartment and killing Palczynski, a 31-year-old unemployed electrician.

At a news conference yesterday, Baltimore County authorities lashed out at naysayers, calling their conclusions uninformed and unfair.

"I stand by our Police Department 100 percent," said Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. "They have done an excellent job. This is very serious. We want to make sure we keep things very calm and let the experts do their job."

Unresolved is how Palczynski, the object of a two-week manhunt, could get to a house in the middle of the search area and take his girlfriend's mother, the mother's boyfriend and the boyfriend's 12-year-old son hostage.

Police have said that they offered protection to the Whitehead family but were told that relatives did not want an officer inside or outside their home.

Authorities said yesterday that they did not believe anyone other than Tracy Whitehead, who was in protective custody, was in danger, but advised the family not to return to the Dundalk home while Palczynski was at large.

Donna Collins, sister-in-law of Tracy Whitehead's mother, called the statements by police "lies." She said family members told police they would be returning home and wanted protection but were put off.

The standoff has received international attention and sparked considerable debate. Neighbors were upset at being kept from their homes for days and called for a quick end to the standoff.

"Why did they wait so long?" asked Gene Gibson, 38, who kept his three sons in his basement to be safe. "And why weren't they posted in the neighborhood round the clock? The Whiteheads may not have wanted protection, but what about the kind of protection the community wanted?"

Ron McCarthy, a former SWAT officer for the Los Angeles police and ex-director of deadly force training for the U.S. Department of Justice, was sympathetic.

Too often, McCarthy said, police "think of only one person, the bad guy, and how can we avoid shooting him. They don't think of the 50 or 100 people who are disenfranchised from their homes, who can't get to their medication, who have to hand their children over the back fences to get to their schools."

The duration of standoffs varies with the circumstances, McCarthy said, adding that the notion that it's always good to wait is dangerous. "It may be right to wait three or four days, or maybe they should have gone in in the first three minutes," he said.

Saturday morning, a sniper came on the police radio and reported having a good shot at Palczynski. "Do I have the go-ahead?" he asked. "Negative," a supervisor responded.

Later that day, authorities said snipers had the "green light" to shoot Palczynski on sight. But "he never came to the window," said Maj. Russell Shea, commander of the Baltimore tactical squad that assisted during the siege.

Some critics have written to the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Web site, one saying that police bent over backward to make a hostage-taker comfortable.

"You are also doing his grocery shopping for him," the person wrote. "I guess we can see who is really in control of it down there."

But most of the postings praise how police handled themselves in the face of public pressure to storm the apartment.

"You made us old ones very proud," wrote retired tactical officer Nick McGowan. "Hold your heads up and ignore the naysayers."

Experts said authorities displayed admirable restraint.

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