Deaths Raise Questions About SWAT Teams
No one disputes that Alberto Sepulveda was doing exactly as he was told in the seconds after a police SWAT team burst into his family’s home early on the morning of Sept. 13.
As officers rounded up his father, mother and brother, the 11-year-old quickly complied with orders to lie face down, arms outstretched, on the floor beside his bed.
Less than 30 seconds later, in what police describe as a tragic accident, he was struck in the back and killed by a blast from a shotgun trained on him by a Modesto special weapons and tactics officer.
The boy’s death, while his father was being served with a federal arrest warrant in a drug trafficking case, sent shock waves through this Central Valley city, roiling its large, established Latino community and throwing its Police Department--and its new police chief--on the defensive.
Under investigation by the state attorney general, the Stanislaus County district attorney and the Police Department itself, the case has raised numerous questions, from why agents chose to arrest Moises Sepulveda at his home to why pre-raid surveillance had not discovered that children were likely to be present.
For many, though, the issue is a broader one: Why was the SWAT team there at all?
“Why all these paramilitary tactics, this whole ninja way of breaking into somebody’s home to serve a warrant?” asked Michael Garcia, a leader of the Modesto chapter of the American GI Forum, a Latino veterans group that has been outspoken in the case. “It’s like a police state--not something I ever thought I’d see in my country.”
Academics such as Peter Kraska, a criminologist who has studied the growing use of SWAT teams in cities across the country, echo Garcia’s concern.
The fatal raid, Kraska said, highlights a troubling trend--the tendency of law enforcement agencies to rely on paramilitary police units to execute warrants in drug cases. Such an approach is risky and often unnecessary, he said.
He and others cite a string of controversial incidents involving the military-style squads:
* The fatal shooting in September 1999 of Denver resident Ismael Mena, 45, by SWAT team members who forced their way into what turned out to be the wrong house.
* The 1996 death of Larry Harper, an Albuquerque resident who was despondent and threatening to kill himself as SWAT officers, summoned by his family, arrived and shot him to death. The city’s SWAT team was dismantled after his shooting.
* The 1997 death in tiny Dinuba, Calif., of Ramon Gallardo, a 64-year-old farm worker, after SWAT officers burst into his home looking for a stolen gun and shot him. A federal jury awarded Gallardo’s family $12.5 million--later reduced to $6 million--in one of the largest judgments in a police brutality case.
* And in Southern California, the 1999 death of Compton resident Mario Paz, who was shot in the back during a nighttime raid by SWAT officers from El Monte. Police suspected that his Compton house had been used by a drug suspect, but they later acknowledged they had no evidence that Paz or his family was involved in trafficking.
The Modesto incident seems all the more confounding because police say the fatal shot was unintentional.
Immediately after the shotgun discharged, Officer David Hawn exclaimed that his finger was not on the trigger, police said. Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden has speculated that the trigger may have caught on Hawn’s clothing, flashlight or other equipment.
But whether the shooting was accidental, a mistake or anything else is not the issue, Kraska argues. “Obviously, I don’t think this officer went in and purposely executed an 11-year-old,” he said. “But if the SWAT team is there, tragic accidents like this are much more likely to happen.”
Law enforcement officials and many Modesto residents say the real villain in the death is the Central Valley’s escalating methamphetamine problem, which they argue has made SWAT actions a necessity.
Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Lt. Raul DeLeon, commander of a multi-agency task force set up to combat the drug scourge, describes the Central Valley as “the methamphetamine capital of the world,” the primary manufacturing and distribution center for the drug.
SWAT officers’ powerful automatic weapons, special equipment and tactical expertise are a critical component in the fight against the drug and its dealers, he said.
No drugs or weapons were discovered in the Sepulveda home, although authorities did find $3,000 in cash. Moises Sepulveda was charged with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamines and released on a $50,000 property bond, secured against his home and that of his sister.
Sepulveda has denied guilt--and hired attorneys to represent him in his criminal case and in a civil lawsuit he expects to file over the death of his son. He has retained Arturo Gonzalez, the San Francisco attorney who won the Dinuba case.
“Is it worth putting an entire family at risk, for what is sometimes a small amount of drugs, or small-time dealers?” asked Kraska, a professor of criminal justice at Eastern Kentucky University who has found that police deployment of paramilitary squads has jumped more than 900% since 1980.
The Modesto police chief, who had been on the job barely a month when the shooting occurred, said the incident has devastated his department and Hawn, the 21-year veteran whose gun discharged that morning, killing the boy.
Hawn was placed on leave immediately after the shooting. He has since returned to work, but in an assignment that keeps him away from the public, officials said. He has declined all interview requests.
Some academics and others dispute the criticism of SWAT teams, saying that their use in drug raids keeps everyone safer. The National Tactical Officers Assn., a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit group, said data it has collected show that nearly 90% of such raids end with no shots fired.
David Klinger, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri and a former Los Angeles police officer, said SWAT teams, if properly trained and deployed, can reduce the chances of a shooting in violent situations.
“These guys are your best trained people,” said Klinger. “If you have your best trained people on the street, you’re less likely to have a mistake.”
But even if the numbers of injuries and deaths nationwide are comparatively small, the Modesto case is far from an isolated incident.
During the last five years, there have been at least 230 incidents in which citizens or officers were injured or killed during SWAT team raids on private homes, Kraska said.
In many of those cases, either the wrong house was raided or officials later determined that use of the SWAT team had been unnecessary, he said.
Modesto police and other law enforcement officials say the raid on the Sepulveda home was one of 14 conducted jointly that morning by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and the Stanislaus County Drug Enforcement Agency--the culmination of a 19-month federal investigation.
The federal agents requested that SWAT teams enter and secure each residence before warrants were served, police officials said. The agents also warned that the suspects should be considered armed and extremely dangerous.
But when asked whether children were likely to be present at the Sepulveda house, the federal officials said they were “not aware of any,” Wasden said. If they had said children might be there, the SWAT team might have approached the house differently, he said.
Wasden, who has earned praise from area Latino leaders for his openness and sensitivity in the difficult weeks since the killing, said the incident has prompted an extensive review of the department’s policies, including those governing its 17-member, part-time SWAT team.
“It’s been saddening and frustrating to everyone here,” the chief said. “It’s a good time for us to question everything we do and how we do it.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.