Friday, December 29, 2006

Another Botched SWAT Raid in Rotterdam

A couple of weeks ago the Rotterdam SWAT team was in the news as the subject of an excessive force lawsuit arising from a SWAT raid carried out in July 2005.

The SWAT team is back in the news this week, this time for setting fire to the suspect's home using a "flash-bang" grenade carrying out their raid.

Device usage under review
Rotterdam police, in wake of fire, may take precautionary steps
First published: Friday, December 29, 2006

ROTTERDAM -- The town police department may require having fire extinguishers close to the scene after officers used a "flash bang" device that sparked a fire when they arrested a fugitive at his home on Wednesday.

On Thursday, one expert on the devices said they can on rare ignite a blaze, so it makes sense to have extinguishers and standby fire crews as a precaution.

Fire is "always a possibility, and it's recommended that you have something to put out a fire, in case you have one," said Larry Beresnoy, executive director of the New York Tactical Officers Association who is certified in instruction for the devices that emit a loud noise and blinding burst of light. Beresnoy said they heat up to 2,700 but start to cool down in less than a second.

Rotterdam Lt. Michael Brown said the department is "evaluating our level of preparedness to bring this equipment to prevent fires in the future." Three fire extinguishers were in a van parked outside 1836 Wagner St. where the raid took place, Brown said.

So the department is reviewing whether to require having fire extinguishers "close to the scene" in the wake of an incident in which having three fire extinguishers in a van parked outside the house does not appear to have been adequate to prevent a fire. That doesn't make any sense. How much closer to the scene can you get?

After the team kicked down the front door, Higgins appeared as one of the officers was preparing to lob the device, Brown said. At that point, he said, the officer made a split-second decision to aim it into the living room to avoid a direct hit on Higgins. As a result, a couch caught fire.

Brown said another option would have been for the officer to toss it outside, but that would have put the police in peril.

"Peril"? Why? The devices are not supposed to be lethal.

"He really didn't have the opportunity to abort," said Brown. "We use this device to give ourselves an advantage, and to abort, we would have lost that advantage."

Well, except that Higgins had already 'appeared,' and no one seems to be saying that he was armed or threatening in any way. Perhaps it is not a real SWAT raid unless you get to use a flash-bang grenade. I mean, they brought it after all, so they may as well use it.

Firefighters were called and put out the blaze. Neither Higgins nor the other two people in the home were hurt.

Did the police know there were two other people in the home? If so, did they know their whereabouts at the precise moment of the raid? How did the officer lobbing the grenade not know that one of the two other people was sleeping on the couch where the grenade landed? The priority of protection at this scene appears to have been: police first, suspect second, innocent bystander/homeowners last. What's wrong with this picture?

Beresnoy said officers would not use flash bangs inside a residence if elderly people, young children or explosives the device might interact with were present.

Of course, there's no way to really know what's on the other side of the door, is there? Even criminal suspects are known to have friends and family visit, including elderly and small kids.

Higgins became a fugitive when he failed to report to his parole officer in January, said Stacy Smith of the Connecticut Department of Correction. His parole would have ended in June on a three-year sentence for felony conspiracy in 2003.

Higgins, who is being held at the Schenectady County Jail on the parole violation, will likely face additional charges for giving police a fake name on Christmas Eve when they went to the Wagner Street residence on a disturbance call, Brown said. Police also said Higgins altered an assault rifle and had vowed he wouldn't go back to jail even if it meant shooting a cop.

One of Higgins' neighbors, Dimitri Koutsopoulos, said they and his mother, Connie, met Higgins over the summer. Koutsopoulos said Higgins offered to show him a 9 mm, an AK-47 assault rifle, and sword and knife collections.

This is as close as it comes to justifying a SWAT raid on parole-jumper. On the other hand, apprehending a suspect in his home is probably the most likely scenario in which he would get to use his AK-47, swords or knives.

It is troubling to me that pretty much any crime above routine traffic violations now appears to warrant SWAT interdiction. This is only justifiable if you assume that everyone charged or arrested for a crime is guilty; otherwise, you have to somehow get comfortable with the fact that innocent people and their families will be subject to military-style raids with a very high potential to result in injury and/or death.

Obviously, we do not want to subject police to undue risk. But when police sign up to be police, they do so knowing that the job they are taking is one which involves the possibility of harm or death. In fact, police are quite proud of their sacrifice in this regard. But even the best police work will occasionally result in errors, and in the case of SWAT raids, errors can lead to grave bodily harm or death for innocent bystanders. That is an awfully high burden to ask to justify an "advantage."

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