May 28, 2011
The Guerena Shooting: Initial Analysis
As regular readers know, I’m a USAF veteran (I was a security police officer in SAC during the cold war) and have extensive civilian police service, including SWAT duty. I have been writing on the Erik Scott case In Las Vegas since August of 2010. Those extensive posts are available in our Erik Scott archive.
The Jose Guerena shooting, which took place on May 5, is similar in many ways. My co-blogger, Bob’s May 25 story on the Pajamas Media site (here) has stimulated considerable interest in the story on the Net. What I’ve yet to see is concise information that would allow people who don’t have police and/or tactical team backgrounds to better understand what appears to have happened in this case. To that end, I’ll explain why SWAT teams exist, what purpose(s) they should serve, how they should work, and proper police procedure in any case where the police have shot a citizen.
I’ll also analyze the brief—less then 60 seconds—police video of the actual shooting (it may be found here). Please keep in mind that I am working only from media and Internet accounts, including the aforementioned video and other documents released by the Pima County Sheriff’s Office, the law enforcement entity involved. As such, I don’t have all of the facts, and as Donald Rumsfeld might say, there are unknown unknowns. In other words, I don’t know enough about this specific incident to know precisely what I don’t know.
UPDATE 052911, 1329 CT: Go here for an updated news story reporting that Guerena, according to the medical examiner, was actually hit 22 times, not 60 as was originally reported by the doctors who examined him. See the "Analysis" section below for additional commentary.
SWAT TEAMS: RATIONALE AND REALITY
Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams have, over the last thirty years, become relatively common in American law enforcement. Their primary reason for being is to provide a highly trained, enhanced capability beyond the training and equipment available to patrol officers. Patrol officers are most commonly armed only with their handguns and perhaps .12 gauge shotguns in their patrol vehicles, though some police agencies have begun to also equip them with carbines, such as variants of the AR-15 family. This is rational in that the effective range of shotguns with reasonable accuracy is essentially the same as handguns. Many people think shotguns are extraordinarily powerful, long range weapons, but in fact, their enhanced effectiveness—compared with handgun ammunition—depends entirely on keeping the shot column together, which again, limits them to essentially the same practical range as handguns. Patrol officers commonly wear bullet-resistant vests (there is no such thing as a bullet-proof vest) sufficient only to stop common handgun rounds. Tactical vests such as those worn by SWAT operators are simply too large, bulky and heavy for daily patrol wear.
The classic scenario for a SWAT callout is a barricaded hostage taker, a situation that commonly ends with a negotiator talking the suspect or suspects out without bloodshed, or more rarely, with a single shot from a sniper’s rifle. More rare still is an assault by SWAT operators. This is rare because no matter how much SWAT types love to do this sort of thing, it is horrendously dangerous to everyone involved. SWAT teams are also commonly employed for the service of no-knock warrants, where absolute surprise, speed, and overwhelming action are a necessity to minimize danger and prevent the destruction of evidence.
SWAT teams are very expensive to equip, train and to maintain. Generally speaking, only major cities have dedicated SWAT teams whose focus is constant training. Such officers generally have no other primary duties and work together on a daily basis learning and honing their craft.
It’s particularly important to understand that one of the fundamental principles of professional SWAT philosophy and training is that each operator be superior to his police peers in physical prowess, mental and emotional stability, quick thinking skills, situational awareness, shooting skills, and every other skill specific to SWAT operations. What this essentially means is that SWAT operators are expected to be faster, smarter and more capable than the average cop. Where most officers would shoot, and shoot a great many rounds, they are expected to be able to take the extra few seconds—or fractions of a second—necessary to more fully and accurately analyze any situation before shooting. And when they shoot, they are expected to do it with far greater restraint and accuracy than most officers.
Note the Navy SEAL who took out Osama Bin Laden with two rounds and two rounds only, one to the chest, one to the head. This is a classic example of cool, perfect shot placement under stress, and is precisely the sort of thing SWAT troops are supposed to be able to do. After all, if they are no better at this sort of thing than the average street cop, all that has been done is to give average street cops more destructive, longer ranged weapons.
In recognition of the generally greater danger SWAT personnel face when properly employed, most teams are armed with fully automatic weapons, such as the ubiquitous H&K MP5 in 9mm. Many also use AR-15 variant carbines in .223 with 16” or shorter barrels. So arming SWAT teams is reasonable and necessary—again, if they are properly employed—but it is also a contributing factor to many potential problems.
Many people assume that the police are generally expert shots. Not so. Many officers aren’t particularly fond of guns, and a surprising number own no firearms other than their issued handgun. Because ammunition is expensive, particularly when one is equipping an entire police force, most Law Enforcement Organizations (LEOs) tend to hold qualifications only once a year. The courses of fire for such qualifications tend to be relatively easy, require less than 50 rounds, and qualifying scores are generous. Officers are often allowed to shoot as many times as necessary to achieve a barely passing score. Most LEOs do not provide practice ammunition for their officers, so a great many officers only practice with their handguns consists of their annual qualification shoot. They may, or may not, clean their weapons thereafter. A great many civilians are far more proficient than most police officers simply because they are more interested in firearms and shooting, and are willing to take the time to practice.
During my police days, my most effective training was that I undertook on my own time and money, taking courses such as those offered by Chuck Taylor, among others, where I learned proper submachine gun handling and tactical employment. I am, in fact, certified by Taylor’s American Small Arms Academy to teach, among other things, the submachine gun. I also hold NRA training certification. No such training was available though my LEO which simply could not afford it, particularly for an entire SWAT team.
It is at least in part in recognition of this reality that SWAT teams try to obtain advanced training, and sufficient time and money to practice—a great deal--with their weapons. Exposed only to cinematic machine gun handling, many people have formed a very wrong idea of the proper employment of submachine guns, which consists primarily of spraying magazines of ammunition with a seemingly endless number of rounds from the hip, ventilating the landscape as far as the eye can see. In reality, such weapons should virtually always be employed only from the shoulder, sights must be used, and only two to three round bursts employed. With proper training, this is much faster and far more accurate. In SWAT missions, putting the minimum number of rounds necessary precisely on target at precisely the right moment with no margin for error is the expected level of performance. In fact, many real pros consider any mission where they had to fire a single round a failure. They understand that this will certainly not always be possible, but it is their goal.
Most LEOs cannot afford a full-time, dedicated SWAT team. There is simply not sufficient call for it, and it is far too expensive. They deal with this by appointing various officers from various bureaus to a team, equipping them as they can afford, and indulging in what training they can afford. This is a significant limitation because when the team trains, all of those officers are not doing their usual duties, which often requires calling in off-duty officers to work overtime shifts to cover for missing SWAT troops. Many agencies try to minimize this significant problem by forming joint teams comprised of officers from two or more local agencies. While this helps somewhat with costs, it produces unique problems in terms of arguments over authority, leadership, cost sharing, and a variety of other issues.
The paramilitary structure of LEOs can also interfere with proper staffing of a SWAT team. Ideally, because of the very nature of such teams and the situations for which they should be employed, the most qualified people, regardless of their daily rank or position, should be placed in each and every team position, from leadership positions, to snipers. Unfortunately, rank has its privileges, and people with rank are often placed in leadership positions commensurate with their rank in their LEO while far more capable people are passed over entirely or relegated to entry or perimeter team duties. I know of one team that appointed as its primary sniper—they’re most commonly called “marksmen” or something similarly non-threatening sounding—a detective who had never before fired a rifle, and whose entry level skill was far less than that of many available officers. It is this odd internal dynamic that might see a former special forces troop expert in small unit tactics, relegated to the most distant position on a perimeter or doing coffee and sandwich runs for the command post. Less competent and experienced "leaders" tend not to want far more experienced and capable underlings too close lest they look bad by comparison.
Beyond the enormous expense of time and salary for training a team is the cost of equipment. To equip a single operator with body armor, handgun, submachine gun, helmet, eyewear, radio and proper headset, Nomex protective gear, uniform, boots, and the various other necessary items can easily run to $5000.00 and more. In LEOS where shift supervisors are constantly being brow-beaten over an extra hour or two of necessary and justifiable overtime—virtually every LEO in America--such costs might as well be $500,000.00.
SWAT teams should generally be used only for high-risk situations requiring specific skills and equipment not available to a patrol force. However, many agencies have, for many years, used them for serving high-risk warrants, including arrest warrants for violent felons, and general search warrants in drug cases. While SWAT guys love to don their gear and practice their craft in the real world, this tends to develop a mindset within an agency that makes use of SWAT teams routine rather than rare. This can lead to complacency, which any competent cop can explain is potentially deadly. Particularly in drug cases, there is a heightened risk of bad information, which can lead to teams assaulting the wrong homes and even killing the wrong people. Police lore is full of such true stories, which are taught as cautionary tales in competent SWAT training.
Remember this: Your local SWAT team responding to a hostage situation in a bank where your wife works as a teller may be a highly trained, unified, competent group of operators expert in the use of their first-rate equipment and professional tactics. More likely, they’re a group of well-meaning, undertrained and underequipped cops with uninformed and inexperienced leadership. Their knowledge and skill levels will likely vary widely, and in fact, some may be less capable than many street cops. Any combination is possible, but the operator coming through the bank door with an MP5 may be expert in its use, or he may have only fired 50 rounds through the weapon a year ago at the last qualification, and have no real idea where its actual point of aim is today.
ORGANIZATION AND TACTICS:
I will not go into great detail here on specific SWAT tactics, as most importantly, the bad guys just don’t need to know. But secondarily, such information is available to those with a need to know, and in far greater detail that it is possible for me to provide in this single article.
Generally, SWAT teams are divided into command, assault, sniper and perimeter elements. The command element commonly includes the leader(s) of the team who will be responsible for making tactical plans and giving tactical orders. The sniper element will normally consist of a sniper and spotter, hopefully trained to function as two bodies sharing the same mind. Many teams can afford only one such team (a competent rifle can easily cost $3000.00 alone). If one of the members of the team is sick or unreachable when a call-out occurs, someone less trained and experienced will have to fill in—or not. The perimeter team’s job is to establish a safe perimeter around the target building or area and keep unwanted people out and the bad guys in.
It is the entry team that is of greatest interest to us here. Such elements commonly consist of an operator leading with a heavy, bullet-resistant shield or “bunker” as it is sometimes called. One or two operators are designated to break open doors using specialized tools. As soon as a door is opened, a “stack” immediately enters. A “stack” commonly consists of several men—usually three or four in addition to the man with the shield—following single file on each other’s heels through the doorway. In such stacks, operators commonly place one hand on the shoulder of the man in front of them, allowing them to stay together and to communicate readiness with a simple squeeze passed up the stack as they begin.
All police officers are taught to avoid the “fatal funnel,” or placing them selves in a narrow, tight area where it is easy for bad guys to shoot them. Being silhouetted in a doorframe is a classic example, as is being stacked up in a narrow hallway. If one can’t avoid such areas, it is imperative to minimize the time spent in them.
Each member of the “stack” has a specific area of responsibility, a portion of the space(s) they will enter they are responsible for checking out visually. Only they are authorized to engage—shoot—potential threats in their area of responsibility. This is essential because there can easily be more than one threat in more than one place. If an entire stack focuses or fires on the first perceived threat, the entire team may be wiped out by an unseen shooter. In addition, shooting in enclosed spaces is extraordinarily loud. Officers must be careful not to inadvertently deafen each other, or blind each other with the muzzle flash of a weapon fired too close to the eyes of a fellow officer. This kind of discipline requires constant training and conditioning and cool thinking under fire.
A significant part of training for entry teams and SWAT teams in general involves “deconfliction,” or muzzle awareness. Any police officer can attest to the fact that it is surprisingly easy to unintentionally point weapons at other people. In high stress situations where many people simultaneously occupy the same small place, particularly when sound and rapid movement in an unfamiliar area are also present, it is ridiculously easy to make deadly mistakes. By assigning very specific areas of responsibility, areas from which an operator’s muzzle should not stray, the possibility of accidently shooting another operator, rather than a bad guy, is minimized. It is minimized, but always a real danger, and such shootings are far more common than the police are comfortable admitting. Officers are also taught to keep their trigger fingers “in register,” or outside the trigger guard of their weapons, off the trigger, in direct contact with the frame or receiver of their weapons, until milliseconds before it is necessary to fire. This too minimizes the risk of accidental or unintentional discharges (ADs).
Generally, the stack’s duties consist of “clearing” every potential danger area in a structure. They do this by going room to room, never turning their backs—so to speak—on un-cleared rooms or areas, securing—by whatever means necessary—any hostiles. Only when the entire structure has been cleared, do other officers enter and conduct a search. Even so, no one relaxes prematurely. Properly done, a normally sized, three bedroom home may be properly cleared within a few minutes.
In some particularly dangerous cases, the stack will be preceded by one or more “flashbangs.” These are specialized hand grenades, which do not produce fragmentation, but a brilliant flash of light and very loud report, both effects being magnified by close quarters. The advantage of these devices is that they can render bad guys senseless long enough for the police to subdue them with little risk to themselves. The disadvantages are that if they detonate too close to a bad guy, they can seriously injure or kill them, and they can start fires.
Once a dynamic entry has begun, it must not hesitate. The stack must enter with speed and determination to surprise and overwhelm any resistance. Particularly in serving drug search warrants, one immediate goal is to prevent the destruction of evidence, which might be easily flushed down a toilet, for example. To that end, retreat or hesitation is not an option.
If anyone is injured, SWAT operators, as police officers, have the same duty to see that they receive aid as quickly as safety will allow.
THE LAW: SEARCH AND SEIZURE AND SHOOTING
Every aspect of search and seizure is governed by the Fourth Amendment, which states:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Despite the claims of some of the self-appointed “elite” that the language of the late 1700s cannot be read or understood by the modern liberal mind, this, like the rest of the Bill of Rights, is quite clear. If the police want to search someone’s home, they need a warrant. To get a warrant, they must have probable cause, which is defined as facts or circumstances that would lead a reasonable police officer to conclude that a crime has been committed and that a specific person has committed it. A vague, general suspicion or inference is not probable cause. Saying for instance that Joe is a drug dealer and that Steve has been seen in Joe’s company does not implicate Steve in the drug trade absent specific evidence of his involvement.
To obtain a warrant, an officer must write a complete affidavit, which, as the Fourth Amendment so clearly states, describes his probable cause, and which particularly describes the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. “Particularly” is an important word. Not only is it necessary to, for example, provide the address of a home to be searched, the home itself should be carefully described. If, for example, the SWAT team shows up at 1506 Walnut Street to search a two story red brick home with a detached single car garage and finds instead a single story ranch, painted tan with brown trim and no garage, they know something is very wrong. This is not uncommon, particularly with drug cases. Insufficient probable cause or vague descriptions will usually cause a judge, who must review each affidavit and approve each warrant, to refuse to issue a warrant.
There are exceptions to the warrant requirement, such as hot pursuit or exigent circumstances. In this case, the police apparently had a warrant. In servicing warrants, officers must commonly knock, clearly identify themselves and their purpose, and allow sufficient time for the occupants to respond. No-knock warrants may be granted, but only upon a convincing showing of specific danger and need.
Keep in mind that if anyone lies to obtain a warrant, everything that occurs as a result of the service of the faulty warrant may be tainted and many not be used in court. However, generally speaking, officers who are acting on good faith, who have no reason to believe that the warrant under which they are acting is faulty, are generally not legally liable. This, of course, does not excuse criminal behavior, negligence or incompetence.
The use of confidential informants in drug cases is always problematic. Such people are virtually always criminals and drug users and are inherently unreliable. Even so, they are often the only way to successfully penetrate drug operations. Professional, capable judges are always suspicious of such people and commonly require a higher standard of proof than just the word of a CI.
Search warrants must generally be served during the daytime, and within a specific, brief window of time, usually within 24 hours of their issuance. A judge may grant exceptions, but they must be spelled out in the warrant. After the warrant has been served, officers are required to promptly file a “return,” which is an after action report that specifically describes everything found and seized as a result of the warrant. Lying on any portion of the related paperwork is perjury, a serious criminal offense, usually a felony.
Prior to searching any home, particularly if a forced entry is likely, professional teams will have conducted sufficient surveillance, and will have produced detailed diagrams of the interior of the home, which will include likely locations of any firearms or defensive preparations, and hiding/storage places of any drugs. They will want to know how many people are usually in the home, their identities and everything about them. Even if the police cannot get inside a home, a great deal may be learned from merely observing the home and the manner in which it is constructed. Remember that professional teams try to avoid forced or “dynamic” entries because of the great danger involved. Professionals seek, prior to searching, to isolate and capture the primary suspect outside the home whenever possible. This is why careful surveillance and accurate information is so important; it can greatly lessen the risk to everyone involved.
WHEN THE POLICE MAY SHOOT:
Police officers may use deadly force when there is an imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death to them selves or another. It cannot be a possible threat that might manifest itself within the next few minutes. It must be obvious, real and about to happen at the instant that deadly force was used. If these conditions exist, an officer may use whatever force is necessary to stop the bad guy from doing whatever gave the officer justification to use deadly force in the first place. If the bad guy dies as a result of the application of that force, bad for him, but the police always shoot to stop, never to kill. If they shoot effectively—and SWAT teams are supposed to always shoot effectively and with the minimum expenditure of ammunition—the bad guy will usually be killed, but he will surely be stopped.
If a single 9mm round from an officer’s handgun stops the bad guy, that’s a good thing. If five rounds from a shotgun are reasonably required, that’s perfectly permissible under the law. However, the second a bad guy ceases to be a threat, all shooting must stop. The law--to say nothing of professionalism, common sense and decency--does not allow gratuitous magazine emptying or “me too” shooting when the danger has clearly passed.
In such circumstances, some will claim that when confronted by someone holding a gun, or even when the police suspect someone is armed—as in the Erik Scott case—the police may blithely fire away. This is dangerous nonsense. Remember that SWAT operators should be better trained and more experienced than their patrol brethren. They are expected to be able to wait those few fractions of a second longer before shooting necessary to be certain that shooting is absolutely required. In a nation with a Second Amendment, and where citizens may carry concealed handguns in most states, police officers simply cannot shoot anyone seen holding a weapon. In fact, officers deal with people who are openly carrying weapons, or who are carrying concealed weapons, every day without injuring anyone. Was this not true, our streets would be littered with the bodies of law-abiding people shot by panicky cops who had no legal reason to be certain of a threat before emptying their weapons.
Remember, again, that a SWAT team making a dynamic entry understands that citizens within might very well mistake them for home invaders and might meet them with firearms in their hands. Merely holding a firearm, or even pointing it in their general direction, does not automatically constitute an imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death, particularly for officers wearing highly effective body armor behind a bullet resistant shield. Remember too that SWAT operators are supposed to be more capable of correctly making just this kind of split second judgment.
Professional teams are extensively debriefed after each mission. Each and every discrepancy is minutely analyzed and discussed. An officer firing when he might have avoided it, or firing more than reasonably required, is in trouble. An officer crossing the bodies of his teammates with the muzzle of his weapon because he was distracted and didn’t cover his area of responsibility is likewise in trouble. SWAT teams work for perfection, but understand that human beings seldom reach it.
THE GUERENA RAID:
With all of these factors in mind, let’s analyze the 54 second video clip released by the Pima County SO. The video seems to have been shot from a helmet-mounted camera worn by an officer in the back seat of a vehicle parked in the driveway of the Guerena home. The vehicle is apparently parked behind another vehicle, which is directly in front of the garage. Throughout the video, music, apparently from the radio in the police vehicle, can be heard. As the officers are preparing to enter, I can hear them speaking, but for whatever reason, most of what they say is unintelligible. No doubt, others using other equipment might be able to more clearly hear what is being said.
Before I begin a second by second breakdown of the action, some general observations. Not counting the two officers who are apparently in the vehicle—one in the driver’s seat clearly in the view of the camera as the video begins and the officer recording the incident—there are as many as seven officers clustered around the door and front yard of the home. And I do mean clustered, as in having no apparently coherent organization. In fact, throughout the tape, they appear to be more or less constantly shifting their positions, apparently aimlessly.
The viewpoint of the camera is apparently through the left side, back window of the police vehicle and is slightly to the right of the plane of the front door of the home. Immediately to the front of the police vehicle is a garage, to the left of that, the front door, and to the left of that, what appears to be a living room picture window. It is bright daylight. The camera appears to be approximately 25 feet from the front door of the home.
The officers making a sort of entry can generally be seen only from the back and the camera is somewhat shaky throughout the clip. Brief glimpses of the faces of a few of the officers are possible, but it is very difficult, perhaps impossible to identify them. Keep in mind that the time frames are based on the time stamp running with the video, so I may be off by fractions of a second here and there.
Seconds 0-8: The clip begins with the camera focusing on an officer in tactical gear and helmet in the front seat of a police vehicle. The field of view shifts around, finally settling, shakily, on a consistent view of the front of the home and of the approximately seven officers in tactical uniforms and gear in the front yard, driveway and near the front door. An officer with a bullet-resistant shield is consistently standing, more or less, in front of the door.
5: The police vehicle siren begins.
7: It stops for about a half second and begins again.
14: The siren ceases. The siren sounds very much like a car alarm, and is not very loud, even within the vehicle that is apparently broadcasting the sound. It has sounded, with a brief interruption, for only about nine seconds.
15: An officer can be heard saying “do it.”
17: An officer says “bang, bang, bang,” apparently over the radio. It’s not clear what he means or why he is saying this.
26: An officer holding a large, purpose-built pry bar, approaches the door and knocks lightly several times. He immediately retreats backward toward the garage.
33: An officer advances and apparently kicks the door open (officers standing in the way obscure the action, but the pry bar is apparently not used). That officer withdraws to the area of the garage. Officers immediately start moving around, but in no organized fashion. There is no stack, and no one seems to have any idea what to do. There is no organized attempt at a dynamic entry.
38: At this point, it appears that another officer actually enters the home to the right of the officer holding the shield. It is difficult to be sure, because various officers shift directly in and out of the view of the camera, which does not change. The shield-holding officer stands in the doorway, but does not enter. Another officer is standing to the left of the officer with the shield. He too does not enter, but only points his weapon into the home through the doorway. Again, officers are apparently speaking, but I cannot make out what they are saying.
40: Shots start, and are apparently a combination of semi-automatic and automatic fire. No muzzle flashes are visible and it is impossible to tell exactly who is firing. In addition, their specific weapons are not visible. Two officers immediately retreat out of the frame of the camera, to the right, in front of the garage. This leaves the officer who is apparently inside the house, the officer holding the shield who is blocking the doorway and the officer leaning over his left shoulder, at the left side of the doorway, leaning in, apparently firing. It appears that the officer with the shield is armed only with a handgun (normal procedure when carrying a shield) while the others are armed with long guns of various types. I can make out the distinct reports of at least three weapons.
Almost immediately, an officer in the background, who was closer to the camera, has slung his long gun behind his back. He draws his handgun, and runs to the front door.
44: Positioning himself between the officer holding the shield and the officer on the left, he sticks his handgun between them, apparently one-handed, and begins to fire. By this time, the officer holding the shield can be clearly seen to be on his back on the ground in the doorway. His shield is now oriented so that it is between him and the camera.
48: The shooting stops. The officers seem disoriented, not knowing what to do. There are no apparent attempts to reload. Only the three who remained outside are visible. The officer who apparently entered, ahead of the shield man, is not visible.
50: One final round is fired. It’s not possible to tell who fires it or why. The camera quickly shifts downward, away from the scene of the shooting, and the video stops at 54 seconds.
(1) There appears to be no organization at all. The officers are not organized into an entry stack, they are not apparently taking pre-determined positions, and they mill about, apparently not knowing what should happen next.
(2) They are apparently announcing themselves, but their words are muted. It would be entirely possible for people in the home to be unable to hear what they are saying.
(3) The activation of the siren appears to be uncoordinated with the action at the door. I cannot hear any radio traffic asking for such activation, and there are no visual signals requesting it. If the residents heard it at all, it could be easily mistaken for a car alarm.
(4) Music, apparently playing in the police vehicle, is a very disturbing sign. It indicates a lack of training and concentration that would be potentially deadly in any SWAT operation. This is an amazing bit of foolishness. It is hard enough to clearly hear radio traffic and voices in fast moving, stressful situations. Adding extraneous music is incredibly stupid and dangerous.
(5) Whoever knocks does so very quietly and makes only 4-5 knocks. It’s not possible to tell whether the home has a doorbell, but from the knock to the kick that opens the door only about seven seconds elapse, not nearly enough time for any resident to answer the knock even if they did hear it.
The evidence currently suggests that Vanessa Guerena, Jose’s wife, spotted armed men roaming about the yard. Telling Jose, he directed her to hide in a closet with their four year old child, and taking up an AR-15, crouched in a hallway to intercept what he likely thought were armed home invaders. The exact time frame of these actions is currently unknown.
That the officers take the time to knock and sound a siren indicates that they did not consider time to be of the essence. They were apparently not concerned that the residents of the home would be armed and waiting for them, or that they might be trying to dispose of evidence. Had this been the case, they would have obtained a no-knock warrant and entered without warning, maximizing shock and surprise and minimizing the danger. As it is, their actions indicate a poor state of planning and readiness, haphazardly combining elements of a low-risk warrant service-albeit with a fully armed SWAT team, which makes no sense—and a high-risk, no-knock entry, for which a SWAT team makes sense.
(6) When the door is kicked open, the officer who apparently opened the door has to hastily retreat through several other officers, indicating very poor planning. In proper dynamic entries, the breaching officer or officers are positioned so that they can immediately swing out of the way without obstructing others, allowing the stack to immediately enter. Here, no one moves toward the door in a coordinated manner.
(7) After the door swings open, it takes about five seconds for an officer to apparently enter the door on the right, the shield man to stand in the doorway, blocking it, and the officer on the left of the door to lean in and point his weapon into the home.
(8) An important consideration here is that the officers were standing in bright sunlight. Upon entering, or looking into the home, unless they took appropriate steps to compensate, their vision would be compromised. Anyone who has been outside in bright sunlight and stepped into a building without lights on understands what I’m talking about. It is likely that when they saw Guerena, and the specifics of that encounter are far from clear, they saw only a dark and/or indistinct outline. It is impossible to see if the officers are wearing goggles or dark glasses, which would allow them to see clearly in a darkened dwelling upon entry, but there is no apparent sign of them adjusting such eyewear off their eyes as they stand in the doorway. It is entirely possible that those who fired had no real idea why they were firing because they could not clearly see the “threat” that was drawing their fire.
(9) The shooting begins with 4-5 evenly spaced shots, apparently on semi-automatic. Those shots are quickly joined by a wild melee of fire which lasts about eight seconds, followed by a two second silence and one final shot. According to media accounts, the SWAT team “leader” said that the officers involved exhausted their ammunition. That’s not at all hard to believe, and it is possible that more than 71 rounds were fired.
What is absolutely clear is that the firing was not professionally done. Professional operators fire in two-three rounds bursts, take the milliseconds necessary to asses whether their fire has had the desired effect, and fire again, in a carefully controlled, highly accurate manner, only if necessary. What I heard on the video was panicky fire. Two officers heard the first firing, and they simply opened up and held their triggers down, or kept pulling the trigger, until their bolts locked back, their magazines having been emptied. No doubt their trigger fingers were still jerking even then.
Considering the nature and volume of fire, it is amazing that Guerena was hit some 60 times. It is also amazing that the entire neighborhood was not ventilated. Apparently at least one round did strike a neighboring home—which indicates that the police recognized the reckless manner of their fusillade sufficiently to check out the surrounding area—which caused to police to break into that home to ensure they hadn’t killed anyone. Apparently, they were lucky and did not. It is equally amazing that they did not shoot each other.
UPDATE 052911, 1329 CT: According to a more recent local news story, the medical examiner has reported that Guerena was hit not 60 times as originally suggested by doctors, but only 22 times. This is far more in line with common results of police shootings where most rounds fired do not hit their intended targets. This is also far more in line with what would be expected of the wild and uncontrolled fire of the SWAT shooters in this particular incident, particularly those firing on full-auto. Highly skilled operators can control fully automatic fire in a submachine gun or light carbine such as the AR-15, untrained operators cannot. In any case, carefully controlled and aimed short bursts are always preferred. Police officers are directly responsible for each and every bullet they fire. In this case, nearly 70% of the rounds fired by the police missed. This might make more likely my contention that the officer's vision was compromised and that at least some of them had no real idea of their target or why they were shooting at it, other than the knowledge that one of their number was initially shooting at something. As shocking as all of this might be, the hit rate is about average for police shootings. SWAT teams should do much better. Knowing this, it is even more incredible that the officers did not shoot Mrs. Guerena, her child, themselves, or anyone else in the neighborhood.
(10) That the shield man never actually entered the home, but merely stood in the doorway, perfectly silhouetted, in the very center of a textbook fatal funnel speaks very poorly of the team’s training and experience. It’s not clear how he ended up on his back in that doorway. Did he trip and fall? Perhaps he was knocked off his feet by his teammates, eager to get in on the action. It is also possible that the fourth officer who hastily ran up to the door and thrust his handgun between two of his fellow officers may have fired it so closely to the head and face of the shield man that he was momentarily stunned--or injured--and knocked off his feet. Other officers block the view of the camera, so it is not, from the video alone, possible to know what happened.
(11) Perhaps the most egregious and telling indicator of little or no training, planning, experience and ability is the officer who runs to the doorway, thrusts his handgun between two fellow officers, likely shooting very close to their ears and eyes, to fire off some “me too” rounds. It is highly unlikely that this officer could have had any idea of his target, if he saw one at all. To be completely fair, he was probably acting as police officers do, tending toward action rather than inaction, but proper SWAT training teaches only appropriate, effective action. There is absolutely no room for “me too” shooting, on the street or during SWAT operations.
(12) It is not, of course, possible to know what the officers did prior to the video, but they had obviously been there for at least a short time before the videotaping began.
The information available through media accounts does not present clear probable cause for a search of Guerena’s home. One media account noted:
“The reports state Jose Guerena; his brother, Alejandro; and Jose Celaya were named as suspects in briefings given to officers before the search warrants were served. Many of the officers' reports refer to the sheriff's long-term drug investigation as the reason for the search warrants.
Reports show about $100,000 in cash, marijuana and firearms were seized that morning from the four homes that were searched.
Items found in Jose Guerena's house included: a Colt .38-caliber handgun, paperwork, tax returns, insurance papers, bank statements and a bank card, reports showed.
Another report said detectives found body armor in a hallway closet and a U.S. Border Patrol hat in the garage.”
Notice that there is no information to indicate that any drugs or money were found in Guerena’s home, or that Guerena or his home, were in any way directly related to criminal activity. In fact, the police have, to date, not released the search warrant affidavit, warrant and return for Guerena’s home. However, there is no evidence to indicate that they found anything at all illegal in Guerena’s home. If they had, considering the public and Internet attention this case is generating, they surely would have made it public. Any drug case they were working has long been blown. Secrecy is no longer an issue.
None of the items listed as having been found in Guerena’s home are illegal, or indeed, unusual, particularly for a former Marine who had served two combat tours. One reason that the warrant information has not been released is likely that it was non-specific. In other words, the grounds for searching Guerena’s home may have been shaky at best.
Another media reports notes:
“According to a report, a detective interviewing Jose Guerena's younger brother, Jesus Gerardo Guerena, asked him about the slayings of Manuel and Cynthia Orozco. Jesus Guerena said he knew the couple because they were related to his brother Alejandro's wife.
According to Star archives, Manuel and Cynthia Orozco were killed during a home invasion in March 2010.”
This seems to indicate the police straining to find justification for SWAT involvement in the search, to say nothing of justifying the search itself. Guerena’s younger brother knew two people killed in a 2010 home invasion because they were related to his brother’s wife? Hopefully this is not the extent of the police’s justification for the search, or of Guerena’s being “linked to a double homicide.”
Very disturbing is the fact that the police did not allow Guerena medical help for about an hour and a quarter. In fact, they may not have entered the home after their fusillade of fire, instead withdrawing and eventually sending in a robot to poke and prod Guerena to make sure he was dead. That the SWAT team apparently did not immediately follow up their fire and completely clear the home is further, damning evidence of unbelievably poor leadership and execution. For those who have experience in such matters, the apparent behavior of the police is simply mind-boggling.
What is also unknown is how the police handled the aftermath of the shooting. Officer involved shootings are probably the most demanding situations officers face. The need for absolute perfection in the handling and collection of evidence, the interviewing of witnesses and involved officers, even the precise accounting for each round fired and its final resting place—a nightmare in this case—is of the utmost importance. The slightest deviation from proper procedure can indicate incompetence, cover-up or both.
As you read further accounts of this situation keep in mind that the actions of the police must be judged only on what they knew, or reasonably should have known, when they arrived to serve the warrant that morning. Post-shooting attempts to paint Guerena as the worlds most dangerous drug dealer and homicidal maniac (who, faced with four armed men he likely recognized as police did not take his weapon off safe) mean nothing at all, other than that the police are furiously spinning to justify what may turn out to be unjustifiable.
I don’t have all the facts. No one does. But based on the video, and what is currently known, it is very hard indeed to see how the police acted with anything less than amazing incompetence, incompetence that cost the life of a former Marine, a man who was apparently a solid citizen working hard in a copper mine to provide for his young family.
Update Be sure to read Part 2 of this analysis.