Tactical training by law enforcement viewed as a necessary tool to protect civilians in emergency response situations
By Corey Arvin
The echo of bomb blasts adorned a tightly-knit neighborhood followed by the crackling sound emanating from a barrage of bullets that filled the air. Officers storm a vacant multi-housing building military-style in sharp pursuit of a suspect. Not far away, a little girl runs for safety in her own home, sheltering herself from the perceived violence that has swiftly entered her world.
The war outside seems unreal. In fact, it isn't real at all.
This isn't war-torn Bosnia circa 1992 or today’s clashing Syrian forces spilling into the streets. However, the faces of the people in fear are minorities and the effect is surreal for one neighborhood in Albany, NY that is still trying to understand the reason for a police training exercise conducted in March in an Arbor Hill neighborhood that is home to several housing projects.
To say Lauren Manning was upset and disconcerted to discover her neighborhood was turned upside down would be an understatement. Manning first received word that something unsettling was happening within her neighborhood from her 4-year-old daughter's babysitter who called her at work, explaining what little she knew at the time.
According to Manning, officers from the Albany Police Department locked down her neighborhood until the training exercise concluded, not allowing anyone to leave.
"As I'm speaking with (the babysitter) I hear the sounds of bombs, breaking glass, automatic weapons and my daughter crying to the babysitter 'let's go'. I then ask the babysitter why is a cop standing in front of the door. She replied ‘so I don't go out’ and so our neighbor can't come in. At this point, the officer told my neighbor to go home, nobody in or out and if he didn't leave he was going to be arrested," said Manning.
By the time she arrived home, left behind were bullet shell casings, debris and simulated blood. For weeks it would serve as a reminder of the virtual violence that transpired and the fear her daughter and neighbors had to endure. Manning felt it was also a symbol of an inequality her neighborhood had to face and the inhumane attitude officers have toward people in her neighborhood -- an area that is home to predominately minorities.
The disruption and fear was too much to bear – and tolerate – so Manning drafted a petition on Change.org, asking supporters to request the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Albany Housing Authority prohibit law enforcement officials from using housing developments such as her neighborhood as training grounds. As of May 21, Manning's petition has garnered more than 27,000 signatures from across the U.S. and the support of her local community who were outraged by the training exercise.
“I contacted HUD directly to file a complaint. The 800 number for complaints told me they don't handle housing complaints, call New York City HUD. New York City HUD told me to call the HUD field office in Albany. Albany told me to call HUD in Buffalo, NY. Buffalo told me to call Albany. … After the run around I did some research and found that HUD housing complexes across the country are being used as training grounds. When I saw this was happening around the country, I knew HUD needed a national policy to protect residents from this terror,” said Manning.
“HUD’s mission is to utilize housing as a platform for improving quality of life. Allowing tactical police training in communities where families live actually undermines that mission. Federally subsidized housing is meant to provide safe and affordable homes, not training grounds for police or military,” she added.
According to Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for HUD, the department was concerned about initial reports of the police training exercise that took place, but Manning's issue is a local matter that is under the jurisdiction of Albany Housing Authority, not HUD.
According to Sullivan, the information HUD received about the tactical training exercise were inconsistent with Manning’s account of the situation.
Albany Police Department could not be reached for comment.
According to WAMC Northeast Public Radio's website, in a police department email Albany Police Chief Steven Krokoff stated "I certainly did not mean to offend the very people that we are training to protect. In retrospect, it was insensitive to conduct this type of training in the vicinity of occupied residences."
A Necessary Response
Experts say today's climate with elevated concerns of domestic terrorism and extreme violence require sophisticated -- and sometimes aggressive -- training to adequately respond to a threat and protect civilians.
The Inland Empire is no stranger to extraordinary violence. The pursuit of disgruntled former Los Angeles Police Department officer Christopher Dorner sparked a manhunt that captivated the entire nation as police and Federal Bureau of Investigator (FBI) officials combed Southern California for Dorner. Before the massive search culminated, one Riverside police officer was fatally wounded and another was seriously wounded. One San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputy was also killed and another was wounded. The manhunt for Dorner was a unique case, according to officials, but tactical training is necessary for violent threats of various levels.
“Although unique because Dorner was so aggressive and so heavily armed, many of the tactics used by tactical teams in less intense standoffs were applied to the Dorner case once he was locked down to a single location,” said Lt. Dave Kondrit.
Riverside County Sheriff’s Department engages in its own tactical training exercises using suburban neighborhoods and commercial buildings. However, the department does not usually conduct training exercises in inhabited suburban or urban neighborhoods. As a precaution, personnel will place portable signs at the entrance of housing tracts and business complexes where training will occur. In addition, tactical exercises in businesses will usually take place after business hours so no surrounding businesses are interrupted and customers will not be frightened. If residential structures are used, the department will try to use mostly completed but unoccupied new housing tracts, abandoned structures, or model homes after hours, officials said.
“Tactical training exercises are absolutely critical when responding to critical incidents and terrorism. Critical incident crime scenes are often very complicated and require a lot of coordination between members of a tactical team, command staff and patrol personnel. It is only through repetitive, real world training that tactical teams build the muscle memory necessary to handle these dynamic incidents in a smooth and effective way,” said Kondrit.
“One of the goals of a tactical team is to minimize the disruption of the normal day to day lives of people in a neighborhood and return the neighborhood to normal functioning as soon as possible. It is only by practicing these types of scenarios that we can do this.”
After April 15, Boston, Mass. became the site of a massive search for alleged terrorists suspected of masterminding the Boston Marathon bombings that killed three people and seriously injured at least 260. A wide-scale manhunt for Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his younger brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev transformed Boston into a virtual police state with residents locked into their homes and law enforcement officers commandeering the city – a dramatic safety precaution for the Boston area captured on national television.
Critics of the law enforcement response in Boston were aplenty. Former presidential candidate Ron Paul – a popular fixture of the Libertarian Party – slammed Boston Police Department for its response to the bombings and the tactics used in its search for the suspected terrorists.
In a blog posting titled “Liberty Was Also Attacked In Boston” on Lewrockwell.com, a Libertarian activist’s website, Paul stated “The Boston bombing provided the opportunity for the government to turn what should have been a police investigation into a military-style occupation of an American city. This unprecedented move should frighten us as much or more than the attack itself.”
Why ‘Urban’ Neighborhoods?
There’s no dispute that law enforcement officials have a tough job, but it is important to have limits and oversight on their authority, said Olu K. Orange.
Orange is an attorney and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Political Science at University of Southern California (USC). Orange’s career includes several high-profile civil rights cases, including when he tried and won Chaudhry v. City of Los Angeles, the first post-9/11 case of a police officer and U.S. Marine who was found liable for the shooting death of Mohammad Usman Chaudhry, a Muslim man who was also autistic.
According to Orange, the tactical training in Albany may carry a pervasive racial undertone in the community affected by the incident, but the disparity in how police officers treated Manning’s neighborhood is probably based on income more than any other factor.
Orange disputes the necessity for police training in occupied suburban neighborhoods or housing projects, pointing to warehouses and business complexes as alternatives. In addition, Orange suspects there may have been another motive for the tactical training that has nothing to do with emergency response preparation.
“I would not be surprised if (officers) did this as some twisted tactic to show criminals in that area who has the real muscle, not realizing there are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters … families who thrive in those communities,” he said.
“These officers and administrators were not seeing the inhabitants of the neighborhood on the same level of humanity as their own. If you see people as truly human, you don't do this. It never enters your thought process.”
In part, Orange blames law enforcement officials’ expanded definition of terrorism for extending police officers’ authority. He believes some officials and legislators are using "fear mongering" as a tool to gain support and boost police budgets – all of which leads to the further endangering of Constitutional protections.
Still, the impact of police training in Manning’s neighborhood makes Orange uneasy when he reflects on the adjacent neighbors and a nearby elementary school in that Albany community.
“Some police paint everybody in the lower economic echelon with a broad brush as lazy, unemployed, misfits ... but when you include kids, it shocks me … and within proximity of a school. There was no thought that there would be a negative impact on kids. If you feel that way about people, okay, but what fault can you say kids have for their circumstances.”
For more information on Lauren Manning’s petition, visit http://www.change.org/petitions/hud-ban-tactical-police-training-in-residential-properties.
Corey Arvin is a contributing writer for Black Voice News who previously worked as a Staff Writer and Online News Producer for Los Angeles News Group, as well as a Staff Writer for the Press-Enterprise Co. He was also a recipient of the Scripps Howard Foundation National Journalism Award for Web Reporting.
Follow Corey Arvin on Twitter @coreyarvin for upcoming features and the latest information on BlackVoiceNews.com.