Tales of Three SWAT Tragedies

While the official investigations are still ongoing, enough has already been reported to provide glimpses into what and how these tragedies might have occurred.

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Sandwiched among 2011's numerous law enforcement tragedies are three involving SWAT fatalities. Each of these three offers different insights and lessons for all of SWAT. And while the official investigations are still ongoing, enough has already been reported to provide glimpses into what and how these tragedies might have occurred.

February 25

Veteran Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department SWAT officer, Fred Thornton, 50, returned home from a drug raid. The 23-year police veteran, respected SWAT officer, and munitions expert was accidentally killed in his garage when a distraction device (DD) he was handling exploded. 

How could this happen to this experienced, veteran SWAT officer?

A preliminary CMPD investigation revealed that Thornton had pulled the pin on the DD during the raid, but didn't deploy it. Instead, he brought it home and reportedly was attempting to replace the pin when it exploded. The CMPD report reinforced the vital importance of always following recommended safety procedures when handling DDs.

March 12

Officers from several Long Island, N.Y.-area police departments responded to calls of a male with a weapon threatening people. Arriving officers chased the suspect several blocks into his home, where he reportedly lunged at officers with a knife. The officers were forced to shoot and kill the suspect. 

In the shooting's immediate aftermath, Special Operations Officer Geoffrey Breitkopf, 40, of the Nassau County (N.Y.) Police Department and his partner arrived on scene. They were in an unmarked car, in plain clothes, with their badges displayed from their necks. Twelve-year veteran Breitkopf had his rifle slung over his shoulder. 

As the officers approached the house, someone [reportedly a retired NYPD ESU sergeant] yelled: "Gun! He's got a gun!" With that, a uniformed MTA (transit) officer grabbed for Officer Breitkopf's rifle, and a brief "struggle" ensued.  That's when a second transit officer shot Breitkopf.  Officers were in the process of handcuffing the downed officer when his partner yelled, "He's one of us!" That's when the true horror of this "friendly fire" tragedy started to sink in.

How could such a tragedy possibly happen?

Until the investigation, with its conclusions and recommendations, is complete, we can only speculate about how and why this unthinkable "friendly fire" tragedy happened.

Possible contributing factors might include:

  • The role of darkness and ambient lighting.
  • The possible role of the retired NYPD sergeant.
  • The role of multiple officers from different LE agencies.
  • The role of responding in plain clothes.
  • The role of the officer's badge visibility.
  • The role played of the swirling adrenaline-filled original assignment and officer-involved shooting.

March 28

Piscataway, N.J., police responded to a domestic violence call and were confronted by the armed resident. In the ensuing SWAT callout, both Piscataway PD and Middlesex County SWAT teams responded.

The suspect was the former Piscataway PD SWAT commander and a former member of both SWAT teams, a highly respected, decorated, experienced 22-year veteran officer. Crisis negotiators tried to talk the former SWAT officer into surrendering peacefully.

Instead, the man emerged onto his front porch and sprayed shots from a 9mm submachine gun at his former colleagues. They had no other choice but to defend themselves and return fire. After a number of hours, SWAT officers entered the home and discovered their former comrade dead from a single gunshot wound.

The investigation into this unfathomable tragedy is still ongoing.

Meanwhile, the healing process for both these SWAT teams is made far more difficult by having dealt with the horror of being in a deadly standoff with their former SWAT colleague.

Ask yourself this question: Could these tragedies happen in your jurisdiction? What can you do to make sure they don't happen?

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SWAT Sergeant (Ret.)
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