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.