The Moral Case Against SWAT Raids

BY Herschel Smith
12 years, 9 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.

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  1. On September 5, 2011 at 11:18 pm, John Moore said:

    I agree with the immorality of these tactics.

    It undermine our right to self defense -when someone comes through your door, do you have to wonder if its the police?).

    It also places the burden of risk on the citizens. We pay the police to take risks, and if they are unwilling to forgo the use of SWAT tactics because of the risk to themselves, they need to find another profession!

  2. On September 6, 2011 at 10:04 am, JRPfeff said:

    Correction: Guerena was killed in Tucson, not Phoenix, and by Sheriff Dupnik’s SWAT Team (I believe), not the Tucson PD.

  3. On September 6, 2011 at 10:30 am, Herschel Smith said:

    Yes. Thanks for the correction. Noted and made.

  4. On September 6, 2011 at 4:55 pm, Grim said:

    My eye doctor was shot and killed by a SWAT team a few years ago. They were supposedly serving a warrant on him for gambling on sporting events. It was much the same thing: an “accidental” discharge resulting from a finger on the trigger. The policeman was not prosecuted for manslaughter, as you or I would be; he was ‘cleared’ in just this manner.

    At the time I thought it was a horrible tragedy, but over time I’ve come to believe as you do. The government should not be permitted to use this level of force against the American citizenry.

  5. On September 7, 2011 at 11:32 pm, DirtyMick said:


    Granted I don’t know if this will relate or not but I did find this extremely uncomfortable a few months back. I was sitting in a North Las Vegas fast food restaurant and I noticed 4 FBI agents (They had OD green collared shirts that said FBI Vegas SWAT on their right breast). They were wearing 5.11 pants, oakley boots, and had their pistols on either drop leg holsters or on hip holsters. I’ve routinley seen that with various Local Police SWAT teams members over the years. I would imagine that their chain of command wouldn’t want them advertising that to the local populace. I see it as a form of intimidation on the populace and the opportunity for officers to show off that they are supposedly “tactical.” Well where I was raised you act like a quiet professional and not a blowhard or a showoff. You don’t see grunts outside of Pendalton or Bragg with chest racks on and shooting gloves all the time.

  6. On September 7, 2011 at 11:40 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    Ha. I don’t have a drop holster, but my own son’s experience with one is this (and he cleared and took positive control of rooms thousands of times in Fallujah in 2007). They are worthless. They are awful. They get caught on everything. They get in the way. Go around the corner, get caught on the door jamb. Go into the next room, get caught on couch. They flop back and forth endlessly.

    The only reason he wore one was that since he was a SAW gunner he carried a pistol, and as you know, body armor prevents carrying it on the belt. I think he eventually found ways to mount it on his flak.

    And I have seen “tacticool” boys in Charlotte, walking around with police insignia, with drop holsters, pouches on their legs, and so forth.

    Soooo tacticool, no? The TSA boys that walk down the light rail from time to time are worse. They must be in some sort of contest to see who can be the most tacticool.

    Maybe I don’t understand, but wouldn’t this all be more efficient if folk didn’t know who you were?

  7. On September 8, 2011 at 12:15 am, DirtyMick said:

    I see it as a form of intimidation and it’s wrong. I’m sure some of the guys are prior service infantry but I can assure you that most of those guys are not and they just want to look like something out of a youtube video or movie. If they want to do it for real go across the pond and do it for real. Don’t do it to the American population

  8. On September 8, 2011 at 11:54 am, John said:

    Nothing excuses an ND, ever. Proper target identification, trigger discipline, and use of the safety is exactly what distinguishes a well trained operator from a tacticool Call of Duty wannabe. That being said, there are times when entering a hostile situation with the safety off can be advantageous. During my first deployment to Iraq (2005-2006) we would routinely clear houses in and around Fallujah without safeties. Seconds matter in a gunfight. Our threat-assessment matrix was more ad hoc (people inside? Safety off) than SWAT’s, and we relied on training and good judgement to ensure good shoots and force protection. Even though it is nearly unthinkable for civilians or even regular LE officers to rock around with the safety off, I would say that the decision to use safeties or not in a tactical situation should be threat based, as Ijames seems to suggest in his report.

    Without knowing all the facts (and disregarding for a minute all the legitimate concerns about SWAT raids and police conduct) I see several problems with this incident:

    1. As Ijames stated, a proper threat-assessment matrix was not conducted. Yes, despite conventional wisdom, it is sometimes OK to roll without a safety. However, in the LE world live capture of suspects and protection of innocents should be the paramount concern. Without a proper assessment it is impossible for SWAT officers to control the tone of the entry properly in order to fulfill the goals of the raid. Based on the information available, it seems that SWAT’s entry was too aggressive based on the actual threat.

    2. Officer Duncan did not safe his weapon while moving to secure Mr. Stamps. In Iraq securing someone is a two man job. One person covers the target with a live weapon while the other man safes and secures his before approaching. LE SOP is exactly the same. Just because Officer Duncan had his weapon off safe when he entered doesn’t mean that it should stay that way the entire time. A weapon’s default position should be safe, just like Iraq: when the threat is neutralized, when exiting the target building, or when securing live targets the weapon goes back on safe. This to me is more egregious than having the weapon off safe to begin with.

    3. Proper trigger control. NDs don’t just happen. As I said above, proper trigger control one factor which separates the real-deal from the wannabes. As soon as felt himself tripping Officer Duncan’s finger should have come off that trigger. A weapon MAY fire from the impact of hitting the floor, but it will always fire when the trigger is pulled. When I was in Iraq I tripped numerous times coming through doorways, jumping rooftops, Hell, just walking around! I’ve been surprised by kids popping out of closets, by cars backfiring, doors slamming, you name it. My squad and I never shot anything we did not intend to shoot. If you can’t figure out how to NOT pull a trigger you have no business being near firearms, period.

    This is another example of egregiously poor training and police misconduct.


    John, USMC 0311

  9. On September 14, 2011 at 10:30 am, M.D. Best said:

    I see at least three major problems
    (1) The Officers’ weapons was pointed at the prisoner while trying to secure him.
    (2) His Finger was on the trigger.

    (3)The safety was off.

    Any attorney who wanted to represent me in such a case would agree in writing to persure criminal charges against the officer while publicly daring the prosecutor to drop them. AND to pursue civil rights charges against the officer individually.

    only after that, could they go after their employer.

  10. On September 15, 2011 at 11:22 am, Wes said:

    We keep seeing more and more cases of abuse of the 4th amendment by the over use of SWAT teams. BUT what can be done about it? Trying to complain to local or state authorities always gets an, ‘Oh that doesn’t happen here, that was another place. We would never do that.’. But it continues. What would it take, a full federal law restraining the use of ALL SWAT or paramilitary operations by law enforcement? And who then enforces that against the Federal Agencies?

  11. On September 17, 2011 at 8:25 am, Monte said:

    Forced entry is becoming the default. The operators like it, it’s exciting. It is deadly and not just to major threat bad guys. This activity puts innocent people, minor offenders, and the LEO’s at risk. I keep a bedside weapon and a late night raid by screaming black clothed ninja is going to be a chancy situation if they get my address by mistake. This is bad. We need the friendly neighborhood beat cop to make a return. LEO’s who know their territory are a lot less likely to make deadly mistakes!

  12. On February 6, 2013 at 10:48 am, Cormac said:

    There’s another dangerout offshoot of these tactics…

    It is, pure and simple, an act of terrorism which uses a SWAT team as the weapon or delivery mechanism.

    and SWAT teams across the country are JUST AS RESPONSIBLE for it as the person who phones in the attack.
    If they didn’t want it to happen, if they really wanted to “serve” or “protect” anyone, and if they also had two (honest) brain cells to rub together, they would have stopped this years ago.

  13. On February 7, 2013 at 5:06 pm, PJ said:

    Maybe the proper response is to question whether no-knock SWAT tactics should be used at all. After all, they first came into place in the clearly unconstitutional war on drugs, as a way to collect evidence before it can be disposed of. Thus evidence in a case that shouldn’t even be brought is deemed more important than the lives of the victims of this tactic.

    SWAT may be fun, and may satisfy the more base drives of the participants, but a Nuremberg moment will someday come to these thugs, when they will be called to account.

  14. On February 7, 2013 at 5:12 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    I have suggested simply relying on good detective work. If a detective sits in a car and watches, he can pinpoint the time the suspect will be out of the house and alone (e.g., getting into or out of a car), and have officers arrest him on the spot, using their knowledge of the area to determine when the suspect won’t be around anyone else (for purposes of safety).

    But SWAT tactics have replaced good detective work, and perhaps it’s all because of retaining evidence as you suggest. Such a horrible waste of mankind, money, focus, attention and moral authority.

    Beyond the waste, the presupposition behind this (as you point out) is that evidence is more important than the life of the individual, or the officers.

    This is a morally bankrupt judgment. Just terrible. Wicked.

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You are currently reading "The Moral Case Against SWAT Raids", entry #7482 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Featured,Police,SWAT Raids and was published September 5th, 2011 by Herschel Smith.

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