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Bad Cop Blotter

Did Police Screw Up During the DC Navy Yard Shooting?

Some Cops Claim a Tactical Team Was Prevented from Going In

Police vehicles outside the Navy Yard on the day of the shooting. Photo by Flickr user Tim Evanson

Last Monday, former Navy Reservist Aaron Alexis shot up the Washington, DC, Navy Yard, killing 12 people before he was taken out by police. But some cops are apparently saying Alexis could have been stopped sooner. In a story that was first reported by local news station WUSA 9, “multiple Capitol Police officers” claim four members of one of the department’s elite, SWAT-like Containment and Emergency Response Teams (CERT) were prevented from going in and maybe saving some lives. The police were clad in full tactical armor and armed with assault weapons, but for some reason their superior prevented them from going in, instead sending them back to guard the Capitol, even though another team was there. That left it up to the less heavily armed Metropolitan Police officers to engage Alexis (one was almost immediately shot).


Details are still scant, though according to USA Today, Capitol Hill Police Chief Kim Dane has ordered an independent investigation into the matter, to be completed by October 21. The radio logs from the incident are being examined.

Perhaps it’s not as bad as it sounds. Maybe it was a fog-of-war type of error. But if so, that would still be a poor excuse. And tactical teams being held back in situations they are tailor-made for is sadly not unprecedented. The most infamous example is probably the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School. During that incident, though police were called at 11:23 AM they didn’t even enter the building until 1 PM because they were busy setting up a perimeter, as protocol back then demanded. By the time a SWAT team started its slow sweep through the halls, the shooters were long dead. Worse, some victims who had survived the initial attack bled out before they were reached. Police timidity at Columbine was embarrassing enough to warrant drastic changes in policy—instead of trying to negotiate with gunman, law enforcement agencies now recognize that some shooters have no demands beyond killing as many people as they can; cops are advised to go in guns first as quickly as possible in order to save some lives.

SWAT officers by definition are supposed to be deployed into highly charged, dangerous situations, they mostly get used in raids on the homes of suspected drugs dealers—if you read this column regularly, you know just how many of these raids hit the wrong house and just how often cops use flashbang grenades and battering rams it situations where those toys aren’t necessary.


As the Navy Yard shooting reminds us, however, cops’ guns and bulletproof vests do serve a purpose. Sometimes, officers need to run into the scary places where the rest of us don’t want to go and do something that most of us aren’t prepared to do: namely, shoot a mentally disturbed man who will kill more people unless he’s stopped. “Active shooter” situations should be where cops shine; where we remember why we gave them guns and badges and such massive privileges—so they’ll risk their lives in order to stop someone like Aaron Alexis.

Now on to this week’s bad cop blotter:

- On Tuesday, Richard Chrisman, a former Phoenix, Arizona, police officer, was acquitted of second-degree murder thanks to a deadlocked jury. Thanks mainly to the testimony of his ex-partner Sergio Virgillo, however, he was convicted of aggravated assault over a 2010 incident that ended with a man named Danny Rodriguez shot dead at Chrisman’s hand. What happened was Virgillo and Chrisman showed up at Rodriguez’s mom’s trailer after she called the cops and said her son was violent and, according to Virgillo, when Rodriguez asked to see a warrant at the door, Chrisman put a gun against the unarmed man’s head and said he didn’t need a warrant. (That’s the aggravated assault charge.) When Rodriguez fled on his bicycle—after being pepper-sprayed and hit by the officers’ stun guns—Chrisman shot him, though according to Virgillo he wasn’t posing any threat. At some point, Chrisman shot and killed Rodriguez’s dog, too, another charge on which the jury couldn’t agree. The aggravated assault verdict carries a five- to 15-year sentence, and Chrisman already got fired from the force—but if Joe Clure, the president of the local police union had anything to say about it, Chrisman’s only punishment would a barrage of cliches about how hard it is to be a cop who had to make “a split-second decision.” Every police shooting ever is indeed a “split-second decision.” Why that is supposed to be an excuse coming from the guys with the badges and the guns has never really been explained.


- Last week, a grand jury decided not to bring charges against former Deland, Florida, police officer James Harris for fatally running over a suspect four months ago. On May 8, Marlon Brown was pulled over by police for a seatbelt violation and he ran away on foot. That probably wasn't the smartest move, but it shouldn't have resulted in what happened next: police cornered Brown in a backyard, and Harris, a rookie cop, just kept right on driving, crushing Brown under his cruiser. The video of the event was so disturbing that as soon as he watched it, the Deland police chief said he knew Harris had to leave the force. The city settled with Brown’s family for $500,000 without admitting any wrongdoing, but the family is still hoping for an independent investigation. You can see why if you watch the video—that is a man (a black man, for what it’s worth) being run down and killed by a car because he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt.

- According to a local news report, a Magnolia,Texas, woman got her jaw broken during an altercation with the cops. It started when Tandra Baker lashed out at her insurance company for its lack of coverage, saying, “This is why people go off and commit suicide” after she couldn’t find a doctor who would help her with her depression. That led to two sheriff’s deputies showing up at her door to make sure she wasn’t about to do something drastic. But Baker was angry at the intrusion, which made at least one of the cops annoyed in turn. She yelled at the deputies, and was eventually cuffed on what was probably disorderly conduct or some similar charge. But Baker, a 35-year-old mother who is about four-foot-eleven according to her husband, struggled, which led to her apparently being pulled out of the police cruiser then thrown to the ground. She suffered a fractured jaw, lost two teeth, and started having seizures as a result of the blow. The unnamed deputy is still on duty, though the sheriff’s department is conducting an internal investigation.


- Earlier this month in San Francisco, police shut down and confiscated the sets of the chess players who hung out on Market Street. Though these folks—who are often homeless—have been playing there for three decades, cops decided that it was a “public nuisance” and was a cover for the prostitution and illicit drug sales going on in the area. Authorities say the players will be able to come back as long as they get some kind of permit from a business, which should be a cinch for homeless men to get, right?

- In Charleston, West Virginia, a mother named Betsy Frame has filed a lawsuit against a deputy sheriff and the vice principal of Riverside High School over their treatment of her special-needs daughter. The school board, which had worked with Frame to develop a special curriculum for the daughter, must have been aware of her problems, which included Asperger's, anxiety disorder, and epilepsy. Nevertheless, back in 2011 her teacher called vice principal Andrew Johnson when the girl (identified as B.D.) fell into one of her dazes and couldn’t be roused. Corporal Richard Lane, the school’s prevention resource officer, was called a few minutes later. When B.D. finally woke up, she hit Lane on the arm—as one might, since he was grabbing her by the elbow. According to the lawsuit, the officer responded by jerking B.D. out of her chair, throwing her on the ground, and cuffing her. She was taken into police custody and charged with battery of a police officer, obstruction of school, and disorderly conduct. These were dropped, but B.D. was suspended. Now Frame says her daughter is traumatized and the school and Lane violated her civil rights.

- Our Good Cops of the Week are any and all of the officers who put themselves in harm’s way in order to stop Aaron Alexis’s massacre. Members of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the US Park Police, the DC Metropolitan Police… Dangerous situations like that are why you guys are paid. Thanks.

Lucy Steigerwald is a freelance writer and photographer. Read her blog here and follow her on Twitter: @lucystag

Previously: Another Unarmed Man Meets Trigger-Happy Police