Thursday, July 19. 2001
Lack of Training, Resources Blamed for Botched SWAT Team Responses
By KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writer
SWAT team raids are botched due to poor training and insufficient resources, law enforcement leaders and community members told a state panel yesterday.
In an effort to crisscross the state and collect public input on how to improve the safety of Special Weapons And Tactics team operations, the Blue Ribbon Commission on SWAT Practices and Polices held six different public hearings across the state yesterday.
Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian, LAPD Commander Mark Leap, Los Angeles Deputy Sheriff Roy Burns, and deputy District Attorney Jim Cosper represented the commission at the Los Angeles hearing.
The commission was formed in April by Attorney General Bill Lockyer after investigation into the death of an 11-year-old Modesto boy who was killed by a SWAT officer during a raid last year revealed there are no statewide guidelines for SWAT procedures.
Alberto Sepulveda was killed by a single bullet while he lay face down on the floor when an officer’s gun which was pointed at him, discharged during a commotion.
The officer was cleared of criminal charges.
The 22-member panel, made up of law enforcement, local government officials, and community advocates, has been holding monthly meetings and will make a series of statewide recommendations for the improvement of SWAT team procedures in a late April report, Pasadena Police Chief and commission member Bernard Melekian said.
“The circumstances surrounding the death of Alberto Sepulveda compel us to ask hard questions about the procedures and policies governing when, where, under what circumstances, with what training and with what information our SWAT teams are deployed in California communities,” Lockyer said in a statement.
Law enforcement officials provided the bulk of the audience and the comments at the public hearing, announced Friday and held in the middle of the working day.
The few community members who did make an appearance lamented the lack of attention SWAT teams give to breaking the language barrier between officers and suspects.
Steve Figueroa, a member of the Mexican American Political Association, said that misunderstandings caused by language barriers can have serious consequences, including the deaths of several Los Angeles residents.
“If you can’t communicate, you can’t follow orders,” Figueroa said.
While law enforcement officials acknowledged the importance of addressing the language issue, training and technology were the main themes presented by officers who said SWAT teams were not getting the proper training and funding problems weren’t allowing updated technology.
Lt. Michael Albanese of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Metropolitan Division, who told of being unable to block outgoing calls by a barricaded suspect who had a cell phone, recommended developing tactics against suspects who use advanced technology such as wireless phones.
“The nation’s going wireless!” Albanese said. “We need the technology to commandeer those individuals.”
Albanese also recommended that the rest of the state follow a Southern California habit of SWAT community meetings where members share about incidents they have encountered. The lines of communication also allow the SWAT teams to pool equipment and personnel, he said.
Concerns were also raised about the special issues part-time SWAT teams face, a large problem considering that between 80 and 85 percent of the state’s police departments have less than 50 officers.
An Ontario sergeant said that his part-time SWAT team isn’t backed financially by the department to have a physical standard and that the 14 to 15 hours of training SWAT officers receive a month is not sufficient
Concerns were also raised that in some instances the SWAT team was sufficiently trained, but the commanders actually making the decisions did not have sufficient training or experience.
Sheriff’s Department Area Cmdr. Marvin Cavanaugh said that his department has become aware of the lack of training for commanding personnel and a training program to address the problem has been created.
The program consists of a four hour refresher demonstration of SWAT tactics, six hours of crisis negotiation, two hours of the legal aspects of SWAT operations, and four hours of crisis decision making.
At the conclusion of the program, participants will go through “table-top” exercises where they will have to go through four or five SWAT situations in a controlled environment.
About 240 field operations personnel are expected to participate in the training, Cavanaugh said.
UCLA law professor Sharon Dolovich applauded the efforts of the commission, but cautioned that SWAT teams are being used in situations where they aren’t warranted.
“My concern is that small departments may tend to be a little too ready to mobilize their SWAT units,” Dolovich said. “When you have a SWAT team you want to use it.”
Dolovich said that an eagerness to deploy SWAT units can result in traumatic and even tragic consequences when SWAT teams invade the wrong house or haven’t done their homework on who is inside the house, including uninvolved people and children.
“What kind of standard of scrutiny would you want if you were the target?” Dolovich said. “You would demand careful attention to detail. That’s what needs to happen here.”
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company