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Make Tactics Fit the Crime

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

SALVATORE J. Culosi Jr. was an optometrist, not a menace to his community in the Fair Oaks area of Fairfax County. He wasn't armed. He had no history of violence, and as far as we know he didn't even own a firearm. If he was guilty of anything, it was of taking bets on NFL games and other sporting events; Fairfax County police suspected him of being a bookie. What's more, the police knew or should have known that he posed no threat of violence. An undercover officer had been placing bets with him, and, we presume, getting to know him, for three months.

So it is mystifying that the police deployed a SWAT team, high-powered guns drawn and flak jackets strapped on, in a paramilitary raid to arrest him on Jan. 24. And it is outrageous that one officer, whose identity has still not been disclosed, fired his .45-caliber handgun into Mr. Culosi's chest, killing him. Mr. Culosi, who was alone at home at the time of the raid, displayed no threatening behavior, as the police have acknowledged.

Fairfax police say the shooting was accidental, implicitly accepting responsibility for Mr. Culosi's death. The police chief, David M. Rohrer, expressed his condolences and sympathy to Mr. Culosi's family and friends. That was the honorable thing to do, and the honest one, but it's not enough. The police -- not only Chief Rohrer but also Maj. James A. Morris, commander of the police Internal Affairs Bureau, and Maj. Robert Callahan, commander of the Criminal Investigations Bureau -- owe the Culosi family and the community an explanation of what went wrong, as well as a thorough review of the procedures and planning that led to this pointless death.

But six weeks after the fact, and after announcing that they would undertake an administrative and criminal investigation of the incident, they have produced only silence. Why the delay?

Across the country, police have increasingly been using military-style tactical units to arrest nonviolent suspects. Radley Balko, an analyst with the Cato Institute, wrote in our pages last month that the use of such SWAT teams is now routine -- in one recent case, even to bust a suburban poker game near Denver. We hope that Chief Rohrer, Maj. Morris and Maj. Callahan are taking a hard look not only at Mr. Culosi's death but also more generally at the use of SWAT teams to serve routine warrants.

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