SWAT Assault Leads to Tragic Death

Rudy Escobedo, a mentally ill resident of Fort Wayne, Indiana, called 911 "asking for help."

He said he was on cocaine and Antabuse – a drug given to some alcoholics – and ready to kill himself. He apparently had hallucinations of police already in his home, according to a transcript of the 911 call.

How did police respond to the call for help? Escobedo called at 4:30 a.m. He apparently made five calls after that to a police cell phone, but the battery was dead. At some point he apparently had some conversations with the police in which he was asked to "surrender." His responses were "erratic," as one might expect from a mentally ill suicidal man. By 8:30 a.m., officers decided to use overwhelming force to break into Escobedo's home.

This happened after police halted communications with him, released 12 times the normal incapacitating dose of tear gas into his apartment and launched a flash-bang grenade into his room that exploded near his head.

[more ...]

After the flash grenade exploded, "police were able to gain access to his bedroom through a barricaded door, at which point they found him in the closet."

What happened next isn't clear.

Officer Brian Martin put a flashlight on Escobedo, yelled to the other officers Escobedo had a gun to his head and ordered him to drop the gun. Escobedo didn’t, according to court documents, and began pointing the gun at Martin.

Martin fired four to five shots from his Glock and struck Escobedo in the chest. Officer Jason Brown claimed to have seen Escobedo point his gun at Martin and fired bean bags at him. Martin said in court documents Escobedo dropped the gun in between his legs and slumped forward. That’s when Martin unloaded another volley of shots into Escobedo.

"He just, he went forward and he kind of went off to, he kind of flopped to his side a little bit. And, and just that was about it, man. He was done," said Martin in an interview with detectives afterward.

No, Officer Martin, he wasn't done. He was dead.

Apart from his mental illness, why might Escobedo not have dropped his gun when ordered to do so? The flash grenade provides one plausible answer.

[O]ne expert in police tactics ... believe[s] he was probably deaf and blind at the time of his death, according to a lawsuit filed by Escobedo’s family in December 2005 and still tied up in federal court.

There was no reason to make a SWAT-style, aggressive entry into a residence that held only one person who wasn't threatening to harm anyone else. If the idea was to prevent Escobedo from harming himself, the aggressive tactics certainly accomplished that result. The harm was caused by the volley of police bullets, not by Escobedo. As Escobedo's family puts it:

“Escobedo was treated not as a mentally disturbed citizen in need of help, but as a terrorist.”

Unfortunately, a federal judge presiding over the family's lawsuit "absolved the city and the officers who fired the fatal shots of any responsibility in Escobedo’s death." That's probably not surprising since the only witness who could contradict the officers' version of events is Escobedo, who was in no position to testify. Still, the officers' version is damning in itself.

At this point, at least, the lawsuit will move forward to "decide whether some members of the police department used excessive force in firing the tear gas and storming the apartment." The City is appealing that decision, probably with the argument that the police should be immune from their alleged misconduct because the law isn't sufficiently clear that the force used was excessive under the circumstances. The "qualified immunity" defense too often prevents police officers and governmental officials from being held accountable for their poor judgment. Let's hope that Escobedo's family gets some measure of justice from this lawsuit, and that the Fort Wayne police are induced to rethink their aggressive approach to home invasions.

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    Universal Health Care (5.00 / 2) (#2)
    by BDB on Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 12:25:32 PM EST
    with mental health parity.  A discussion of this issue as it relates to the current election and healthcare debate can be found in the comments here.
    (the comments are relevant, the original post not so much).

    Of course, we should ask about what went wrong at the end, but if we treated mental illness appropriately in this country, there would be far fewer of these incidents to begin with.

    Competent crisis (5.00 / 1) (#3)
    by jondee on Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 12:37:42 PM EST
    intervention takes into account that what amounts to an armed assualt, or threat of one, always exacerbates the state of the highly agitated subject. This is frickin' grade school - Psych 101
    common knowledge.

    The last thing situations like these need is a bunch of 'roid raging Men in Black chomping at the bit to get into a fire fight.

    Of course. (none / 0) (#13)
    by Fabian on Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 01:37:43 PM EST
    If no one is at risk but the suspect, then there is no reason to do anything but wait and talk and wait and talk and wait.  About the only time you could justify doing anything BUT waiting and talking would be if the suspect posed a real and immediate threat to someone else.

    The way most of these stand offs end is either with the suspect surrendering or the suspect committing suicide.  I've read those stories several times.


    They've got all those powerful weapons (5.00 / 1) (#4)
    by DavidDvorkin on Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 12:48:11 PM EST
    And they'll find reasons to use them.

    Too much, too much (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by blogtopus on Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 01:00:38 PM EST
    I'm busy watching my country become a christian nation - against the wishes of the founders and those who aren't evangelical christians.

    I'm busy watching my country crumble from health crises related to lack of any kind of affordable, nay, FREE care that is available to most if not all the other major western countries in the world.

    I'm busy watching my country dissolve its founding principles, its Constitution, because its leaders aren't listening to their people and are too busy taking money from Telco companies and cringing in fear from a Media gone crazy on overhype and 'reality'.

    I'm busy watching my country relinquish its authority on the high road as it tortures, holds without charges (and evidence) and spies on its citizens without apology or consequences.

    I'm far too busy to notice the men creeping into my house wearing black and holding firepower they are far too eager to use, just because I called for help.

    What sickens me about these sorts of cases (none / 0) (#1)
    by flyerhawk on Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 12:12:16 PM EST
    is that the judge almost always sides with the cops and the city.  They are too scared of setting a bad precedent so they back incompetent cops who were horribly irresponsible.

    His mistake was.... (none / 0) (#5)
    by kdog on Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 12:48:31 PM EST
    calling the police for help...that's not what they do....they arrest, they raid, they shoot...I don't know about help.

    He did not call the police; (none / 0) (#14)
    by Molly Pitcher on Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 01:39:36 PM EST
    he called 911.  In my area, at least, 911 calls are directed to whatever agency is most suitable.  Here that call could have gone to the EMS (or the fire dept).  I did call 911 a couple of times for help with my husband after his stroke.  EMS arrived, with a sheriff's car showing up to check that help had gotten here.

    I have a remote dialer to 911 for any type of emergency, and 911 supposedly can tell the responder how to get into the key lockbox and that I have a dog and cat.  The dialer then will  dial a friend to come get the dog and cat.  

    I'm glad I live in a 'backward' area--I figure I am safe from assault by the sheriff if I call for help.  (A deputy suggested a nightly drive-by since I am fairly isolated.)


    You're right.... (none / 0) (#15)
    by kdog on Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 02:05:57 PM EST
    there is a distinction between 911 and the police.

    Thats why there is a number to the local volunteer ambulance corps on my fridge...that way if we ever need an ambulance, we should still be able to keep the cops out of our hair.


    Mr. Escobedo, unfortunately, had a firearm, (none / 0) (#7)
    by oculus on Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 01:09:20 PM EST
    which, also unfortunately, he aimed at Officer Martin.  At that point, law enforcement was justified in shooting Escobedo.  

    He aimed it at his own head (5.00 / 1) (#9)
    by dianem on Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 01:21:53 PM EST
    He didn't have the option of aiming it at the police officer, or dropping it at his command. In all liklihood, he didn't even know the police officer was there. He was blinded and deafened by the stun grenade. I don't know what kind of nation allows it's police to first incapacitate people and then kill them while they are incapacitated.

    Did you miss the last part of the par.? (none / 0) (#10)
    by oculus on Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 01:25:09 PM EST
    Officer Brian Martin put a flashlight on Escobedo, yelled to the other officers Escobedo had a gun to his head and ordered him to drop the gun. Escobedo didn't, according to court documents, and began pointing the gun at Martin.

    Read the whole thing (5.00 / 1) (#12)
    by dianem on Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 01:35:42 PM EST
    He didn't "aim" anything at the police officer because he couln't see the police officer. He didn't obey the command to drop the weapon because he couldn't hear. He lost the ability to see and hear when the police flash bomb went off near his head. The officers knew that they had set off a flash bomb, but didn't allow for the possibility that it had worked the way it was supposed to - by temporarily blinding and deafening the victim. This man died blind, deaf, and terrified. If somebody had treated a dog this way there would be a national outcry.

    Yes, lets not (none / 0) (#8)
    by jondee on Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 01:20:47 PM EST
    forget that Thin Blue Line that stands between us and out-and-out anarchy.

    Obviously the man called for help only as a ruse in order to get one of our finest into his sights.


    Legally justified?.... (none / 0) (#11)
    by kdog on Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 01:33:57 PM EST
    Perhaps.  Morally justified?...can't say for sure not being there, but it sure doesn't smell like it.

    Yes - AFTER they broke in. (none / 0) (#17)
    by Fabian on Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 04:51:24 PM EST
    The breaking in was the big mistake.  The object is to defuse the situation, not escalate it.

    I'm not even clear why they decided to go with tear gas and the flash/bang.  If Mr. Escobedo had been firing the gun and endangering others, sure.  If he had just been ranting incoherently, no.  

    Generally, these situations resolve in three ways:
    a) The suspect emerges with weapon and refuses orders to drop it.  Police open fire.
    b) Suspect commits suicide alone in the building/room.
    c) Suspect agrees to surrender peacefully.

    I'd be interested in the negotiations (or lack of them) that went on.


    The sad logic of this case... (none / 0) (#16)
    by fishbane on Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 03:30:22 PM EST
    ...is that if one is suicidal, there's a  chance that one can provide a calmer, less painful death for one's self than is available by calling for help.

    Call it like it is (none / 0) (#18)
    by Lora on Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 07:59:12 PM EST
    BAck in the day, they called it police brutality.

    who gave the Breach order (none / 0) (#19)
    by MrPope on Fri Jul 11, 2008 at 11:01:43 PM EST
    I want to have the Swat Commander explain WHY he gave a BANG and Breach order on a mentally ill man alone  with no hostages and no threat to anyone ... that man was murdered

    denominator? (none / 0) (#20)
    by diogenes on Sat Jul 12, 2008 at 10:26:59 PM EST
    How many thousands of police calls to suicidal individuals were completed successfully in the past year?