Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore has ordered an internal review of SWAT team operations over the last 10 years to determine whether “any potential problems or patterns” exist in how the unit uses force.
The review comes on the heels of Times reporting last week that a SWAT team member was caught on video saying “happy hunting” to other members before a fatal SWAT shooting this month.
It comes nearly two years after a former member of the SWAT team alleged in a lawsuit that a group of influential team members known as the “SWAT mafia” glorify violence and the use of deadly force and exert outsize control over hiring like-minded individuals into the squad.
Moore said he did not believe the SWAT mafia claims made by former SWAT Sgt. Timothy Colomey had “any merit,” but that he was disturbed by the “happy hunting” comment. He said he wants a thorough review conducted — not just of SWAT shootings, but also other encounters such as barricade situations or when SWAT members served “high-risk search warrants.”
Moore announced the review during the LAPD civilian oversight commission’s weekly meeting Tuesday. He said when the review is completed, a full report on its findings would be presented to the commission.
Several commissioners expressed support for the review. They also voiced concern about the “happy hunting” comment and the claims by Colomey.
“My concern was not only for the comments that were made but also the reporting around an alleged SWAT mafia, so I’m glad that you’re being proactive in terms of investigating that looking back,” said Police Commission President William Briggs.
Briggs asked that the LAPD inspector general’s office monitor the review “and if necessary report back to the commission independent of the department” on any identified concerns or findings.
Briggs said the “happy hunting” comment and the SWAT mafia allegations were “just too ugly a parallel to what we see in other departments” — a direct reference to claims of gang-like groups of deputies within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
“We certainly don’t want that here in the LAPD,” Briggs said.
Commissioner Eileen Decker echoed Briggs’ call for oversight by the inspector general.
Diana Wang Wells, an attorney for Colomey, said in an interview that the call for a review was “a good start,” but that it should be conducted by outside investigators, not internally by the LAPD as planned.
Wells also said the report would be valuable only if its findings were made public and the department and commission were “serious about taking action to address whatever the investigation revealed.”
After the commission discussion, Lt. Ruben Lopez, who oversees SWAT, sent an email to the unit’s members advising them of the pending review, according to a review of the email by The Times.
“As expected, SWAT was a topic of discussion at today’s Police Commission meeting,” Lopez wrote, before noting that he will be discussing the matter further at a forthcoming, mandatory meeting of the unit.
Lopez said the review would include every use of force by each officer, as well as a review of calls that were resolved through de-escalation. He also referenced Briggs’ concerns about the SWAT mafia and his call for the inspector general’s office to be involved.
Mark Smith, the inspector general, said his office would be “actively monitoring” the department’s review — through to the completion of the report to the commission — to “ensure that those efforts are thorough and impartial.”
In addition to the review of the SWAT team, Moore noted there is an ongoing misconduct investigation into the individual officer who made the “happy hunting” comment, who police have not named.
That investigation will include a review of the officer’s “background within the SWAT unit” and “any previous use of force” by the officer, Moore said.
The officer made the comment while preparing with other SWAT officers to surround a man who had barricaded himself in a fifth-story apartment in downtown L.A. on May 3.
Police allege the man, 54-year-old Leron James, had pulled a gun on paramedics, who had responded to the scene for a medical emergency call, and then pulled it again on the first responding officers before they retreated and called in the SWAT team.
After negotiations with James failed and he refused to disarm himself and come outside, SWAT members fired tear gas into the apartment, police said. Police allege James then came to a window and fired at officers.
Two SWAT officers — identified as Howard Ng and Joseph Dominguez — returned fire, fatally wounding James, police said. Neither Ng nor Dominguez made the “happy hunting” comment, Moore said. But a source who requested anonymity to discuss the matter candidly said they were near the officer who did at the time it was made.
The comment was discovered by a commanding officer who was reviewing body-camera video from the incident.
Moore said the officer’s remark was not a crime. But it might violate LAPD policies, he said, which require officers to show a “reverence for human life.”
“Our words and deeds must always represent that reverence,” Moore said.
If the misconduct complaint against the officer is upheld, Moore will decide a punishment that may be accepted by the officer or taken by the officer to another disciplinary board for further review and a conclusive ruling on whether his actions violated policy. Specific punishments for such misconduct are not made public.