Vicky Gilner, sister of the slain officer, didn't buy it. Gilner was a former legal advisor to San Diego Police Chief Jerry Sanders; she knew how police departments worked, and she believed that the real reasons for her brother's death would never be revealed by an in-house report. She pushed for an independent review. And she got it.
The NTOA Report
The Cobb County Commission contacted the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), and the job fell to Ronald M. McCarthy. McCarthy, the Association's director at large and veteran of numerous SWAT actions, arrived in Atlanta in September 1999, telling the local press that the horrific outcome of the Cobb County PD SWAT team's assault on the Smith house did not necessarily mean there had been any failings on the part of police management or field commanders. But he warned that people might not like the conclusions of his investigation.
Nearly five months later, McCarthy submitted his findings to the Cobb County Commissioners. And he was right. People didn't like them. McCarthy's report lays much of the blame for the William Paul Drive disaster on Lt. Merrifield, an unpopular conclusion that to this day still rankles some members of the Cobb County PD.
McCarthy's harshest criticism centers on Merrifield's decision to make a tactical entry into the Smith house with what he describes bluntly as an undermanned force. "When the Cobb County PD SWAT team arrived with the ability to deploy only 12 officers, they were already at a very significant disadvantage," McCarthy wrote. His recommendation was to expand the team to 35 officers and establish cooperation between other SWAT teams in the area, including the Marietta Police Department and the Cobb County Sheriff's Department.
Although McCarthy recognizes that one of the most critical factors in the outcome of the botched raid was poor intelligence, he believes that if Merrifield had taken more time planning the action and rehearsing it and had brought in more SWAT officers from other agencies, the effects of the poor intelligence could have been minimized.
"The raid had to take place, but it didn't have to take place in five or 10 minutes [after negotiations broke down]," McCarthy said in a recent interview. "It could have been 20 or 30 minutes later. There could have been an opportunity to gather more people. He [Merrifield] should have called for another agency to come and relieve his containment people. And he should have rehearsed in a floorplan that closely matched the Smith house."
The report also lashes Merrifield for the tactical plan that his team executed when it made entry into the Smith home. McCarthy believes the 12-man squad had no hope of effectively rescuing Mildred Smith because it could not breach the house at enough points. "The entry at the far end of the house from the location of the hostage meant that the time it would take to reach the hostage was going to be extremely long and should the suspect want to kill the hostage, it would have been the likely outcome," he wrote.
McCarthy's report details how he would have planned the assault on the Smith's ranch-style suburban home. The strategy would have involved simultaneous entries through the window of the bedroom where Mildred Smith was held, the rear of the house through the sun porch, the kitchen through the carport, and the front door. It would have required a total of 33 officers; 25 to make the assault and eight to maintain containment on all four sides of the house.
Of course, Merrifield only had 12 officers at his disposal, including himself. A defense for which McCarthy has little patience. He believes the William Paul Drive disaster was a tragedy waiting to happen because of the limited resources of the Cobb County PD SWAT team.
The day that the NTOA report was released to the public, the surviving members of the SWAT team held a press conference to defend their commander. Also, James Arrowood, Cobb County Public Safety director, argued that Merrifield had "performed according to his training and experience." He added that the McCarthy strategy in the report had the benefit of Monday morning quarterbacking and that there's no guarantee that a 33-man assault would have had better results.
Lt. Merrifield did not respond to an interview request for this article. However, he did speak to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution shortly after the release of the report.
Addressing McCarthy's harshest criticism that his team was undermanned and that he should have called for help, Merrifield said, "[Calling for help] is doable once you have the training, but [then] you have a comfort level. If we had done that, I think the outcry would have been, 'What were you thinking? You're in a hot operation, and you bring in two teams who have never worked together?'"
McCarthy agrees that bringing two tactical teams in to work on the same operation when they haven't trained together is problematic. However, his argument is not that Merrifield should have brought two teams unfamiliar with each other's methods together in the William Paul Drive incident. He says the Cobb County PD SWAT team should have been training with other local tac opps units long before the incident.
"It's been recommended by NTOA and lots of people who have their head in the right place that police departments, especially smaller ones, join together in a cooperative effort," says McCarthy. "That way if there's a major violent incident or critical incident that requires equipment or manpower that they don't have but other agencies do, they can resource each other. But you can't do that unless you work together."
To be fair, even Merrifield's most vocal critics say there were aspects of the tragedy that were beyond his control. Reeves and Gilner died of nearly identical injuries caused by the penetration of buckshot through their underarms and into the major organs of theirs chests. The body armor issued to the Cobb County PD SWAT team had no underarm shielding. It does now.
The William Paul Drive incident was an unmitigated disaster for all involved. Sgt. Reeves and Officer Gilner were both married with families; Lt. Merrifield was reassigned from the SWAT team (with no loss in pay or rank) and suffered the indignities of the media spotlight at a time when he was grieving over the deaths of two friends; the men and women of the Cobb County PD were shaken by the loss of two officers on a tight-knit suburban force; and Mildred Smith buried her 40-year-old son, who by all accounts was more sick than criminal.
But if it can be said that something good can come of such terrible events, then something good did result from the study and analysis of the incident. Many small, part-time SWAT teams have studied the Cobb County disaster and changed their tactics, procedures, equipment, and policies.
In the weeks following the deaths of Reeves and Gilner, SWAT officers nationwide sent inquiries to the NTOA, asking the Association's director Larry Glick to tell them what happened in Georgia. Their inquiries were fueled by two factors: shock over the loss of two SWAT officers in the same action when, on average, one SWAT officer is killed in action annually in the United States, and fear that their own units might face similar tragedy.
Perhaps that's why the conclusions of the McCarthy report have been embraced by so many SWAT commanders. "People have read it and totally changed their operations," says McCarthy. "I've gotten I don't know how many communications from people saying that. And I've had people walk up in classes, and say, 'Hey, we were in the same boat that they were. Now we're doing everything much better because that incident woke our administration up.'"
Nowhere is this more true than in metropolitan Atlanta. The Cobb County PD SWAT team is now a leader in the movement to bolster the capabilities of small agency tactical units. From 12 officers, the team has grown to 33 officers. More importantly, the team now trains regularly with the Cobb County Sheriff's Department, Marietta Police Department, and other area special response teams. Together, this cooperative regional response team can now field approximately 70 trained officers.
"Good things come out of bad incidents, and I think a lot of good came from that report," says NTOA director Glick. "Law enforcement for a long time because of ego issues between county sheriff's departments and police agencies said, 'we can handle it ourselves. Don't go to your neighbor and ask for help.'
"Now the message is simple," Glick says. "You can't operate a SWAT team without enough manpower. If you don't have enough, you need to call people for assistance when you need help."
Unfortunately, this change in mind-set came much too late for Sgt. Reeves and Officer Gilner. It also came too late for many of their fellow officers on the Cobb County PD who still carry the physical and psychological scars of one very long, hot night in Georgia.
Anatomy of the Austell Disaster
- At 6:02 p.m. on July 23, 1999, Officer Jorge Mestre of the Cobb County Police Department answers "man with a gun" call, and confronts subject in the driveway of 3800 William Paul Drive.
- The subject William Greg Smith, 40, shoots Officer Mestre, a gunbattle ensues, and Smith retreats into his home.
- Negotiators arrive and open communications with Smith's mother, Mildred Smith, 73.
- The crisis team talks to Greg Smith, and from his bizarre ramblings, concludes that Mrs. Smith is being held against her will and is in imminent danger.
- At 11:00 p.m. negotiations break down, and the police SWAT team moves on the house.
- The SWAT team breaches the house in two locations, the basement and the kitchen.
- Officers storm the basement with no problem.
- In the kitchen, chaos reigns. Sgt. Steve Reeves and Officer Stephen Gilner are mortally wounded by Greg Smith who fires from 30 feet down the hall.
- The raid fails and the SWAT team withdraws.
- At 6 a.m. the next morning the police SWAT team is relieved by officers of the Cobb County Sheriff's Department.
- Shortly after 10 a.m., a sheriff's deputy shoots and kills Greg Smith. Mildred Smith is brought out of the house, and the standoff ends.
What Went Wrong
- The Cobb County Police Department tactical team was woefully undermanned.
- Help should have been requested from other area SWAT teams.
- The attack plan was dictated by the number of officers available instead of a workable strategy.
- SWAT officers should have had access to the house's floorplan and rehearsed the raid in a similar home or in a marked off diagram.
- The SWAT commander should not have been part of the breaching teams.
Source: Report of the National Tactical Officer's Association