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Yet Another Sorry Lesson for the Hapless Feds

September 09, 2001|STEPHEN YAGMAN | Stephen Yagman, a Venice Beach federal civil rights lawyer, was special prosecutor for the state of Idaho in the Ruby Ridge case against an FBI sniper

The fearsome feds are at it again, this time endangering an entire neighborhood in Los Angeles County. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' foray last week into the Stevenson Ranch subdivision bears alarming resemblance to both the agency's 1992 assault on separatists at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and its 1993 attack on the Branch Davidian's Mount Carmel compound near Waco, Texas.

In all three cases, armed with fuzzy and incomplete information that suspicious dwellers had illegal weapons that potentially violated federal gun laws, ATF troops got secretive federal warrants and ventured out--ill-trained, ill-prepared, looking for trouble. All three times, they found it in spades, with deaths and conflagrations that could have been avoided had a drop of un-macho common sense prevailed.

At Ruby Ridge, the ATF suspected that the targets of its warrants had illegal guns. Notwithstanding that agents knew that the man they wanted, Randall Weaver, came down from his cabin on Ruby Ridge nearly every day to have breakfast and to pick up his mail, still they stormed his cabin. The result: the deaths of Weaver's 14-year-old son and his wife.

At Waco, ATF target David Koresh, like Weaver, was known to go into town to shop several times a week, but agents convoyed out to Mount Carmel, unsuccessfully stormed the compound, got four ATF agents killed, caused a two-month standoff and then came in and immolated the entire compound, killing more than 80 men, women and children. Though the feds dispute it, it is likely that their introduction of tear gas canisters into the compound ignited the fire.

Sensible people in law enforcement would have learned many things from Ruby Ridge and Waco, but not the ATF. The latest ATF target of opportunity, James Beck, was known to walk his dog each morning. Yet the ATF decided to confront him at his home, aggressively approaching the front door of a man who they now claim had a stash of automatic weapons and a cache of ammunition.

Donald Kincaid, ATF's Southern California regional director, says that the agency had reason to believe that Beck would be cooperative because he had acquiesced to a similar search a year earlier. That search did not result in Beck's arrest, and Kincaid did not say what, if anything, was found then.

Rather than waiting for Beck to go out on his morning walk, these macho feds decided to do a Matt Dillon and got one L.A. County sheriff's deputy killed in addition to their target and his dog. In the process, they nearly burned down a neighborhood. Sound like Waco?

There are better ways to execute warrants than starting bonfires. Intelligent, well-trained, disciplined law enforcement officers perform their planned tasks so as to avoid confrontation, unnecessary violence and, yes, fires. Sensible cops do reconnaissance. At Ruby Ridge, Waco and Stevenson Ranch, reconnaissance indicated that the wanted men regularly came out of their homes. In each case, the ATF easily could have waited for its quarry to emerge. No shooting, no fires, no deaths.

A little patience would have saved a lot of lives. After Waco, ATF heads rolled, its director retired in disgrace and reforms were promised. More than eight years later, it seems no lessons were learned and no reforms were made. Maybe we should call it the Bureau of Anarchy, Tumult and Fire.

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