5 years, 6 months ago
From The MetroWest Daily News:
FRAMINGHAM — Officer Paul Duncan was trained to have his M4 rifle in safety mode unless he was ready to fire. But the SWAT team member wasn’t necessarily wrong to have the safety off when he went to search Eurie Stamps Sr. for weapons during an early-morning drug raid, an expert has found.
In his review of the Jan. 5 fatality released yesterday, Steve Ijames found that Duncan and the rest of the SWAT team may have been operating under conflicting rifle-handling guidelines.
The team’s M4 rifle instructor told Ijames that officers are trained to keep their rifles on “safe” until they perceive a threat.
Lt. Michael Hill, in an internal Police Department report related to Stamps’ death, recalled slightly different instructions: for the first officers entering a room to have safeties off – and rifles in semi-automatic mode – if they perceived a “possible” threat.
That qualifier is important, Ijames suggested.
“The key consideration here is that Officer Duncan removed his weapon from safe moments after entering 26 Fountain St.” early on Jan. 5, Ijames wrote.
Authorities say Duncan shot and killed Stamps, a 68-year-old grandfather, when he lost his balance and accidentally pulled the trigger.
Stamps, who wasn’t a target of the raid, was face-down in a dark hallway, and Duncan was moving to secure the man’s hands behind his back when the shot was fired.
Ijames wrote, “The mechanical safety is what stands between good intentions and a potentially deadly outcome – but it can only do so when engaged.”
Police Chief Steven Carl sought an outside review of the tactical and technical aspects of the Stamps shooting from Ijames, a SWAT expert and retired assistant police chief from Missouri.
The town’s lawyer released Ijames’ report yesterday, as well as Hill’s internal report.
Ijames determined that Duncan and the other SWAT team members were well-trained, and that it was appropriate to use the heavily armed team to search 26 Fountain St.
He criticized the team, however, for failing to calculate a written formula (known as a SWAT threat-assessment matrix) beforehand to determine whether it needed to use that stealth. In the matrix, points are assigned based on questions such as whether targeted suspects have a record of violence, resisting arrest, drug use, mental problems, gang ties or a law enforcement or military background.
Using a SWAT team is considered optional under that formula if the tally is 1 to 16 points, while the commander weighs in if it totals 17 to 24 points. Team activation is considered necessary if the total is 25 or higher.
Analysis & Commentary
Take careful note of the foci of Ijames’ criticism: the position of the safety, and failure to use the threat assessment properly. So apparently it is acceptable, even verging on “well trained,” for these officers to enter a home with their finger on the trigger of their weapon, but not acceptable for them to do so without the safety engaged.
This position is so odd as to be bizarre (and perhaps even dishonest). Every responsible firearms owner, and especially every Concealed Handgun Permit holder, knows the importance of proper trigger discipline to his life, his family’s safety, and the safety of those around him. He has had it drilled into him, night and day, through classes, practice, observation, time at the range, and so on. There are reasons for this, and it has to do with more than just accidental discharge. It pertains to sympathetic and involuntary muscle contractions. There are three scenarios that may elicit involuntary muscle contractions that are sufficiently strong to bring about the involuntary discharge of a firearm: sympathetic contractions, loss of balance and startle reaction. Dr. Roger Enoka, one of the most renowned sports physiologists and director of the Human Performance Research Laboratories in Arizona (USA), was invited to testify in a court case held in Frankfurt, Germany in 1995, concerning involuntary discharges. Here is part of his findings.
The term sympathetic contraction refers to the fact that an involuntary contraction may occur in the muscles of one limb when the same muscles in the other limb are performing an intended forceful action. In physiology literature this effect is known as a mirror movement, with the intensity of the sympathetic contraction depending on the amount of force exerted during the intended action. In policing, a common situation that may evoke such a sympathetic contraction would be, for example, a law enforcement officer attempting to restrain a struggling suspect with one hand while holding a handgun in the other.
The second scenario described by Enoka involves loss of balance. When balance is disturbed the human body evokes rapid involuntary contractions to return itself to a position of equilibrium. Thereby the involuntary contractions used to prevent a fall depend on the options available to counteract the disturbance of balance. Usually, compensatory movements following gait perturbations primarily involve correcting movements of the lower limbs to keep the body in balance, whereas movements of the arms are restricted to their extension forwards as a safeguard to counter an eventual fall. When an individual is holding a handle for support, there is, however, a tendency to use the arm muscles to maintain balance rather than the leg muscles. Under such circumstances the focal point of automatic postural activity is any contact point an individual has with his or her surroundings. In other words, if an individual’s posture is disturbed while grasping an object, for instance a handgun, he or she is likely to grasp it more forcefully.
Startle reaction, the third scenario identified by Enoka, is a whole-body reflex-like response to an unexpected stimulus, possibly a loud noise. It evokes rapid involuntary contractions that begin with the blink of an eye and spread to all muscles throughout the body. The reaction of the hands occurs less than 200ms after the stimulus and leads to individuals clenching their fists. Enoka concludes: “Accordingly, an officer who is startled by a loud, unexpected noise while searching for a suspect with his weapon drawn would surely increase the grip force on the weapon, perhaps enough to cause an involuntary discharge.”
Responsible firearms owners know this. That’s why most firearms owners have worked so hard, and are so hard on each other, concerning proper trigger discipline. The investigator in this so-called “independent” investigation knows this too. That he didn’t bring it up is informative. This officer is guilty of malfeasance by entering a home such as this with his finger on the trigger. Moreover, take particular note of the circumstances. Not only had this poor man surrendered, he was on the floor. The officer in question was attempting to secure him, and this … with his finger on the trigger of a rifle with a round chambered. The officer lost his balance, and lo and behold, he discharged his weapon. Not only is this officer inept, his trainer(s) and supervision is inept, and perhaps even dishonest, to have accepted such a slanted “independent” assessment of the incident, and to allow this SWAT team out with weapons to terrorize citizens with their ineptitude.
But this all points to a larger problem. Seldom is a police officer held accountable (or a better way to say it is that s/he will always get the benefit of the doubt no matter how significant the doubt it), and this goes double for SWAT teams. If it offends our sensibilities for the Phoenix Tucson police department to have forcefully entered Jose Guerena’s home and shot him to death without due process, then that is true in the superlative for this poor man, Mr. Stamps, an innocent man, lying on the floor at the time he was shot to death.
But this last point about due process is really the crux of the issue. We should see SWAT raids as a high risk evolution. Risk is technically consequences times probability (C x P), and the product is used to make comparative judgments between alternatives. Something with a high probability but low consequence can be high risk, something a low probability but a high consequence can be high risk. As for SWAT raids, the evolving historical record shows them to have at least a moderately high probability of violence, with that violence having significant consequences. The tactic is an extremely high risk evolution, and it will remain so. The risk may be reduced by better training and competent officers, but in every case, management has made the decision to place the lives of suspects at high risk by use of the tactic.
In America, a man’s home is his castle. Thus, the castle doctrine has passed into law (in various forms) in many states, and will enjoy continued success in the courts and legislatures of the states. Rightly so. The fact that the inhabitant of a home is a suspect in a crime doesn’t (or shouldn’t) mitigate the fact that he has a right to self defense, and defense of his loved ones. And home invasion by criminals pretending to be police officers is becoming commonplace.
As to this last issue, by use of military tactics on American citizens, the police have bypassed legitimate constitutional protections and right to a trial by jury by placing the suspect in a position where he or his family may be in danger no matter whether he surrenders or not (a criminal will simply take his life with no remorse, while a police officer may do it with no accountability). Moreover, SWAT tactics are routinely used on suspects who have no involvement with capital crimes. Yet by the use of military tactics on these suspects, the police may be perpetrating capital punishment on criminals (or suspects) who do not deserve it. The police have become judge, jury and executioner in this circumstance without regard to the nature of the crime.
While military tactics used against U.S. citizens may in fact currently be legal, such tactics are immoral in the vast majority of circumstances. This isn’t meant to rule out the occasional use of such tactics when hostages are in play, or gun shots have already been taken, or other such exigent conditions. But I have cataloged the evolution of tactics and danger level in SWAT raids and home invasions for a while now (and will continue to do so), and the police departments in the various cities and counties of the country – while they may be legally exonerated of wrongdoing – have some soul-searching to do. It will be done now or in eternity, but it will be done.