One blue-on-blue death is one needless tragedy too many.
The mistaken-identity "friendly fire" death of Nassau County (N.Y.) Police Special Operations Officer Geoffrey Breitkopf on March 12 serves as a wake-up call for all of LE that such tragedies can happen to any LEO, including tactical officers.
What can SWAT do about it? Perhaps by taking the same approach NTOA took to reduce accidental LE/SWAT training deaths. By the early 2000s NTOA was becoming alarmed at the rising number of accidental LE/SWAT training deaths.
In 2005, NTOA began an exhaustive study into accidental police training deaths, and released its findings in a 2007 report. NTOA then followed-up with an extensive, widely publicized campaign to reduce police training deaths. As a result, a follow-up NTOA report in 2010 found police training deaths — especially shootings — had dropped significantly.
This same effective, approach can also be employed for police-on-police deaths. First, by acknowledging the problem exists for all LEOs — SWAT included. Amid rising concerns over "friendly fire" police shootings, in 2009, the New York governor created a task force on friendly fire shootings. Among the task force's distinguished experts were Drs. David Klinger and William Lewinski.
The Police-on-Police Shootings Task Force's extensive final report, outlining the problem and recommendations, was released in 2010. Collaterally in 2010, Dr. Lewinski wrote three insightful Force Science Institute articles, on the problem and causes. Both the New York governor's task force and Force Science Institute reports should be considered required reading, and are available online.
Also available online is the November 16, 2009: Friendly Fire - The New York State Police Experience," by First Deputy Superintendent Pedro J. Perez. The report begins with the author recounting his own very close call with "friendly fire."
Superintendent Perez goes on to say that while friendly fire tragedies are statistically rare (of 746 accidental LODDs in 10 years, only 21 were friendly fire. And of the 123 N.Y. State Police LODDs, only three were friendly fire, "which is of course three too many."
The NYSP report goes on to describe the three deaths, which including the tragic shooting on April 25, 2007 — Mobile Response Team Trooper, David Brinkerhoff — of a gunshot wound to the back of the head during a firefight. It was a shot fired from the weapon of another MRT trooper.
On April 24, 2007, a NYSP trooper was shot/wounded (saved by his vest) during a vehicle stop in Margaretville, N.Y. A massive manhunt ensued that included MRT.
On April 25, 2007, a residential electronic intrusion device was activated in Middletown, N.Y. MRT made a tactical entry into the residence, and after a brief search, were fired upon. Trooper Brinkerhoff sustained a GSW to the head and another trooper sustained a GSW to the arm.
The subsequent investigation determined that during the firefight, Trooper Brinkerhoff was kneeling and positioned between the suspect and another MRT Trooper. Both troopers returned fire, and it was Trooper Brinkerhoff who fired the shot that killed the suspect.
Tragically, one of the 28 .223 rounds fired by the second trooper, passed through the rear of Trooper Brinkerhoff's helmet, and into his brain, killing him.
Nassau County and New York State Police "SWAT" tragedies — both were caused by police-on-police shootings. However, both tragedies are the result of very different circumstances.
The Nassau County incident, which is still under investigation, appears to be a case of mistaken identity. It appears to be the result of a perfect storm of events — weapons call, foot pursuit, fatal OIS, multi-agency and plain-clothes response, darkness, and someone yelling "gun!"
Ultimately, the investigation will determine the cause(s) and contributing factors, and help the rest of us prevent future similar mistaken identity tragedies from occurring in the future.
The New York State Police incident involves crossfire, fire discipline, and tactics during a fierce firefight with an extremely dangerous suspect who had previously shot another trooper.
As with accidental training deaths, LE needs to recognize that "friendly fire" tragedies are both needless and preventable. And the only acceptable goal in any/all accidental police deaths is their total elimination.
Friendly Fire: A Devastating LODD
Friendly Fire: Identify Yourself As an Officer