Lt. Bryan Reavis, Gwinnett’s SWAT commander, said his team was well-prepared having practiced for scenarios on buses. When officers arrived Tuesday morning, though, their primary concern was the safety of the 38 people aboard.
“We tried to put a plan together in case we had to intervene and rescue the passengers off the bus,” Reavis said. To the relief of the nearly 150 officers on scene, the passengers were allowed to leave.
“I have a guy with a gun in his hand on my bus,” the driver told dispatchers in a 911 call after getting out. “Y’all need to hurry up.”
He called back a second time moments later to ask when the police were coming: “I don’t want him to start shooting these people on this darn bus.”
At least one rider used his cellphone to text a dispatcher, saying people were trying to keep the man calm and get the passengers to safety.
“(We’ve) been trying to talk with him to get off the bus but he’s looking at us,” he wrote.
To protect drivers, police decided to shut down I-85 and divert all traffic off the interstate. Lt. J.D. Griffin said police contacted the county and state’s departments of transportation to keep certain traffic lights green for longer and encourage drivers to avoid the area.
The last passenger off the bus called 911 on his cellphone, leaving it on speaker so negotiators could communicate with Backman, authorities said Friday. Police said he stayed on the bus with the gunman for about 45 minutes after the others escaped.
“In all SWAT situations, our primary way to resolve these is through negotiations,” Reavis said. So once all the passengers were off the bus and the interstate was shut down, police realized that “time was on our side.”
Added Reavis, “At this point, there’s no need for us to push this situation or rush anything.”
Sgt. Danielle Bell, assistant leader of the department’s crisis negotiation team, said officers realized the armed man was experiencing some sort of mental health crisis.
“We knew that we had to quickly relay to him that we were there to help him, that we were there to make sure he got the help he needed once he came off the bus,” she said.
Fearful of the large police presence, Backman told the negotiator he was afraid of being hurt if he stepped outside.
“The negotiator told him that our priority, our goal, was to make sure he was safe,” Bell said. “We let him know that we had no intention of hurting him. ... We wanted just the opposite, for him to be safe.”
Bell said speaking with his family members “helped put him at ease” and agree to surrender.
Last summer, Gwinnett police formed a Behavioral Health Unit aimed at de-escalating situations involving mental health crises and getting people the help they need. Since then, the department’s two-person team has responded to more than 300 calls, including Tuesday’s standoff, said Cpl. Tracey Reed.
Reed works alongside Pej Mahdavi, director of intensive outpatient services for View Point Health. Together, they help people who come into contact with police find services and treatment for mental health problems. Their goal is typically to divert people from jail to medical facilities, homeless shelters, community groups and counselors.
On Tuesday, though, they spoke with Backman’s family to learn more about him as police worked to coax him off the bus. They also worked with the crisis negotiator to reassure the man it was OK to surrender.
Before Backman was booked on one count of aggravated assault, Reed contacted a counselor at the Gwinnett Jail and had her meet them at intake for a mental health assessment.
“I remained there until the suspect was booked in to make sure that every person in the process knew what had happened and that this was a young man in crisis,” she said.
Given the program’s success since it was formed last July, Gwinnett PD plans to add five more mental health teams, according to Reed. She’s also working with the court system to get Backman into Gwinnett’s mental health accountability program.
After the standoff was over, Reavis said the young man’s relatives thanked the officers for resolving the situation peacefully. There were at least 100 police shootings across the state last year, but Gwinnett police said they were grateful this situation ended peacefully.
“This really hit home for me because I have a son who’s roughly the same age as this suspect,” Reavis said. “This could have been anyone’s son or grandson or loved one that was in this crisis.”