Militarization of Police

Fairfax PD Report on Sal Culosi Released

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Nearly a year after a SWAT team in Fairfax, Virginia shot and killed local optometrist Sal Culosi, the Fairfax PD chief of police has issued its report on the incident—unfortunately, only hours after it was released to Culosi's family.

As these sorts of reports go, this one is marginally better than many. A few reactions:

First, the report does at least concede that it was wrong to send the SWAT team after Culosi, though only after much hemming and hawing. It doesn't reprimand the police for making the SWAT decision, which the report says was "understandable." It only concedes that it was probably the wrong decisions.

The "understandable" part I guess stems from the fact that some underground poker games around Fairfax were beginning to stage armed guards at the door, due to a serious of armed robberies of other games.

That in itself is a dubious proposition. A guard paid to watch over an underground poker games isn't going to engage in a deadly shootout with the police. If two uniformed officers come to the door, they may try to stall while the game gets cleaned up. But they aren't going to come out firing over what will likely be a series of misdemeanor charges. They may come out shooting, however, if a black-clad SWAT team batters down the door and comes in with weapons drawn, and the guards mistake the police for another attempted armed robbery—which is exactly what happened a few years ago in Virginia Beach, when security guard Edward C. Reed was killed by a SWAT team while guarding a private club where suspected gambling was going on.

I'm not really sure how all of that relates to this case, anyway. Culosi wasn't hosting a poker game the night he was killed. He was home alone, and coming out to meet a guy he thought was a friend, to settle a gambling debt wagered over a football game. The slightest bit of investigation by the undercover detective who was gambling with Culosi would have revealed that the man wasn't at all dangerous.

Second, the report reiterates early reports that "suspected cocaine" and drug paraphernalia was found in Culosi's home. "Drug paraphernalia" can mean just about anything. My question is why is it still "suspected" cocaine? It's been more than a year, now. Why was it never tested? Either test it and confirm that's what it was, or stop throwing that information out for public consumption. At this point, there's seems little reason to keep going back to it other than to disgrace a dead man, and make him look more sinister than he was.

Third, I don't think Officer Bullock intentionally shot Sal Culosi. But I have a hard time buying the theory put forth in the report. The report takes the position that Bullock's finger was not on the trigger of the gun. Rather, the report argues that an "involuntary muscle contraction" caused by the car door Bullock threw open both moved his finger from the frame of the gun to the trigger and subsequently caused him to squeeze the trigger. All the while, the gun was also apparently inadvertently aimed square at Culosi's torso.

That's a lot of accidentals, inadvertents, and oopses for a three week suspension.

Perhaps this is indeed the way it happened. I'm prepared to give Officer Bullock the benefit of the doubt.

But the report then turns right around and makes the preposterous claim that sending SWAT teams to make these kinds of arrests is safer than sending two uniformed officers.

Bull. The report itself concedes that one reason Officer Bullock may have inadvertently contracted his muscles is that he was nervous about the raid. There had been some last minute adjustments in strategy that changed his role. He was uneasy about the new plan.

Had two uniformed officers knocked on Culosi's door and arrested him on his porch, there would have been no guns drawn. There would have been no nervous cops with fingers inches away from the triggers of their guns. There would have been no adrenalin rushes, no storming out of undercover automobiles, and no potential for a gun to accidentally go off.

Culosi wasn't a violent man. There was no need to bring violence to his door. And it didn't make things safer. It killed the man.

Does the more traditional, less violent method of serving warrants put police at greater risk? Maybe, though I have my doubts. But even if it does make warrant service safer for police, police are paid to take risks. That's what they sign up for. We should do everything we can to minimize those risks, but not to the point where we begin to endanger everyone else, and not to the point where we violate the rights of people the police are sworn to protect.

There is no question that if Fairfax PD had sent a couple of patrol cops instead of a SWAT team that night a year ago this month, Sal Culosi would still be alive.

Getting back to Officer Bullock and his muscle contractions for just a moment—let's go ahead and assume the report is correct, and Bullock didn't have his finger on the trigger, and wasn't consciously pointing his weapon at Culosi.

Does anyone think Chief Rohrer or DA Horan would have bought this same theory if it had been put forth by anyone other than a police officer? If a resident of Fairfax claimed that an involuntary muscle contraction caused him to shoot and kill another resident, does anyone buy for a second that Horan would also decline to press charges?

Once again, we get back to the unfortunate reality that regular citizens are held to a higher standard than agents of the government.

It ought to be just the opposite.

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  1. In the cocaine world, drug “paraphernalia”, consists of a license and a dollar bill.

  2. Second, the report reiterates early reports that “suspected cocaine” and drug paraphernalia was found in Culosi’s home. “Drug paraphernalia” can mean just about anything. My question is why is it still “suspected” cocaine? It’s been more than a year, now. Why was it never tested?

    Would it matter if the actually did test it, considering that all these tests come back as positives anyway?

    It’s scary when you think of how broadly such things can be defined. By their standards, in my kitchen I have a ton things that could be “suspected drugs” or”drug paraphernalia” including flour, confectioners sugar, zip-loc bags, cat nip, oregano, cold medicine and various prescriptions. The cynical side of me assumes that it’s so police can never truly be said to have made a mistake.

  3. Well, at least Culosi didn’t have a dog for them to shoot.

  4. “I’m prepared to give Officer Bullock the benefit of the doubt.”

    Cut the diplomatic bullshit, Mr. Balko.
    Why give the fucking pig the BOTD? How often do they give us same courtesy?

    Until a few cops fry (and I mean that literally)or at least rot for these murders they’re going to keep pulling the same shit. And as long as, as you said, regular citizens are held to higher standards than government agents I’m going to regard them invariably as my sworn enemies.

  5. “If a resident of Fairfax claimed that an involuntary muscle contraction caused him to shoot and kill another resident, does anyone buy for a second that Horan would also decline to press charges?”

    What if an involuntary muscle contraction caused a citizen to shoot and kill a police officer?

  6. That’s another nice thing about having a state: accountability is socialized.

  7. BTW, I’d never really appreciated just how…lame the punishment is for police “mistakes”. I understand mistakes happen, and in my few interactions with the police I’ve always found them to be courteous and professional.

    But someone fucking DIED. It would seem being drummed off the force in disgrace would be the minimum punishment. As an honorable man, possibly he should just quit. Can we ever again trust this guy to point a loaded firearm at someone?

    I spent 4 years in the Infantry running up and down live-fire ranges with loaded weapons, crawling, rolling, falling…not once did I or any of the 30+ guys near me accidentally fire off a round. We did have one guy banned because a Lane Safety thought he was dangerous and refused to let him on the range. His time in the army was brief.

    I dunno, maybe not a good comparison, but someone is dead from his mistake, and as far as I can tell, dead is dead.

  8. Beyond all the hemming, what’s the bottom line? Is the Fairfax PD going to change its policy of militarizing all common police activity? Are they going to stop making every arrest a no-knock raid?

    That’s what I was looking for: a recognition that the SWAT teams and their absurdly aggressive tactics heighten the risk not only to the alleged criminal, but to the police and the rest of the neighborhood.

  9. The worst part is, indeed, the totally farfetched justification for the shooting. If something that crazy was proposed by a civilian defendant, it would fly like a dead duck encased in concrete thrown by a baby.

    This is so far from passing the laugh test, it can’t even make me laugh to test it.

  10. makes the preposterous claim that sending SWAT teams to make these kinds of arrests is safer than sending two uniformed officers

    Well, it is safer for the cops.

    Which is all that matters. Apparently.

  11. The story of the girl who had the condoms full of flour that tested positive for cocaine comes to mind.

  12. in my few interactions with the police I’ve always found them to be courteous and professional.

    Damn, Johnny, what kinds of interactions have you had with police? I have had quite a bit of experience with them (90% of which was drug related), and the cops ranged from a minor asshole (demanding that I show him where I had the “hippy lettuce”) to an inexcusably corrupt piece of shit (threatened to shoot me if I moved from my position on the ground holding onto a chain link fence, while he arrested two of my friends without reading them their Miranda rights). Perhaps it was my youth (I am currently only 19) or the fact that I was a “no-good druggie,” but I’ve found most cops to be corrupt self-important pricks who were the kid all of the popular kids picked on in high school.

  13. I’ve been told by a police officer who comments on this site that it is almost impossible to get a no-knock search warrant without just cause. He explained to me how the warrant must pass thru a supervisor and then to a judge before being approved. If this is the case for the raid in this story then I think more heads should roll than just the cop whose “involuntary muscle contraction” killed a man.

    Maybe civilians having “involuntary muscle contraction’s” when cops are assaulting their homes will be needed soon?

  14. Just read the report. It almost caused me to throw my laptop into the wall it made me so angry.

    It looks, to start with, like they took the officer at his word that it was an accident. They did the investigation to show how it was possible that this door-hand interaction (couldn’t think of a better way to put it) caused the shooting, and since that was possible, and since they officer SAID it was an accident… well, it certainly must’ve been an accident, since he must be telling the truth!

    I’m glad to see, at least, an admission that they shouldn’t have used the SWAT team in this raid. But from reading the overall report, unless I’m missing something, it’s not going to change a damn thing in the future with the way they conduct these raids. And that saddens me almost as much as the death of Mr. Culosi.

  15. I agree completely, Good Buddy.
    In all the live fire training, as well as in the combat environment here in Iraq, even among non-infantry, I have never had one Soldier “accidentally” have an invluntary nerve reaction and pull the trigger. This Officer is a trained SWAT team member? Either he is poorly trained, or the whole Fairfax PD is poorly trained, because you don’t take the safety off until you have a target with hostile intent and it’s time to engage that target. This whole report smells of CYA. I really hate to second guess the guy on the sharp end, but it sounds like there was a lot of carelessness, and a feeling like cops would cover up negligence that probably went into motion the minuts that innocent man hit the ground.

    I applaud your continuing efforts to expose these incidents and cover ups, most cops have a tough job and do it well, but accountability must be imposed on those who have such great responsibility.

  16. “It only concedes that it was probably the wrong decisions.”

    I make mistakes all the time.

    “…due to a serious of armed robberies of other games.”

    …but then I’m not a professional.

  17. R C Dean | January 12, 2007, 1:06pm | #
    makes the preposterous claim that sending SWAT teams to make these kinds of arrests is safer than sending two uniformed officers

    Well, it is safer for the cops.

    I’m not sure that is even the case. Look at the incidents leading up to Cory Maye’s arrest. A late night swat raid on a “non-violent” criminal who happens to have a known registered weapon is very dangerous for both sides.

    What makes things worse is this man was an optometrist. You know, a man with a regular job with a known regular schedule. How hard would it have been for them to wait at his work, or his route to work, pull him over, arrest him and have his car towed. He’d still be alive and they’d be the bail and impoundment fee richer.

  18. “We did have one guy banned because a Lane Safety thought he was dangerous and refused to let him on the range. His time in the army was brief.”

    And my immediate assumption was that he went to work as a police SWATter based on his high level of military training.

  19. Well, it is safer for the cops.

    Which is all that matters. Apparently.

    Was it safer for the SWAT team that busted through Kathryn Johnston’s door?

  20. This whole report smells of CYA.

    Of course it is. You know how many millions they stand to lose? They are gonna make every excuse in the world to avoid that. They’ll never apologize and they’ll never publicly acknowledge a change in prodcedure and they’ll never kick the guy off the force because each would be an admission of guilt.

  21. “There would have been no adrenalin rushes, no storming out of undercover automobiles, and no potential for a gun to accidentally go off.”

    Guns do NOT “accidentally go off.”

    The pig had a completely negligent discharge, one for which he should be tried for, at the very least, manslaughter.

    If a regular citizen had done something similar, he’d be in a world of legal hurt, and rightfully so.

  22. makes the preposterous claim that sending SWAT teams to make these kinds of arrests is safer than sending two uniformed officers

    Well, it is safer for the cops.

    Recently had a north Texas swat team member die from “friendly” fire. In a training exercise.

    Half-a-dozen people pumped on adrenaline carrying submachine guns and pistol-grip shotguns charging into a restricted, compartmented environment is dangerous even if no one else is around. Considering that bullets and buckshot penetrate interior walls and windows as easily as they do paper targets, and most non-masonry exterior walls aren’t bulletproof either, the danger extends to everyone in the house, as well as the rest of the neighborhood. Most homes around here have concrete floors, so bullets fired at low targets like dogs tend to ricochet. These raids are commonly conducted at night, in limited light/moving flashlight conditions. Add in extra hazards like flimsy walls in mobile homes and adjoining units in apartment buildings, and it’s obvious SWAT raids create a very hazardous condition even before adding alleged criminals to the mix.

  23. Sal Culosi gambled. And lost.

  24. Radley:

    “But the report then turns right around and makes the preposterous claim that sending SWAT teams to make these kinds of arrests is safer than sending two uniformed officers.”

    Care to explain how you are so confident that the claim is “preposterous”? Got any data or evidence to back up your argument about the relative safety of SWAT teams and uniformed officers?

  25. Russ, policemen must take the safety of themselves and the civilians around them into account.

    Unlike a combat environment, the one police officers generally deal is not merely populated by friendly troops or enemy troops. Their world is populated by policemen and the citizens they are sworn to protect and serve. In combat, safety is limited to keeping friendly troops alive; the police are charged to protect themselves, but not at the expense of the citizens.
    If cops are allowed to bust in to anyone’s house, mistakenly shoot anyone who is in their sights, and are not held accountable, that is exactly what they will coninue to do.

    Good point about Mr. Culosi having a job and a presumably know place of business, making him easy to arrest. This whole op sounds so ill planned that the whole chain of command involved is probably guilty of ladck of oversight, if nothing else.

    I’m tempted to say it’s probably easier for policemen to get the greenlight to bust down a citizen’s door in the middle of the night in America than it for Soldiers in Iraq to get a raid approved. We have to establish that the high probability that the individual is at the proposed site, assess the area, formulate a plan, get approval from a superior, then move in. Even then, it’s no free fire zone, and minimizing casualties among uninvolved civilians is stressed.

    Do the police in America have to do the same? Everything I read here and elsewhere makes it look like the cops get a tip, call SWAT for back up and move in. I’d really like to hear some policemen’s opinions on this case.

    I love my country and serve it proudly and willingly, but I don’t think my country wants policemen to have free license and no accountability for their actions, I know I don’t.

  26. Mr. Reality sez:
    Sal Culosi gambled. And lost.

    Yes, he was engaged in a peaceful activity with friends and associates. And he got shot dead.

    Am I supposed to be like, “Aw yeah, that guy got it good!”? Or “Take that, gambler!”? What the fuck?

    You know Georgeann Hawkins, the girl who decided to help a guy move stuff into his car, and it turned out to be Ted Bundy? She gambled. And lost.

    Take that, Georgeann Hawkins, you innocent victim, you!

  27. Dave;

    Fuckin’ A!

  28. So Why didn’t the cops just bust him when he was outside his home? Why didn’t they arrest him in the parking lot when he was walking from his car to his office in the morning?

    I don’t know. Could it be that a parking lot bust wouldn’t allow the cops to seize his house under the asset forfeture laws? Could the police have seized the house in this particular instance? I don’t know. (After killing the guy, I doubt they would have seized the house, even if they could. Seizing the dead optometrist’s house might have caused some members of the public to ask uncomfortable questions.)

    Could the overuse of SWAT teams all over America be related to asset forfeture laws? Could the fact that many units of local government pressure their local LEOs to seize enough assets every year to cover the police department’s budget be a factor?

    Of course not every choice to use a SWAT team instead of traditional arrest methods would be in pursuit of assets to seize. Once a department has a SWAT team, it will be used. Give someone a hammer and suddenly lots of things look a lot like a nail.

    The real question is, “How can the use of SWAT teams be confined to the few situations in which their use is truly justified?” Serious narrowing of the asset forfeture laws would remove at least some of the incentives for overusing these teams. This would not be a complete solution, but it may be a necessary part of a real solution.

  29. The real question is, “How can the use of SWAT teams be confined to the few situations in which their use is truly justified?”

    Limit SWAT team raids to situations where the target is accused of a violent felony.

    If the SWAT team makes a mistake, like hitting the wrong address, the city becomes liable for any damages.

  30. NCDan | January 15, 2007, 8:52am
    The real question is, “How can the use of SWAT teams be confined to the few situations in which their use is truly justified?”

    Why would The State want to limit the use of SWAT teams?

    Sure, a few innocent civilians die, and untold more are terrorized. But so what?

    1. Sure, a few innocent civilians die, and untold more are terrorized. But so what?

      Isn’t that the whole idea?

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