27 May 2011


At about 9 A.M. on May 5, 2011, a Pima County (AZ) Regional SWAT team approached the Tucson home of Jose Guerina, 26, a Marine veteran who had served two tours in Iraq. Guerina and two other men were allegedly suspects in a drug investigation. The original news report revealed conflicting perceptions of what transpired next. Guerina's wife said that there were no sirens or "police" callouts, and that they feared a home invasion was about to happen. Guerina told his wife and son to hide in a closet, and picked up an AR-15 to defend his home. The officers burst open the door, then fired 71 shots in seven seconds, fatally wounding Guerina. His wife pleaded with officers to call for medical assistance, but by the time paramedics were allowed by officers to approach Guerina 45 minutes later, he had died of his wounds. The wife said there were no drugs in the house, and subsequent examination of Guerina's weapon revealed that he had not fired a single shot.

SWAT officers, on the other hand, insisted that they sounded their siren upon approach, and called out "police" in both English and Spanish repeatedly. One officer said he heard Guerina say "I've got something for you," and saw Guerina crouched down pointing a weapon at them. The officers in the doorway (none entered the house until after the shooting) opened fire.

A more recent news report fills in a few blanks, but raised more questions about law enforcement conduct that day. The Pima County Sheriff's Office released over 500 pages of officers' statements, evidence lists, and witness interviews, as well as audio tapes and a short video tape of the event. The video shows the SWAT vehicle approach to the house, and a brief siren blast and unintelligible voices are heard. The team of officers appears to gather uncertainly at the front door, not unlike teenage boys at a school dance. After a few seconds the door is forcibly opened, then after a short pause the officer unleash a barrage of gunfire into the home.

According to the attorney for the five officers who did the shooting, "all those officers were separated immediately after the shooting so they could be interviewed and provide objective statements of what happened." Yet the audio tapes reveal that the SWAT officers were still together 45 minutes after the shooting, discussing what had happened. Several officers said they never heard Guerina say anything, but the lead officer insisted he'd heard "I got something for you, or something."

Other taped comments which raise red flags include "I just started boom, boom, boom", and "Yeah, we were all out of ammo when we got back."

In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell draws on psychology and behavioral research to describe mental processes which work rapidly and automatically from relatively little information. In one section of the book he talks at length about police training, and about events in which police officers have shown both appropriate and out-of-control responses. "In interviews with police officers who have been involved with shootings, these same details appear again and again -- extreme visual clarity, tunnel vision, diminished sound, and the sense that time is slowing down. This is how the human body reacts to extreme stress, and it makes sense. Our mind, faced, with a life-threatening situation, drastically limits the range and amount of information that we have to deal with.

" .... the optimal range of 'arousal' -- the range in which stress improves performance -- is when our heart rate is between 115 and 145 beats per minute .... very few people perform in that optimum range. Most of us, under pressure, get too aroused, and past a certain point, our bodies begin shutting down so many sources of information that we start to become useless. After 145, bad things begin to happen. Complex motor skills start to break down. Doing something with one hand and not the other becomes very difficult .... At 175, we begin to see an absolute breakdown of cognitive processing .... The forebrain shuts down, and the mid-brain -- the part of your brain that is the same as your dog's -- reaches up and hijacks the forebrain .... Vision becomes even more restricted. Behavior becomes inappropriately aggressive .... Arousal leaves us mind-blind.

"When we make a split-second decision, we are really vulnerable to being guided by our stereotypes and prejudices, even ones we may not necessarily endorse or believe .... For this very reason, many police departments have moved, in recent years, toward one-officer squad cars instead of two-. That may sound like a bad idea, because surely having two officers work together makes more sense. Can't they provide backup for each other? Can't they more easily deal with problematic situations? The answer in both cases is no. An officer with a partner is no safer than an officer on his own. Just as important, two-officer teams are more likely to have complaints filed against them. With two officers, encounters with citizens are far more likely to end in an arrest or a charge of assaulting a police officer. Why? Because when police officers are by themselves, they slow things down, and when they are with someone else, they speed things up. All cops want two-man cars. You have a buddy, someone to talk to. But one-man cars get into less trouble because you reduce bravado. A cop by himself makes an approach that is entirely different. He is not as prone to ambush. He doesn't charge in. He says, 'I'm going to wait for the other cops to arrive.' He acts more kindly. He allows more time."

Does Gladwell's analysis mean that SWAT teams should be abolished? No. There are situations in which a SWAT presence is legitimate. But it does suggest that in the SWAT environment, heightened adrenaline flow combined with the presence of half a dozen or more fellow officers in the same elevated state increases the risk of acting irrationally, aggressively, and often fatally. Repeated training lessens, but does not eliminate, this risk. In Tucson, I submit, events spun out of control. Five officers fired 71 shots in seven seconds, killing a man who appears to have been simply defending his home and family. The subsequent conflicting accounts of what happened reinforce this view, and may even point to a police coverup to avoid culpability.

I do not fault individual officers -- theirs is an inherently dangerous and often thankless task. But I do fault the system in which they operate, a system which maximizes the chance that police officers will fall into a precipitous war mentality, when other, less violent means might still get the job done.

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