Strickland Shooting Settled In Deal's 3 Points
$2.45 million, apology and, next, an audit
Published: Friday, February 29, 2008
The handwritten settlement reached this week that resolved the fallout over the shooting death of 18-year-old Peyton Strickland included just three main points, officials say.
They were: $2.45 million, headed to a scholarship fund; an apology, issued Wednesday; and an audit of the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office's Emergency Response Team. On Thursday, county officials said plans for the review aren't set but they are open to outside advice.
"I think right from the start the sheriff started looking at what went wrong and what could we do better," said New Hanover County Commissioner Bill Caster.
County Commissioner Robert Greer said, "If we can improve on anything we're willing to listen."
County spokesman Mark Boyer said Sheriff Sid Causey, who isn't discussing the case, will select the outside auditor.
The cost of the review, like the $25,000 deductible the county must pay toward the settlement with the Strickland family, is expected to come from the sheriff's budget, Boyer said.
Attention turned to the office's Emergency Response Team on Dec. 1, 2006, when Cpl. Christopher M. Long mistook the sound of a battering ram for gunfire during a raid.
He fired through a door, killing Strickland, a student at Cape Fear Community College, who was wanted in connection with the robbery of video game equipment. Strickland wasn't armed. Causey said Wednesday that Long mis-evaluated the threat. A grand jury considered the case but chose not to indict.
The sheriff's office, Boyer said, will ask auditors to apply for the job and then choose one, but the request hasn't been put out yet.
One spokesman for a firm that audits Special Weapons and Tactics Teams said a full review would cost about $20,000. A spokesman for another firm said it does quick reviews for $5,000, but that in-depth evaluations are far more expensive.
Experts who study SWAT and ERT teams say a full audit would consider everything from when to deploy, to evaluating threats, to training and equipping officers.
The extent of the audit will be up to the sheriff, but one auditor said departments that hire them after a shooting of an officer or civilians generally seek the most thorough review.
The National Tactical Officers Association, a nonprofit in Doylestown, Pa., has audited teams after everything from officer shootings to riots, according to Executive Director John Gnagey.
The process varies based on the size of the agency, state law and the expectations of the community, Gnagey said. But in general, auditors study procedures, training, rules of engagement and whether review boards are in place to review shootings.
Gnagey said NTOA audits use two to four people and take three to six months. They leave agencies with a report, including suggested improvements, which are available for public review since the process is taxpayer funded, he said. Some agencies that the nonprofit has reviewed include the Tulsa Police Department, the Albuquerque Police Department and the Sarasota Police Department.
Strategies and tactics
David Klinger, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, said police agencies must evaluate when special teams are deployed, with an eye for ensuring the most skilled officers are available for the most dangerous threats.
In practice, he said, most agencies use SWAT or ERT primarily for hostage rescue, barricade situations and school or mall shootings. Teams also serve search and arrest warrants on suspects who are heavily armed or who have threatened police. But it varies, he said, with a small minority of agencies using teams to serve all their drug warrants.
Professor Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, said federal grants have led to the formation of more SWAT teams so now some jurisdictions use them when they might not otherwise. In his view, special teams should be used on a limited basis.
"A situation when you're on a hair-trigger to deadly force should only be used when people's lives are at risk," Reynolds said.
Thomas Aveni, a consultant and researcher with The Police Policy Studies Council in Spofford, N.H., said many mistakes result from lapses in basic techniques, which occur in high-pressure situations.
Although Aveni hasn't studied the Strickland case, he said the description of Long firing at the sound of a battering ram smacks of a startled officer firing unintentionally.
"Officers start elevating their muzzles prematurely for a sense of security," he said. "It happens all too often."
Those "startle-stimulus" shootings, he said, are avoided by keeping muzzles down and fingers off triggers.
Dr. Jack O'Connor, vice president of Advanced SWAT Training and Competition, said the dangers inherent in police work are magnified when special teams are called.
"Most SWAT cops get shot by other SWAT cops," he said. "When you make a decision to send in the big kid, you can do everything right," he said. Still, "things can go wrong very quickly."