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Bob Parker

Bob Parker

Lt. Robert Parker served with the Omaha (Neb.) PD for 30 years and commanded the Emergency Response Unit. He is responsible for training thousands of law enforcement instructors in NTOA's Patrol Response to Active Shooters courses.



Jose Medina

Jose Medina

Officer Jose Medina is an active member of the Piscataway (N.J.) Police Department's SWAT team and runs Awareness Protective Consultants (Team APC) tactical training.
SWAT

A Tale of Two SWAT Shootings

SWAT must always train harder, treat every mission as a potential disaster, and learn the hard lessons of others.

August 05, 2008  |  by Robert O'Brien - Also by this author

The reason SWAT exists is to take on high-risk assignments deemed too dangerous for the rest of law enforcement. Every day, somewhere in America SWAT teams are facing down hostage takers, barricaded suspects, and armed drug dealers.

While the vast majority of these operations are resolved peacefully, a few end in violence.

What follows are two tales of tragic SWAT-involved incidents: one in upstate New York and the other in Lima, Ohio. Details of both incidents come from published news reports.

The first incident occurred in the rural Catskill Mountains near Margaretville, New York, on April 25, 2007. The day before, a New York State Trooper was shot and wounded while making a traffic stop on what turned out to be a stolen vehicle. The trooper survived the shooting thanks to his bulletproof vest, but the 23-year-old suspect fled. A massive manhunt ensued, including the New York State Police Mobile Response Team (MRT).

The morning after the shooting, a motion alarm report at a vacant farmhouse brought MRT to search the farm. In the barn, they found identification for the suspect, along with two rifles and a revolver.

At approximately 7:28 a.m., a team of seven MRT officers began searching the farmhouse. Three MRT troopers spotted the suspect on the second floor.

The suspect opened fire on troopers, hitting one in his armored vest.

A fierce two minute gun battle ensued, with 80 rounds fired, resulting in a second trooper shot in the arm, and the first trooper killing the suspect with a bullet to the temple. Almost simultaneously, the first trooper was struck by a bullet to his head. The fatal round was shot by the trooper behind him.

MRT evacuated their wounded teammate and, not knowing the suspect was down, threw a tear gas canister into the house. They followed with a second canister, not realizing it was incendiary, which resulted in a fire that destroyed the house.

In the aftermath, the District Attorney determined there was no criminality, and the NY State Police Superintendent called it a "tragic accident in a very intense firefight." The trooper who fired the round that killed his teammate resigned from MRT, but remains a member of the State Police.

In the fourteen months prior to this incident, six New York troopers were killed in the line of duty, including two troopers killed by a fugitive during a massive manhunt outside Buffalo.

Ironically, the Buffalo incident also involved the MRT trooper who was killed in the farmhouse shootout.

MRT (previously a part-time team) subsequently changed its name to Special Operations Unit (SOU) and went full-time with four teams statewide. SOU obtained armored vehicles and better armored vests. Psychologists were assigned to track SOU selection and training.

Sometimes out of tragedies rises a glimmer of hope for the future. Although New York State Police SOU can never forget this tragic loss, it appears they've begun the long road to recovery and are ready for the next encounter.

The second incident occurred in Lima, Ohio, south of Toledo, on January 4, 2008. At approximately

8:15 p.m., Lima PD SWAT executed a drug search warrant at a house in Lima. Seeing children's toys on the front porch, SWAT deployed a distraction device outside the house before making entry. Once inside, a 52-year-old veteran LPD SWAT sergeant with twenty years in SWAT was ascending the stairs to the second floor when he heard gunshots. He saw a figure at the top of the darkened stairs, who he believed was firing at him.

The sergeant fired at the figure, who turned out to be an unarmed 26-year-old mother holding her one-year-old baby. Tragically, the mother died and the baby was wounded in the hand. The gunshots the sergeant had heard were other SWAT members shooting two pit bulls in the house.

Lima immediately erupted in racial turmoil and protests fueled by the shooting of black victims by a white cop. Reverend Jesse Jackson and others called for the sergeant's criminal prosecution.

One outside LE agency investigating the incident concluded that the sergeant had acted "inappropriately."

In March, the Lima PD SWAT sergeant was charged criminally with negligent homicide and negligent assault (both misdemeanors), released on bond, and placed on paid leave pending trial. The reduced charges stunned Lima police and inflamed the black community even further. Almost lost in all the turmoil was the original target of the search warrant, who pleaded guilty to possession of drugs and was sentenced to seven years in prison.

The sergeant's criminal trial is currently under way. In opening statements the prosecutor accused the sergeant of not having proper target identification before firing. The defense attorney claimed that this was a decision that must be made in "milliseconds." Two early witnessesboth SWAT membersbacked their sergeant's actions during the raid.

Lima is a bubbling racial cauldron further stirred by this tragedy and the SWAT sergeant's trialwhere its citizens are holding their collective breath waiting for the trial's outcome. Stay tuned because this tragedy is far from being over.

Those of us in SWAT know ours is a deadly serious "game" of inches and milliseconds, with every action scrutinized by armchair quarterbacks and consequences lasting a lifetime. SWAT is tasked with doing the extraordinary under worst-case circumstances. This is all the more reason for SWAT to train harder and treat every mission as a potential disaster and to learn the hard lessons of others. Because tomorrow is another day bringing with it a new mission.


Comments (4)

Displaying 1 - 4 of 4

maleman39 @ 8/7/2008 5:04 PM

Innocent civilians killed by police is always a tragedy. In the case of the Lima, OH incident, the officer had many years of experience and should have known better that to shoot an unclear target that did not demonstrate a clear lethal threat against him or anyone else. The SWAT just being there was also very bad judgement. There are many other ways to apprehend drug criminals without resorting to massive armed force, like Nazi Storm Troopers. They could have just waited for him to leave the house, then apprenended him. The officer fired without thinking, killing an innocent civilian, and wounding her baby, much like Ruby Ridge. He should have known there would probably be children in the house by the toys on the front lawn. He should have known the source of the shots killing the dogs, due to his experience. In essence, he screwed up royally, and a baby will grow up without its mother and probably with a maimed hand. Police are expected to take risks, just like the combat soldiers in war and in Iraq and Afganistan today. They have protective vests which should protect them in virtually all cases. They are not being paid to protect themselves at the cost of innocent lives. As mentioned above, the SWAT probably should not have even been there. Unfortunately, there are too many police today who have a wild west gunfighter mentality of shooting first and asking questions later. The people don't like this.

gburchell @ 8/8/2008 7:12 AM

Without knowing all the facts, I'm not going to second guess the SWAT Sgt. To even suggest the Sgt had a "wild west gunfighter mentality of shooting first and asking questions later" mentality is wrong. When one pictures an officer having a "wild west mentality," it is usually of a rookie officer or a "Tackleberry," not an officer having twenty years of SWAT experience. One thing for certain is that this was not the Sgt's first entry.
Who's to say that he did not truly feel threatened for himself as well as his team members following him up the stairs. He heard gunshots and saw a figure at the top of the darkened stairs who he believed was firing at him. He had a split second to decide whether to return fire. He did and the results were tragic. The last time I checked though, the officer's safety comes before the suspect's in the safety continuum.
This was a dynamic entry, ie the distraction device (flash bang) thrown outside the house. You can bet, if they threw the flash bang, they breached the door with a ram. Once they did these two things, there is no need to be quiet. SWAT officers are trained to give instructions loudly and repetitively. People have different reactions to dynamic entries, a lot of the time they are shocked and don't do anything they are instructed to do at first. That is the objective of the distraction device and dynamic entry.
To say the SWAT team should not have been there in the first place is obviously an opinion that is shared by some but not all. I believe if the threat exists to the point that a Narcotics Detective requests assistance and the Chain of Command agrees to the request, then that's what the SWAT team is there for. To do the job that the ordinary patrol officer may not be sufficiently equipped or trained to do.
There are too many "unknowns" from the article jump to the conclusion that the Sgt "screwed up royally." Hopefully the author will keep us informed on the Lima case.

gburchell @ 8/8/2008 7:32 AM

I am a SWAT officer and a Soldier and even though I wear my vests religiously, I still don't want to make sure they will stop a bullet. Actually, the vests are designed to slow the round down enough so that it doesn't cause as much damage if it penetrates the vest and body. To the comment, "They have protective vests which should protect them in virtually all cases" the key words are "SHOULD" and "VIRTUALLY ALL." Nothing more need be said.
Why compare this to Ruby Ridge? Everyone has opinions about "innocent civillians" that live in the same house as the violator. To say they have no knowledge of what goes on in their residence is somewhat suspicious in itself and a reasonable person would have a hard time believing it.
Again this was a tragedy and I feel for the loss of all parties involved. We need to learn from the mistakes of others so that we don't make the same ones; not sit around and "Monday Morning Quarterback." Don't be too quick to judge a person until you've walked in his shoes.

waff259 @ 10/24/2008 4:46 AM

My first instinct is that it seems to me that the criminal charges aqgainst the SWAT Sgt. are purely, politically motivated. That's just and intuition, if you will, based on past experiences. I always find it disheartening when an officer of one race/ethnicity has a "negative contact" with a citizen of a different race/ethnicity and the initial response by the public and media is to cry "RACISM". This, in my opinion, almost always stems from an attitude of, "Don't bother me with facts, I know what I believe."
There certainly are not sufficient facts contained in the above article for any of us to attempt to form a reasonable judgment about what truly occurred inside that house ... and it's not for us to judge anyway. The thing we should be looking to do is acquire as much factual information as permissible, and develop training plans to avoid any mistakes that may have been made and/or develop new or different methods of achieving the same/similar mission with less likelihood of tragic mistakes being made. The goal of SWAT is never to take life, it's always to preserve it.

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