SWAT Tactics at Issue After Fairfax Shooting

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 27, 2006

Salvatore J. Culosi Sr. still can't believe his son, a 37-year-old optometrist, was a suspected sports bookie. He can't believe a heavily armed SWAT team fatally shot his unarmed son, Salvatore J. Culosi Jr., outside his Fair Oaks home Tuesday night.

And Culosi can't believe that the SWAT team's sudden descent on his son, apparently causing one officer to accidentally fire a .45-caliber handgun once into his son's chest, is standard procedure for Fairfax County police conducting a search.

"We are outraged that current police protocol would ever allow something like this to happen," Culosi, 63, said last night. "The fact is that there was zero basis whatsoever for the officers involved to have any weapons drawn in this situation."

Culosi added: "Sal was alone and unarmed. He was compliant with police instructions. He made no threatening movements or gestures. There was no risk of harm to anyone. Anyone, that is, except Sal."

A Fairfax police detective had been making sports bets with Culosi for three months, court records show, and on Tuesday night police planned to arrest Culosi and search his townhouse on Cavalier Landing Court. But Fairfax Police Chief David M. Rohrer said a 17-year police veteran with long experience in the tactical unit accidentally fired his gun, killing Culosi.

The officer was not named, and police could not say why his gun went off.

Although police and firearms authorities were divided yesterday on whether SWAT teams are needed for most search warrants, as is Fairfax's practice, they agreed on another point: Officers carrying guns should not aim directly at anyone or have their fingers on the trigger until they are absolutely ready to fire.

"In my opinion, there are no accidental discharges," said John Gnagey, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association. Gnagey was not familiar with the Fairfax case but said that in general, "Most of what we see in law enforcement are negligent discharges, fingers being on the trigger when they shouldn't be."

Gnagey was in the camp that thought "SWAT teams shouldn't be doing all warrants." But once there, "the weapons are not pointed at anybody."

Fairfax police declined to discuss their tactical unit policies. But police officials acknowledged that the tactical team, using bulletproof vests, high-powered weapons and other police tools, serves nearly all of the warrants after an investigation has found probable cause to seize evidence -- whether it is bloody clothes, weapons or documents.

In Culosi's case, police were looking for records they suspected he kept after undercover Detective David J. Baucom spent three months placing bets with him on NFL games, according to Baucom's affidavit for the search warrant. A document filed yesterday by Baucom indicates that police entered Culosi's townhouse at 10:13 p.m. Tuesday, about 40 minutes after the fatal shooting.

Police found betting slips, currency, "suspected cocaine" and an unspecified amount of "U.S. currency," according to Baucom's "Inventory of Seized Property." Sources close to the investigation said that police found $38,000 cash in Culosi's home and that the suspected cocaine was a small amount.

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