Friendly Fire Still Kills

In its 42-year history, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police have lost only one officer in the line of duty. And it came as the result of Sgt. Tom Smith being shot by Det. Michael Maes. The untimely death of any person is a tragedy, and there should be no doubt that the remorse Maes feels at his mistaken shot is real.

The Los Angeles Times reports what happened:

The two men were among five BART detectives, two uniformed BART officers and  an Alameda County sheriff’s deputy who entered the unlocked Dublin apartment of  a robbery suspect already in custody to search for items stolen in a  robbery.

The San Francisco Chronicle, citing unnamed law enforcement  sources, reported Saturday that Smith and Maes split up as they entered the  apartment. As Smith’s drawn weapon emerged from a “Jack and Jill”-style bathroom  — one with two entrances — Maes momentarily mistook him for a hostile suspect  and fired a single shot.

An autopsy revealed that the shot missed Smith’s protective vest and struck  him in the chest.

Yes, the First Rule of Policing kicked in, at least for Maes.  He was no rookie, scared to death and ready to fire at shadows.

Maes is a field training officer for the force, [BART Police Chief Kenton] Rainey said, “has an extensive background in criminal investigations and has received extra training in conducting searches and executing arrest warrants.”

Let’s assume that Maes knew what he was doing, was calm and in control of his emotions.  There was no “pumping adrenalin” following a car chase, or founded concern that they were facing armed criminals in the searched premises.  The potential for harm is always present in the execution of a search warrant, and a cop would be foolish to think there was no reason to be cautious in the absence of conclusive proof to the contrary.

The First Rule of Policing leaves no opening for ambiguity. It’s shoot or be shot, kill or be killed. Det. Maes, who offered his identity in an effort to be transparent, planned to make it home for dinner that night.  While he can’t speak for himself, it’s reasonable to believe that Sgt. Smith did as well.

The superficial argument is that Maes shot too soon, too early, not knowing who he was shooting at or why he needed to shoot at all.  But the causation goes far deeper.  It goes to the fact that they were executing a search warrant to look for stolen property, the circumstances around the execution of the warrant, that gave rise to the fear that they needed guns drawn at all.  It goes to why weapons, violence, are now an integral part of policing.

In his book, Rise of the Warrior Cop, Radley Balko explains the history and causes of how police went from conducting themselves in a way that posed the least threat possible to police and the rest of us to SWAT raids of black-clothed cops with weapons ready.  With this came a war-like mentality of storming homes at will.  And shooting first.

How the search warrant in this case was executed remains something of a mystery. The BART cops wear body cameras, but thus far no video has been revealed.  Maybe this was the military mind-set at work, raiding a house in full storm-trooper mode, or maybe not. What was seen through Det. Maes’ eyes is not yet known.

To point out that there would be no similar concern if the victim was not a cop, and that the rationalization machine would be in full court press, may be true, but unhelpful.  Sure, it’s different when they shoot one of us rather than one of their own. That’s a given. Let’s not bother with the obvious.

But that the bullet struck Sgt. Smith, who cannot be besmirched for having somehow asked for it by refusing a command or a threatening gesture like putting his hand in the air to demonstrate surrender, makes this tragedy one that can be used to point out the inherent conflict between the First Rule of Policing and the Rise of the Warrior Cop.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t play storm troopers because it makes the job more fun, then expect no cop to squeeze off a bullet when he mistakes another cop’s gun barrel for a threat.

This death was avoidable in its entirety, but not because Det. Maes should have known what he was shooting at before he pulled the trigger.  This death could have been avoided by a thoughtful execution of a search warrant, after ascertaining that the premises were vacant and there was no potential threat inside.  No Rambo tactics. No rush to execute. No black, military uniforms with defensive gear.  No guns drawn.

Nobody has to die if the police do their job thoughtfully and take care not to put themselves into positions of threat and harm if it can be avoided.  Not Sgt. Smith. Not Det. Maes. Not the guy who isn’t a cop whose death wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow on the BART police force.

7 comments on “Friendly Fire Still Kills

  1. Fubar

    SHG wrote:

    Maybe this was the military mind-set at work, raiding a house in full storm-trooper mode, or maybe not. …

    This death could have been avoided by a thoughtful execution of a search warrant, after ascertaining that the premises were vacant and there was no potential threat inside. No Rambo tactics. No rush to execute. No black, military uniforms with defensive gear. No guns drawn.

    According to the SF Chron article you linked:

    Both Smith and Maes were in plainclothes, as was a third detective who entered the apartment along with two uniformed BART officers. It’s not clear whether they were familiar with the apartment’s El Dorado layout, which is detailed on a website marketing the complex.

    Based on that report, my speculation is that they were not “in full storm-trooper mode”. They were in “we don’t know for sure whether anybody is here” mode, and were unfamiliar with the apartment layout. If true, the latter was an unforced error. I also expect that your “rush to execute” point explains it.

    1. SHG Post author

      Thanks for picking that up. I still hoped to make the point more broadly, since the concept isn’t limited to this particular instance.

    1. ExCop-LawStudent

      “What are transit cop doing executing search warrants?”

      Why wouldn’t they execute a search warrant? They are peace officers, with full power to investigate crimes.

      The death of the officer was unnecessary and primarily due to two reasons.

      First, the detective violated basic gun handling rules. 1) Treat all guns as if they are loaded. 2) Do not let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy. 3) Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire. 4) Be sure of your target and what is beyond it. He violated the last rule.

      Second, a basic building search training class would have prevented the shooting. You do not split up like they did. Doing so leads to this type of tragedy.

      1. SHG Post author

        Second, a basic building search training class would have prevented the shooting. You do not split up like they did. Doing so leads to this type of tragedy.

        In the olden days, there would be some reliable source of information upon which a search warrant would be based to provide probable cause. That would typically include information about why the evidence sought was located within premises, and involve some level of knowledge about what they were about to get into. It involved a little bit of effort and thought.

        The police would know, at least to some extent, what they were about to get into. There would often be some small measure of investigation performed in advance, so they would know who was there, what they could anticipate encountering. To avoid confrontation and potential violence, the warrant would be executed in a time and manner that would provide the greatest safety for the police, and occupants as well, often awaiting an occupant exiting the premises before they entered. This didn’t eliminate all threat, but reduced it to the extent possible.

        Ah, the olden days, when warrants involved thought and cops weren’t so anxious.

        1. Rick Horowitz

          That requires thinking, and planning.

          Who has time for that these days?

          Especially when there are no consequences for killing than those an officer will impose on himself? (High fives if it’s a “suspect,” and none ever thinks he might accidentally shoot his partner.)

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