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.
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.