Melrose Police Sergeant Lenny Ford is a member of the NEMLEC regional SWAT team, which responded to the mass shooting at Edgewater Technology in Wakefield on December 26, 2000.
I joined the SWAT team when I was 40. It was an opportunity to see if I could stand up to the challenges of it. The people in charge didn’t think a person my age could do it. It was tough, but I hung in there.
What people don’t realize is that with all the equipment we have, SWAT is about saving lives. I did it for 20 years and I was never involved in a shooting. I had been shot at, but we’ve always managed to take the person into custody without having to use deadly force. We were prepared to use it but we didn’t have to use it.
The morning of Wakefield, I was off duty, and I got the call from NEMLEC—at that point in time we were using beepers—”Respond to Wakefield,” with the address. I was in camouflage—I was the only one in camouflage that day because at that time I was working as a counter-sniper. Everybody else was in their blacks.
Upon arrival, the chief from Reading was waiting for us. Mucko [Michael McDermott, the shooter] had already been taken by the Wakefield police. The chief said they believed they had a second shooter in there. I was told to take point, so I was the lead man. We didn’t even wait for the full SWAT team. We took a couple of NEMLEC negotiators and went in looking for the bad guy—but we also had a lot of innocent people who were hiding under desks, hiding in closets.
We searched the whole building from the cellar on up. You are announcing you are the police, so if there is a shooter there you are saying “Here I am,” but you have to do it because you have innocent people and you want to get them out. You don’t know who is who, and you are deathly afraid of making a mistake.
Being the point man, I had to step over bodies. I could walk by the bodies and put it [mentally] where it belonged, because I was looking for a gunman and this was not a threat to me. After the fact, I can still picture everybody I walked by. It is something that stays with you forever. I have seen death before, but never something to the extent that I was walking through there.
Everybody has to deal with things in their own way. I dealt with it by talking with family members, who just basically let me vent. It wasn’t bragging, it was catharsis. A couple of times it has really bothered me. One time I had to go in and search a business, and it was cubicles, the same way Edgewater was, so it was definitely a flashback situation. The other time was my son’s confirmation; the bishop was talking about the Wakefield shooting and I had to walk out.
You never get rid of it.
In the long run, the training I had with NEMLEC made working in Melrose easier for me. When something was going bad, I was able to come in and verbalize and take command of the situation, and our customer—that’s what I always call someone who is in trouble, they are just a customer—they would sense it and we were able to do it without anybody getting hurt.
My proudest thing is that I have never had to use deadly force, even with all those years with the SWAT team and all the years out on the street. My job is to help people. Am I good with my hands, am I good with physical confrontations? Yes, I am. But I am so proud that I can shoot the heck out of a piece of paper and that’s all that I’ve ever had to shoot.