War on Drugs

Fairfax PD Report on Sal Culosi Released


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.