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California and the West

Deaths Raise Questions About SWAT Teams

Police: Accidents, deaths and raids at wrong addresses put pressure on departments to disband groups. Officers defend paramilitary units as effective when used properly.


MODESTO — No one disputes that Alberto Sepulveda was doing exactly as he was told in the seconds after a police SWAT team burst into his family's home early on the morning of Sept. 13.

As officers rounded up his father, mother and brother, the 11-year-old quickly complied with orders to lie face down, arms outstretched, on the floor beside his bed.

Less than 30 seconds later, in what police describe as a tragic accident, he was struck in the back and killed by a blast from a shotgun trained on him by a Modesto special weapons and tactics officer.

The boy's death, while his father was being served with a federal arrest warrant in a drug trafficking case, sent shock waves through this Central Valley city, roiling its large, established Latino community and throwing its Police Department--and its new police chief--on the defensive.

Under investigation by the state attorney general, the Stanislaus County district attorney and the Police Department itself, the case has raised numerous questions, from why agents chose to arrest Moises Sepulveda at his home to why pre-raid surveillance had not discovered that children were likely to be present.

For many, though, the issue is a broader one: Why was the SWAT team there at all?

"Why all these paramilitary tactics, this whole ninja way of breaking into somebody's home to serve a warrant?" asked Michael Garcia, a leader of the Modesto chapter of the American GI Forum, a Latino veterans group that has been outspoken in the case. "It's like a police state--not something I ever thought I'd see in my country."

Academics such as Peter Kraska, a criminologist who has studied the growing use of SWAT teams in cities across the country, echo Garcia's concern.

The fatal raid, Kraska said, highlights a troubling trend--the tendency of law enforcement agencies to rely on paramilitary police units to execute warrants in drug cases. Such an approach is risky and often unnecessary, he said.

He and others cite a string of controversial incidents involving the military-style squads:

* The fatal shooting in September 1999 of Denver resident Ismael Mena, 45, by SWAT team members who forced their way into what turned out to be the wrong house.

* The 1996 death of Larry Harper, an Albuquerque resident who was despondent and threatening to kill himself as SWAT officers, summoned by his family, arrived and shot him to death. The city's SWAT team was dismantled after his shooting.

* The 1997 death in tiny Dinuba, Calif., of Ramon Gallardo, a 64-year-old farm worker, after SWAT officers burst into his home looking for a stolen gun and shot him. A federal jury awarded Gallardo's family $12.5 million--later reduced to $6 million--in one of the largest judgments in a police brutality case.

* And in Southern California, the 1999 death of Compton resident Mario Paz, who was shot in the back during a nighttime raid by SWAT officers from El Monte. Police suspected that his Compton house had been used by a drug suspect, but they later acknowledged they had no evidence that Paz or his family was involved in trafficking.

The Modesto incident seems all the more confounding because police say the fatal shot was unintentional.

Immediately after the shotgun discharged, Officer David Hawn exclaimed that his finger was not on the trigger, police said. Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden has speculated that the trigger may have caught on Hawn's clothing, flashlight or other equipment.

But whether the shooting was accidental, a mistake or anything else is not the issue, Kraska argues. "Obviously, I don't think this officer went in and purposely executed an 11-year-old," he said. "But if the SWAT team is there, tragic accidents like this are much more likely to happen."

Law enforcement officials and many Modesto residents say the real villain in the death is the Central Valley's escalating methamphetamine problem, which they argue has made SWAT actions a necessity.

Stanislaus County Sheriff's Lt. Raul DeLeon, commander of a multi-agency task force set up to combat the drug scourge, describes the Central Valley as "the methamphetamine capital of the world," the primary manufacturing and distribution center for the drug.

SWAT officers' powerful automatic weapons, special equipment and tactical expertise are a critical component in the fight against the drug and its dealers, he said.

No drugs or weapons were discovered in the Sepulveda home, although authorities did find $3,000 in cash. Moises Sepulveda was charged with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamines and released on a $50,000 property bond, secured against his home and that of his sister.

Sepulveda has denied guilt--and hired attorneys to represent him in his criminal case and in a civil lawsuit he expects to file over the death of his son. He has retained Arturo Gonzalez, the San Francisco attorney who won the Dinuba case.

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