Pubdate: Thu, 09 Aug 2012
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Copyright: 2012 The Baltimore Sun Company
Author: Jessica Anderson


When members of Baltimore County's tactical unit burst into a
Reisterstown home this summer, they were looking for potentially armed
suspects in the attempted murder of a 15-year-old boy. But in the
chaos of the raid, Officer Carlos Artson shot and killed the home's
owner - who was not a suspect - after he thrust a large sword at the
officer, police said.

That raid - and its outcome - mirrored a 2005 Baltimore County police
action, in which officers equipped with a battering ram and flash
grenades stormed into a Dundalk home to search for drugs. In an
upstairs bedroom, a 44-year-old woman pointed a revolver at Artson and
he fired three rounds, killing her.

A police review and a civil judge cleared Artson of any wrongdoing in
the 2005 shooting; he has returned to his unit after a departmental
review of this summer's raid. But both fatalities - victims who were
not the targets of investigations - highlight the potential dangers
for officers and the people inside homes targeted by tactical entries.

Although deaths mark a small percentage of the more than 1,600
tactical deployments conducted each year in Maryland, critics say that
such raids have become too common and that the units should receive
greater public scrutiny.

"SWAT teams are very traumatic. It's not the same thing as having an
officer come to your door," said Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo, the
target of a misguided raid in July 2008.

Sheriff's deputies burst into his home with automatic weapons,
handcuffing him and fatally shooting his two dogs. A review of the
raid found that police targeted Calvo's home after drug dealers sent a
package of marijuana to him and other unsuspecting homeowners; the
dealers hoped to collect the packages before the homeowners did.

Calvo was cleared of any wrongdoing, and a lawsuit against Prince
George's County was settled for an undisclosed amount.

That highly publicized incident prompted state legislators to require
police departments to submit data every six months on tactical
deployments, starting in 2010. But Calvo and others say the data is
not thoroughly analyzed, so it's difficult to determine patterns and
problems. Calvo notes, for example, that Howard County reported a 72
percent increase in the use of tactical units from calendar year 2010
to 2011, though the increase is not apparent in the state compilation,
which is based on a fiscal year.

Police officials say such deployments provide the safest option,
especially when dealing with potentially armed and dangerous suspects.

"In general, tactical units are used for high-risk warrant services,"
said Cpl. Cathy Batton, a Baltimore County police spokeswoman. She
would not comment on the Reisterstown raid, saying the warrant was
sealed. She said, "It's not just officer safety, it's the safety of
everyone involved," adding that officers get highly specialized
training to handle potentially volatile situations.

Capt. John McKissick, commander of the Special Operations Bureau in
Howard, said, "These numbers tend to fluctuate," so it is difficult to
draw conclusions from only two years of data. He added that the county
has reported fewer deployments for the first six months of 2012 than
in the same period last year.

Tactical units frequently force their way into homes, sometimes
without announcing their presence. The teams were created to handle
particularly dangerous situations, such as serving warrants on violent
offenders or drug gangs, and dealing with hostage or barricade
incidents. Many carry high-powered rifles, and they typically are
outfitted with bullet-resistant vests, helmets and shields.

According to the most recent report from the Governor's Office of
Crime Control and Prevention, total deployments rose marginally, from
1,618 to 1,641, from fiscal 2010 to 2011. The Prince George's County
Police Department had the most, with 343 deployments, followed by
Baltimore City with 289, Montgomery County with 139, and Baltimore
County with 120.

In each of the two years that the reports have been issued,
deployments resulted in a civilian death and more than a dozen
injuries. A handful of animals were killed or injured as well.

"On the face of it, with that many involvements from the SWAT Teams,
while nobody wants to take a life at all, that doesn't seem like an
alarming number [of fatalities] considering the type of people that
they're dealing with," said L. Douglas Ward, director of the Division
of Public Safety Leadership within the Johns Hopkins University School
of Education.

He urged further study, however, to find out "what's behind the
numbers," including whether the injured were on the attack when they
were hurt, or simply innocent bystanders.

"Statistics are a good tool to get you to ask more questions; they're
not going to tell you the whole story," Ward said. Tactical team raids
"serve a good purpose, but like anything else, they have to be [based]
on good policies and good training, and I think people in general have
a right to know if they're being used safely and properly."

The governor's office, which receives the annual report, agrees the
data alone don't say much.

"We can't draw conclusions about whether a deployment was necessary or
reasonable: Those details are just not reported, the incident-based
details," said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O'Malley.

She said the office might request that kind of information in the
future. In the meantime, the governor and his staff continue to review
the statistics, looking for significant changes that would require
further examination, she said. So far, the figures have been steady.

Still, critics point to examples such as a 2009 raid in Howard County,
when the resident of an Elkridge mobile home said officers hit him in
the face with a shield, knocking him to the ground, and shot one of
the family dogs.

Police were searching for a high-powered rifle and nearly 150 rounds
of ammunition that had been stolen from police cruisers in a nearby
neighborhood. Police said an informant told them that the stepson of
the mobile-home resident might have been trying to sell an assault
rifle, but they did not find the rifle or ammunition.

In the July raid in Reisterstown, police wanted to serve a search
warrant in an attempted-murder case, and the suspects were facing
concealed-weapons charges.

"Police officers are alive because of [the tactical unit's] existence
and how well trained they are," said Cole B. Weston, president of the
Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police. "If you did not have them,
or their expertise, you would lose more police officers."

But critics, including Calvo, said that while some cases might warrant
tactical deployments, the raids are too frequent.

"These quasi-military tactics used by police departments are
unnecessary in most investigations," said Brian G. Thompson, a
Baltimore County defense attorney who has represented clients whose
homes have been raided.

Fatalities and injuries are inevitable when such tactics are used
because "people don't know what was happening," Thompson said. Even
when police have identified themselves, residents are startled awake
and a natural reaction is to reach for a gun, he said.

"There's certainly a place for these tactics, but more often then not,
[police] can conduct surveillance" instead, he said.

Tim Lynch, director of the Cato Institute's Project on Criminal
Justice, agreed, saying there has been an alarming increase in the use
of tactical units across the nation.

"It's gone from an exceptional set of circumstances to routine police
calls," he said, listing deployments around the country for matters
ranging from graffiti to child pornography.

Police, he said, "need to do the investigations," which might reduce
mistakes such as identifying the wrong address. He said that in many
instances, officers could wait until the suspects walk outside to
avoid endangering innocent people inside.

He applauded Maryland's effort to track how often and why tactical
units are used.

"Law enforcement around the United States are heavily decentralized.
There are no statewide rules governing use" of tactical deployments,
he said. "That's why that reform has kind of stood out."

He added, however, that "much more needs to be done here about when
police raid our homes. The great American principle is that our homes
are our castles."

Calvo said the next step is for the state to conduct more in-depth
analysis of the data on raids. He says that looking at data on a
calendar-year basis, which the state does not compile, deployments
have risen 13 percent, from 1,526 deployments in 2010 to 1,722 in 2011.

He'd like to see legislators create a task force to evaluate the
findings, potentially adopting a best-practice standard for
departments to follow when deploying tactical units.

He's concerned about the number of deployments used in nonviolent
cases such as drug investigations.

"You have to have data to give you a sense of what's going on here,"
Calvo said. "You need to have policies in place when police are taking
action that people can monitor."
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