Firing a “Sponge Grenade,” Flagler Deputies Defuse a Would-Be Suicide-By-Gun After Hours of Negotiations
FlaglerLive | December 17, 2014
A little over a year ago, a young, depressed man shot himself in front of Flagler County Sheriff’s deputies after a very brief stand-off around a lot under construction on Point Pleasant Drive in Palm Coast. Joshua Schmidt Roberson, 23, shot himself as deputies ordered him to drop his gun and flashed lights in his face, before a negotiating team had a chance to get to the scene. Robertson died. Only a few weeks ago the memorial that had gone up in his name–a cross engraved with regrets from friends and family, a few flowers and mementos–was removed as tenants moved into the house that since took up residence on the lot.
Late Tuesday evening and into Wednesday, deputies were confronted with a situation with similarities to the incident on Point Pleasant, but with a vastly different outcome: Deputies faced with a suicidal man holding a .38 and threatening to shoot himself. This time, the Crisis Negotiating Team intervened and patiently negotiated the situation. The SWAT team took up positions. And after “approximately five hours of negotiation,” according to the Sheriff’s Office, the man was secured with less than lethal force even as he refused to surrender.
“The outcome of this incident ended peacefully and no injuries were sustained by anyone,” Sheriff Jim Manfre said. “I commend the patience and professional judgment of all officers involved.”
Deputies were first dispatched to an apartment on Clubhouse Drive at 10:43 p.m. where Sheila Lang, the mother of the 30-year-old man at the center of the eventual confrontation, told deputies that her son had been depressed lately over the loss of his father, who died five years ago of cancer. When she’d returned home on Tuesday, she’d found him barricaded in his room. His eyes were red, as if he’d been crying, and he’d been drinking, according to the sheriff’s report of the incident.
The younger Lang told his mother he was done, because he missed his dad, and that he’d not been sleeping. His ex-fiancee had received a text earlier in the day with the 30-year-old telling her, too, that he was done. He put on his father’s leather jacket and laid down, telling his mother he was fighting depression from the loss of his father and from missing his younger brother. Lang took her son’s car keys away to ensure that he wouldn’t drive. But she then noticed that the gun she kept in her bedroom was missing.
And her son had left the house after calling a cab.
The taxi service told deputies that he’d brought the man to a store, where the man bought more beer, only to drop him off at his house again. The driver didn’t know if the younger Lang had gone into the house. As deputies checked the area, they found Lang sitting under a palm tree near the Palm Harbor overpass.
They made contact with him from a distance, knowing that he was armed. His right side was invisible to deputies because of the way he was sitting. But communications continued. A deputy asked him to show his right hand. Lang refused. A deputy asked whether he was armed. Lang confirmed that he was, but wouldn’t show the deputies his weapon. Additional units arrived and secured the area, including the Crisis Negotiating Team and the SWAT team. Palm Coast Fire Police controlled and diverted traffic.
Sgt. Michael Lutz, an 11-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office (he was last in the news in early November when he helped save a deer), took the lead in negotiating with Lang. “Negotiations lasted for several hours with negative results,” the incident report states, although there was nothing negative about Lutz keeping the conversation going, and keeping Lang from pulling the trigger. The report continues: “After several hours of negotiating, the male finally let go of the firearm and showed us both hands. However the male continuously refused to come to us. Eventually members of
the SWAT team positioned the Bearcat vehicle on the top of the bridge and used the PA system to make announcements to the male to surrender himself. This went on for a little while. The male then got up and moved down to the bottom of the bridge. The male also picked up the gun again prior to moving his position.”
At that point, the SWAT team intervened. Some of the members of the team were positioned near Lutz. They shot Lang with “less lethal munitions,” meaning they shot a 40mm round of what’s called a sponge round, which is intended to briefly incapacitate its target by inflicting “surface” pain, but nothing lasting. It’s not harmless (watch demonstrations in this news segment and in this far less formal but equally realistic demonstration of the 40 mm sponge grenade.) The munition is typically used in riot control. But just as a SWAT team can be put to less lethal uses than it’s designed for, so can the munition, especially when it is used within its assigned guidelines.
Early Wednesday morning, firing the grenade “gained compliance from the subject who then obeyed further commands to surrender,” the incident report states. He was then placed into protective custody under the Baker Act, the section of Florida law that enables law enforcement to commit an individual to a psychiatric ward against his will for up to three days for evaluation and treatment, to present self-injury. He was taken to Daytona Beach.