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Wichita Police body cam footage

It appears the “Swatting” death of Andrew Finch of Wichita, Kansas at the hands of the Wichita Police Department, remains under investigation. Swatting is an issue I’ve covered before, and a trip here to a related 2015 article might be useful. With that in mind, a relatively small amount of information has been released. I’ll review what is currently known, then provide background information, and a bit of analysis. The Wichita Eagle reports:

On Thursday, Deputy Wichita Police Chief Troy Livingston said Wichita’s City Hall received a call that there was a hostage situation in a house at 1033 W. McCormick — and that someone had been shot in the head.

This paragraph contains a link, apparently to an audio or transcript of the call, but that link is no longer active. Apparently, at 1818 on December 28, a police substation received a call from a man saying he had just shot his father in the head. The call was not made via 911, which is common in swatting cases, making it harder to identify the caller. The caller remained on the line for some time, claiming he was holding other family members hostage, was pointing a gun at them, that he had poured gasoline throughout the home, and was thinking of lighting it. That information made its way through at least one, possibly two, 911 dispatchers, and was eventually dispatched to the Witchita Police.

Officers responded and surrounded the residence. The WPD does have a SWAT team, but Chief Gordon Ramsey confirmed there was not sufficient time to call them out. With very few exceptions, SWAT teams are comprised of officers from various divisions in a law enforcement agency, and often, from a number of geographically close agencies. Each individual officer must be called, and must drive, from wherever they are, to the location. The TV/movie convention of a high-tech SWAT van holding the entire team and their equipment arriving and disgorging the team, ready to immediately act, is a TV/Movie convention. The situation was handled by patrol officers on duty at the time. Finch was shot at 1843. Livingston again:

That was the information we were working off of,’ he said, explaining that officers went to the house ready for a hostage situation and they ‘got into position.’

‘A male came to the front door,’ Livingston said Thursday night. ‘As he came to the front door, one of our officers discharged his weapon.

Livingston’s statement (available here) suggests 28-year old Andrew Finch came to the door in response to demands by the officers at the scene. The link also has a brief, but unrevealing, police bodycam video of the shooting of Finch. Livingston confirmed Finch was unarmed.

Livingston said when the door opened, officers gave Finch commands to put his hands up and walk toward them. He complied for a ‘very short time’ and put his hands back down. He raised them again, and then lowered them for a second time, Livingston said. ‘The male then turned towards the officers on the east side of the residence, lowered his hands to the waistband again, then suddenly pulled them back up towards those officers at the east,’ he said. ‘The officers on the north side of the street feared the male pulled a weapon from his waistband, retrieved a gun and was in the process of pointing it at the officers to the east. Fearing for those officers’ safety, the officer on the north side fired one round.

That gunshot is audible on the aforementioned bodycam video. The “North” to which Livingston refers was across the street from the front yard of the residence. The unidentified officer firing the shot was, according to Livingston, standing next to the officer wearing the bodycam, and both were apparently behind a parked car, though apparently not bracing themselves on the car. It is difficult to judge distance from the brief video, but it appears to be in the area of 50 yards.

While this portion of Livingston’s comments was unclear, it appears Finch was being given simultaneous commands from the North, East and West. No other officers are visible in the brief video. Livingston also noted the 911 dispatchers are not employees of the WPD, and could not definitively say whether they had any training on swatting issues, though it’s safe to believe they did not. WPD Chief Ramsey confirmed the WPD has had no training on the issue.

Also according to The Eagle: 

Online gamers have said in multiple Twitter posts that the shooting of a man Thursday night by Wichita police was the result of a ‘swatting’ hoax involving two gamers.

There is some preliminary information the call was made as result of a dare between gamers. It appears the caller was actually in Los Angeles:

Tyler Barriss

Los Angeles police have arrested a 25-year-old man on suspicion of making the swatting call that ended with a Wichita man being killed by police.

LAPD Officer Mike Lopez identified that man as Tyler R. Barriss. Lopez said Barriss was arrested on a felony warrant at 3:15 p.m. pacific time in South Los Angeles.

Barriss has reportedly waived extradition to Kansas.

According to the LA Times, Barris was arrested in 2015 for making false bomb threats to ABC7 in Glendale. The calls forced the studio to evacuate.

Barriss allegedly made the threats on Sept. 30 and Oct. 9 that year, and later threatened a relative to prevent her from reporting the incidents, the newspaper reported said.

Analysis:

Because no SWAT team was involved in this case, I will not spend time here reiterating what I’ve often written in the past. For those needing additional background information on SWAT teams and how they think and operate, take this link for a SWAT primer. 

It appears most, if not all, swatting incidents have not been handled by actual SWAT teams. The only reasonably sure way to provoke a large police response is by falsely reporting an emergency where lives are in immediate peril, which generally causes patrol officers on duty to respond in force. There are exceptions like Detroit, which has long had an emergency response time of just short of an hour–when they actually answer an emergency call. A SWAT callout virtually anywhere normally requires at least an hour for officers to be located, to gear up, and to arrive, and longer to orient, plan and execute that plan. While SWAT is responding and preparing, patrol officers set up a perimeter and do whatever they can, or as in the case of Wichita, they have no option but to handle it themselves. In the article linked in the first paragraph, I wrote:

Swatting,’ for those unfamiliar with the term, is essentially attempted murder. One calls the police to report a hostage situation or other serious crime that would cause the police to respond with a SWAT team. In ideal circumstances, any police agency would first take steps to determine if there was a real threat, particularly a threat requiring the call out of a SWAT team. Unfortunately, that’s not the way some agencies roll, and innocents have been placed in deadly danger by false swatting reports.

Properly done, a patrol officer would be sent to the address, and observe from a distance for a time. The police could call the inhabitants and ask one to come outside to speak with the officer. Failing to do such basic, everyday proper tactics leads to greatly increased danger, not only for the police, but for innocent citizens.

One would hope that no police agency would be so hasty or lacking in tactical sense, but experience teaches otherwise. If malicious people couldn’t reasonably believe the police would overreact, there would be no point to making a false swatting report.

Please keep in mind, gentle readers, we know little about the details of this case. The sketchy analysis I’m providing could very well be wrong in ways small and great. Therefore, I’ll focus on what any competent police agency should do in such cases, and on what appears to have been, or more specifically, not done, in Wichita.

With a call of this type, while patrol officers are rolling to the scene–preferably without lights and sirens–a supervisor or shift commander should be on the phone to the residence where the hostage situation is supposed to be occurring. It might be possible to rapidly determine whether the call is fake, genuine, or whether something odd is going on, over the phone. At that point, as I previously suggested, the person answering the call should be asked to step outside to speak with an officer, who should be hidden behind cover, and who will call the person over to them. Nothing beats speaking with someone face to face, reading body language, to assess truthfulness.

It does not appear any of this was done in the Wichita case, but again, we know little with certainty.

A single, experienced, tactically savvy officer must give commands. Such an officer must be as close to the suspect as possible, not only so they can be sure the suspect can clearly hear them, but so they can clearly see the suspect. In this case, it appears a police car was parked only about 20 feet to Finch’s left, and other potential cover, much closer than the officers across the street, was available. It’s vitally important a single officer speak with the suspect so there are no confusing commands, commands which might cause someone to raise their hands, walk a step, drop their hands, raise their hands, stop, and look in every direction trying to figure out who to obey and when. Deputy Chief Livingston suggested multiple officers from multiple directions were giving commands to Finch, which could easily cause the behavior Livingston related. The brief video of the shooting has audible commands only from an unidentified officer near the bodycam, perhaps the bodycam wearer, or the officer that shot Finch standing next to the bodycam wearer.

If any shot is made, it must be made by an officer close enough to clearly and unmistakably see what is happening, or in the alternative, a sniper whose field of view through his scope is not so tight he cannot see the suspect head to toe. From the single shot recorded by the body cam, it’s impossible to tell what kind of weapon fired. If a pistol, the officer is extraordinarily skilled or incredibly lucky. The distance involved is far beyond what virtually all police agencies train for. If a pistol, there is no way that officer could possibly have been sure Finch was drawing a gun. Keep in mind cameras “see” differently than the human eye, particularly bodycams not known for their clarity, but in the video, Finch is essentially a blur at that distance. It would be impossible to determine if he had anything in his hand–I could not clearly see any arm movement from a surrender position to Finch’s waist and back upward–and if so, what it might be. Without that certainty, there could be no possible reason to fire.

If the officer was using a rifle, he could have been relatively certain only with a scope of sufficient power and clarity. If it was a common patrol rifle–I have no idea if the WPD authorizes such things–it might have been equipped with a red dot sight of some kind, most of which provide no magnification, and actually degrade one’s eyesight somewhat, particularly at night. At that distance, the dot itself would likely completely obscure a handgun in someone’s hand. With iron sights, the aforementioned clarity problems remain.

Another disturbing issue is the video does not reveal any officer to be in imminent danger. Certainly, we cannot see what Finch and the officers at the scene could have seen, but there appear to be no officers exposed anywhere within effective handgun range for Finch to shoot, even it that were his intention. No officers or innocents in imminent danger, no shooting.

Final Thoughts:

Again, gentle readers, remember I have very little information about this case, and what information I do have comes only from news sources, though it does appear The Eagle quoted Livingston and Ramsey accurately. Additionally, I know nothing of the professionalism, organization and effectiveness of the WPD.  If guilty, Barriss must be punished to the fullest extent of the law. What I do know certainly provides cause for concern, though that might change with updated information.

The only factor that can limit swatting is the certainly that police officers will not blindly rush in, ready to shoot with little or no provocation. In a very real sense, this should require no specialized training. Capable, experienced officers should always take the extra few seconds or minutes necessary to know, to the degree it is possible to know under the circumstances, exactly what they’re rushing toward.

That does not appear to be what happened here.