Did Paramilitary Approach to Law Enforcement Get an Officer Killed?

Sgt Tom SmithBack on the 21st, exactly one week ago, BART Police officers were searching a suspect’s apartment when one of them accidentally shot and killed another. Michael Maes, a 26-year veteran, shot Sgt Tom Smith, a 20-year veteran who was the head of their detective bureau. BART has defended itself, noting that in its 42-year history, this is the first officer to be killed on duty. Sadly, the same could not be said of BART customers. Regardless, it is a tragic accident.

The question is why it happened. All kinds of details have been provided. For example, we know the suspect was in jail. We know that Smith had particularly bad luck in that the bullet went through a gap in his body armor. There is even speculation that Smith surprised Maes, by coming through a different door than the crew had originally come through. I assume this means that Smith went out the back door without Maes noticing, and when Smith came back in, Maes was startled and shot. What we don’t know is a general overview of what happened, or how many officers were in the apartment.

Given that they were wearing body armor, I assume that the officers—quite rightly—were cautious entering the apartment. They couldn’t know that it wasn’t occupied. But once inside, they were performing a search. Why did one of them have his gun out? But even if it was during the initial entry, the whole thing screams out as another example of over-stimulated officers making mistakes.

This is a common problem with the police. When the adrenaline is pumping, officers are at their worst. This is what leads to unacceptable behavior like the Rodney King beating. And I assume that whether Smith was killed while entering the apartment or when he unexpectedly came through the back door or at some other time, the primary cause was that Maes was in an agitated state. This is not meant as any special criticism of him, but it might be some criticism of his training and police training in general.

What bothers me about this case is how it generalizes. In the long ago past, a “probation search” would have been done without much ado. But now we have a paramilitary approach, with guns drawn and officers in body armor. That breads the feeling that what the officers are doing is very dangerous—much more dangerous than it actually is. It helps to put them into an agitated state where mistakes are made. We really ought to look at these unnecessary tragedies and think about what our changing policing efforts are doing to us and the officers themselves. I’m not at all certain that they are making us safer and they certainly didn’t make Sgt Smith safer.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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