Competent, honorable police officers always do their utmost to avoid unnecessarily damaging private property. When they serve search warrants, they don’t take the opportunity to utterly trash people’s homes. Even in emergency situations like a barricaded gunman, they prefer to do as little damage as possible. That wasn’t the case in Greenwood Village, Colorado in June of 2015, however, as Fox News reports:
A federal appeals court in Colorado ruled Tuesday that a local police department does not have to compensate a homeowner whose house was destroyed by 19 hours of gunfire between officers and an armed shoplifting suspect who had chosen to barricade himself inside to evade arrest.
Judges on the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit upheld a lower court’s decision, ruling that the city of Greenwood Village, near Denver, did not owe homeowner Leo Lech any additional compensation, even though the suspect was a stranger to the homeowner, the Denver Post reported.
Lech’s home, valued $580,000, was marked for demolition in 2015 after a SWAT team used armored vehicles to breach the structure, deployed tear gas and explosives and shot 40 mm rounds in an effort to drive the suspect out after he refused to surrender and shot at officers, the Post reported. The suspect broke into the house when no one was home to use it as a hideout.
Obviously, I was not there, so it’s difficult to opine about the officer’s use of force, however, it normally takes an hour, perhaps longer, for a SWAT team to be called out, to assemble, and even longer to formulate a plan. The story gives us little sense of exactly what happened. Was the suspect armed with a rifle? Was he continually shooting, not only at the officers, but at everyone and everything else in the area? How many rounds did he fire, and in what time frame and context?
On June 3, 2015, SWAT officers swarmed the Lechs’ home on South Alton Street in Greenwood Village looking for Robert Seacat. Aurora officers tried to contact Seacat earlier that day for alleged shoplifting, but the man fled and randomly chose the Lechs’ home as his hideout. Seacat also had multiple felony arrest warrants, Haas Davidson said.
For five hours, officers tried to persuade Seacat to surrender. Seacat fired at least one round at police cars outside the home and multiple rounds after officers entered the home.
When negotiations failed, police started an assault on the home. The officers breached the doors with an armored vehicle and used explosives to blast holes in the walls. They flung tear gas canisters inside and fired 40 mm rounds at the home.
After 19 hours, police arrested Seacat. But the Lechs’ home was left uninhabitable, according to the lawsuit.
Apparently Secat fired only once to the outside of the home, and only at police vehicles. Any additional rounds fired were apparently inside the home. This would indicate there was no imminent danger to the surrounding neighborhood, no reason to do anything but wait Seacat out. There seems to have been no legitimate urgency. The City offered only $2000 dollars in compensation. During my police days, we simply didn’t destroy people’s homes, and even if we had to break down a door of an innocent, the city paid for it. The Postcontinues:
While governments must pay for property seized under eminent domain, governments don’t have to pay for property destroyed by police in pursuit of enforcing the law, the court ruled. The Lechs’ attorneys disagree, citing other state courts that agreed defendants should be compensated in similar situations.
‘This is happening all around the country because police have equipment from the military, so they decided this is the way to do things and typically the suspect does not survive it,’ Maxam said.
A review of how officers handled the incident by the National Tactical Officers Association found that officers acted ‘in a highly commendable manner,’ according to the Greenwood Village statement.
Normally, officers would surround such a home, establish a larger perimeter, evacuate surrounding homes so no one might catch a stray round, turn off the power, toss in a wireless phone, and negotiate, or at worst, simply wait the bad guy out. He has to sleep some time, and when he does, officers can enter and subdue him. Absent the most egregious form of danger, such as a maniac with automatic weapons continually shooting up everyone and everything in sight, there seems little reason for any hurry. Back to the Fox account:
The bottom line is that destroying somebody’s home and throwing them out in the street by a government agency for whatever circumstances is not acceptable in a civilized society,’ Lech told the Post. ‘It destroyed our lives completely.
Tear gas, and destroying the framing of a home, tend to do that, which is why professional agencies don’t do such things. It’s a miracle the tear gas alone didn’t set the place on fire. That’s not at all uncommon. But let’s keep in mind my sources here are only in the media, so my analysis, such as it is, may be flawed in ways I can’t identify.
Lech’s attorney told the Post that his home insurance company paid him $345,000 for the damage but that amount did not come close to covering additional costs related to personal property damage, demolishing and rebuilding the home and taking out a new mortgage on the new house.
‘It’s a miracle insurance covered any of it in the first place,’ attorney Rachel Maxam told the Post. ‘Insurance is for fires, floods. There’s no ‘police blew up my house’ insurance.’
She added that a home next door that suffered about $70,000 in damage was not compensated by its insurance company. The court’s decision said the police department and the city was not liable for damage caused to the property because officers were acting in their lawful role to arrest a criminal suspect
Lech said he plans to appeal to case to the Supreme Court.
This is an interesting matter. Police officers normally enjoy some form of qualified, not absolute, immunity for actions undertaken in the performance of the legitimate duties. This is clearly necessary. Were it not, who would become a police officer knowing they’d be sued into penury at the drop of a hat? We know, for instance, the police can’t be successfully sued for failing to protect anyone, as I recently noted:
…they can’t be held liable if they fail to protect anyone. The relevant case is Castlerock v. Gonzalez, and I wrote about it years ago for PJ Media.
Briefly, Jessica Gonzalez had a restraining order against her estranged husband. He took her three young daughters out of her yard and fled with them. She, over many hours, begged the Castlerock, CO police to find her daughters and enforce the restraining order, but they continually blew her off. Finally, he attacked the police station, firing on it with a handgun. The police finally did their duty and helped him commit suicide by cop. Nearby, they found his pickup, and in it, the bodies of his daughters. He murdered them hours earlier.
Jessica sued, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. They ruled the police have a duty only to the public at large, not to any individual. They have a duty to enforce the law, and to deter crime by their presence, nothing more. They can’t be held liable for failing to protect any individual. [Skip]
The truth is the police cannot protect anyone, and have no general duty to do so. Government has no conscience, and will never allow itself to be sued. Government has only priorities and powers, and neither are focused on the individual. D/S/C government is scornful of individual rights because those rights are limitations on its powers. Thus do they wish to disarm the law-abiding, and care little for disarming criminals, who help keep normal Americans in line.
As outrageous as this might sound, it’s necessary. There are few police officers and they can’t be everywhere at once. It’s a good thing to remember the next time anyone argues law-abiding people must surrender their guns because the police, the experts, will protect them. They can’t. We really are on our own, and we always have been.
Things get sticky, however, when officers, in the line of duty, injure, physically or financially, innocents. Should an officer who failed to notice his surroundings be given a pass when he accidently shoots and kills innocents as he legitimately stops an armed bad guy? Should officers be held accountable only if it can be proved they intended to shoot innocents? Is there no longer any such thing as negligence?
There must be exceptions to qualified immunity or the worst among police officers would allow their basest impulses to run wild. But what of situations where officers, following orders, do great damage unnecessarily? I tend to the belief officers must be held accountable, even personally accountable, for actions that could have been avoided or prevented. I’m not speaking of honest, non-preventable accidents. Surely, the cities or counties that hire them must be liable in such situations. That alone serves to restrain improper or hasty actions by police officers they employ, and who they can fire.
Absent the threat of having to pay for bad judgment or negligence, what reason does government have to carefully supervise their officers? What reason do officers have to behave professionally? Did this SWAT team, all dressed up in their fatigues and carrying all their tacticool goodies, decide they had to use them just because, or was there some legitimate reason they had to use them, then and there, in precisely the ways they did? After all, they apparently waited some 19 hours.
Obviously, officers and governmental entities can be sued, and in the past, substantial judgments have been won against them, and officers have been criminally charged, as in the Justine Damond case in Minneapolis. This is as it should be. Now we see if that should be the outcome in this case.
What do you think, gentle readers?