Commentary: Internal reports and other sources charge that Undersheriff Ken Roberts endangered lives by limiting a SWAT team's tactics January 18th. “That undersheriff is going to get someone killed,” one said.” Several said SWAT team members were “furious.”
A dangerous armed fugitive, Sergio Ayala, wanted for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, was inside a house in Vado. A judge issued a search warrant. Deputies suggested calling out the SWAT Team.
Roberts limited the team to eight deputies and limited tactics. Internal reports criticize these decisions. “We as a team failed to serve the public and place their safety above that of a wanted violent felon,” concludes one.
An “After Action Report” by the SWAT Team commander, dated after criticism surfaced, alleges deputies were uncertain Ayala was in the house; but according to supplemental reports and a sworn statement to a Judge, who “COMMANDED” them to search the place and seize Ayala if they could, they were certain.
The commander's initial “Incident Supplement” had noted that a female witness who'd confirmed Ayala was inside “changed her story” and said that “Mr. Ayala ran outside through the front door” at a time when deputies “had containment on the residence and nobody ran out of the front door.”
I'm no expert. Because local officers can't talk on the record, or might be biased, I consulted a top national expert, NM court-recognized Don Whitson. Normally, DASO follows National Tactical Officers Association guidelines. [See the NTOA website]
Whitson said that generally, sending just eight people when more are available is “outrageous and patently unsafe,” as is ignoring “life-saving tools they are trained on.” Except in very limited circumstances, twenty is standard. SWAT situations involve too many different roles, tasks, and contingencies.
Roberts let the team toss in a “throw-phone” to facilitate negotiations. Ayala didn't pick it up and ignored orders to come out. The team spent seven hours there. “The community was held in virtual lockdown.” Roberts stuck by his limitations. He reportedly gave “specific orders not to cause any property damage and restricted the team of what tools could or could not be used.” Eventually the team left, unhappy to leave Ayala at large.
Using progressive tactics saves lives – of officers, neighbors, and even suspects. If the suspect ignores throw-phones and verbal commands, robots can be sent in, locating the suspect without endangering officers. Police can explode a “flash-bang diversionary device,” creating a humongous noise and a blinding light. They can create a “tactical dilemma” by exploding the FBDD out front while breaching a door in the back. That confuses the suspect and says, “we have what we need to bring you out, preferably without injuring you.” Tear-gas can be tossed in. Windows can be broken, helping locate the suspect without unnecessary risk. Eventually, a force can enter the house and find the suspect.
Whitson said that in all his years of litigation consulting, he's “never heard a reasonable explanation” for ignoring standard steps. He added that had someone been injured under these circumstances, he'd have no hesitation saying that the commander would be fully liable.
I tried to ask Roberts why. So far, no response.
A State Police SWAT team captured Ayala in Anthony a week later. A team member said, “Just as we were making our approach he went mobile in a vehicle. There was a short pursuit, and then a very short foot pursuit, and he was taken into custody without incident.”
I asked how many men they'd taken. He answered 22. I noted that the DASO Undersheriff had authorized only eight. “It's hard to do the job with only eight people,” he replied.
In that week, Ayala allegedly committed additional crimes, including forcible imprisonment. He didn't shoot or kill anyone, so far as we know; but he could have.
[Sadly, Sheriff Enrique Vigil and Undersheriff Ken Roberts have declined to answer any of my questions on these matters. Vigil has, however, penned a rebuttal to last week's column, and it appears near my column in today's Sun-News. I urge interested citizens to read it. I'll respond in a blog post within the next couple of days, but not in a Sun-News column. For now, I'll just note that it isn't Sheriff Vigil against me: I agree with the Sheriff on many things, including better pay for DASO law-enforcement folks, some de-emphasis of traffic citations, and certainly getting rid of quotas; but if what I'm hearing about his cronyism and favoritism has any merit, as it appears to, we differ on that.
Really, it's Sheriff Vigil and Undersheriff Vigil against some number of present and former DASO law-enforcement personnel. It seems to be fairly widespread, but Vigil and Roberts would say it's a few malcontents or people who weren't performing well. Many of those complain mostly of Roberts, and believe that if they could talk to the Sheriff he'd do the right thing; "I'm hearing complaints mostly about the Undersheriff now, not the Sheriff," said one source; and there's a believe that Vigil could still save his tenure by jettisoning Roberts; but some things preceded Roberts and/or could not have been ordered by him.]
[Apparently Roberts was briefly on the SWAT Team a while back. He reportedly couldn't meet physical standards. Leader Armando Gonzales warned then removed Roberts. That's common sense. If the physical standards require someone to get over four six-foot fences in 20 seconds, Roberts could endanger his partner. If the partner gets there on time, s/he arrives alone.
Interestingly, when Roberts became Undersheriff, Gonzales, who'd been running the training department well, was banished to patrol, for reasons unclear. Gonzales retired.]
[For those particularly interested in the SWAT standards and policies, the National Tactical Officers' Association standards and a study on them are available at https://ntoa.org/
One of the more interesting results of a study done by or for the NTOA is that agencies with SWAT teams indicate that they are eight times more likely to use less-lethal solutions than lethal force when they call out the SWAT Team. That is, without the SWAT Team callout, police are eight times more likely to use lethal force. Presumably a large and well-trained SWAT Team, using the kinds of progressive tactics recommended by the experts, intimidates a suspect into surrendering or has the capacity to locate then disable and/or capture the suspect without using lethal force.
Also of interest is Mr. Whitson's website.]