Lessons gained from Stewart shooting review

Saturday , July 26, 2014 - 8:28 PM

Standard-Examiner staff

OGDEN — Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force agents arriving at Matthew David Stewart's home initially believed the warrant they were serving to be routine. It wasn't clear whether Stewart even lived at the home — believed to be a marijuana grow house — and the warrant was classified as low risk, according to an internal Shooting Report Review summary released last week by the Ogden Police Department.

Insufficient defensive gear and broken down communication with arriving reinforcements were among the factors the report cited for leaving officers especially vulnerable to Stewart's barrage of bullets. Stewart opened fire on officers on the night of Jan. 4, 2012 as they entered his home at 3268 Jackson Ave. Ogden police officer and strike force agent Jared Francom, a father of two, was killed and five others were injured in the gunfire.

The aftermath of that night would go on to leave an indelible mark on three police agencies and the Ogden community at large. Stewart's family, vocal in their complaints against the strike force’s search warrant procedures, grew even louder in their protests after he committed suicide in May 2013. Stewart was in the Weber County Jail awaiting trial on one charge of aggravated murder and seven counts of attempted aggravated murder, all first-degree felonies. He was also accused of growing 16 marijuana plants in his home, a second-degree-felony.

Officers were found to be clearly justified in their use of force after Stewart opened fire, said the report filed by the department's Shooting Review Board, but they were under-prepared for Stewart's attack because of "complacency in the use of standard equipment, approaching the target home safely, conducting a thorough background investigation of the suspect, and a thorough scout of the target home."

There seemed to be nothing particularly threatening about this particular warrant service, the report summary said.

"It appeared that all, if not most, of the agents believed that they would find the home vacant. This belief was in part due to the same kitchen light being on during all attempted 'knock and talk' visits to the home and the fact that there was never a response at the door," the summary reads.

A scheduled pre-surveillance of the home wasn't conducted before the warrant was carried out, contrary to protocol.

"Pre-surveillance was assigned to a specific agent; however, no pre-surveillance took place," the report summary says. "If this task had been completed it may have given indication the suspect was inside the residence. Pre-surveillance should have been conducted 30 minutes to 1 hour prior to the warrant execution and the agent assigned pre-surveillance should have relayed his/her observations to the case agent for briefing purposes."

Stewart's ex-girlfriend Stacy Wilson, the police informant who reportedly prompted the investigation at the time, had spoken with police but had grown uncooperative and did not reveal Stewart's "plan for aggression toward any officers trying to come in his house and seize his marijuana,“ according to the Shooting Report Review summary.

"Although in hindsight this would have been critical information, the informant refused to communicate further with the investigating agent prior to the shooting," the summary reads.

The officers serving the warrant knew little about the layout of the home and its backyard, according to the Shooting Review Report summary, and a medical evacuation point was either identified or explained without enough emphasis.

Protective vests, helmets and long guns were at the officers' disposal before they executed the warrant, but weren't used because of the low perceived risk. The officers were also carrying an inadequate amount of ammunition, the summary said.

"All of the agents from the Ogden Police Department failed to carry an extra, fully loaded magazine as required by Ogden Police Police 3(N) Use of Force," it states. "Some agents ran dry of ammunition during the gun battle and had to verbally announce that they were out which was most likely heard by the suspect."

Confusion also plagued the scene as the two supervising sergeants responded to help injured officers. That, and the fact that four of the warrant-serving officers were without their radios, interfered with officers' efforts to describe important details as more police arrived.

Ogden's police department and the task force itself have responded to each of the 12 recommendations listed in the report, Police Chief Mike Ashment told the Standard-Examiner, ranging from required gear checks to a more thorough report of the warrants' personnel and location to the on-duty lieutenant.

"Everything talked about in the changes ... is about being as prepared as we can be and to understand that it doesn't matter what the (risk level) matrix shows," Ashment said. "When we look at the potential for violence when we do the search warrant ... even a low threat matrix score might not always mean that (we're) dealing with somebody who's not going to confront (us) like Stewart did. ... Every change we made illustrates the fact you can't assume it's going to be a routine, non-event kind of a warrant."

Other recommendations in the Shooting Review Report included:

- Align warrant service policies between Ogden Police and the strike force more closely

- Require pre-surveillance in any felony investigation when the suspect is believed to be inside

- Purchase a ballistic shield and equipment upgrades to other defensive gear

- Require a search warrant supervisor on scene who is not part of the entry team

- Set aside a separate radio channel used specially for scheduled search warrants

- Establish training to prepare officers for potential crossfire risks

The violations in the warrant service were technical in nature and because they point to complacency, Ashment said, they dispel the narrative of a "vocal minority" portraying the task force as overly aggressive and militarized in its approach. Weber County Attorney Dee Smith seconded Ashment’s assessment.

“There have been a lot of other people willing to talk who didn't know the facts of the case. ... (The officers serving the warrant) were being painted as these jackbooted thugs ... pouring in looking for a gun battle. The opposite is true,” Smith said. “They didn't have any extra ammunition, they didn’t have any rifles and they weren't all decked out in military gear.”

Erna Stewart, who speaks frequently on behalf of the Stewart family, told the Standard-Examiner last week that she wishes her brother-in-law was alive to see the results of the Shooting Review Report. The police department came to an out-of-court agreement last week with the Salt Lake Tribune to release a summary of the report’s findings. That paper filed a lawsuit in February asking to see the record. The Standard-Examiner received a copy of the summary.  

“I had been begging these guys for 2 and a half years to admit some fault,” she said. “It's good good to hear them finally admitting something in it but it's devastating too (that it didn’t come sooner). I’m crushed.”

Erna Stewart also said increasing ammunition is a change in the wrong direction in response to the tragedy, but agreed police need to scout the home and the suspect’s schedule more thoroughly when they do have to serve a warrant.

“I do agree with some of the changes. Take your time, know their schedules,” she said of suspects whose homes are served with a warrant. 

The recommendation consuming the most resources, according to Ashment, has been increased training for officers who serve warrants. Officers who are certified members of the Tactical Operations Group are in charge of serving all warrants. 

“If you look at cost and time, the one thing would be training. Now we have quarterly training and annual certification for the officers who are on the TOG team,” Ashment said. “In the old days, when I was a detective, we'd grab a couple guys and go do a search warrant. Now we make sure we go through a process and do the threat matrix and we have the TOG team execute the search warrant so that they have all of the equipment there and they have the training and they train together ... so that if it does go bad, everything is in place to react accordingly. That's probably the most significant change.”

The rigorous protocol has done its job keeping officers safe, according to Ashment.

“We haven't had any incidents that I'm aware of where they've had a problem,” he said.

Lessons from the tragedy

Ashment feels the officers who risked their lives that fateful night to save others have been overshadowed by a slanted public debate, fueled by media attention, over whether police should have been serving a search warrant for a non-violent crime. Those officers who deserve recognition as heroes for protecting their comrades in the heat of gunfire, he said, have felt personally attacked by opportunists who use the tragedy as a “soap box” to debate for their position against enforcing drug crime.

“They (the strike force agents) are all pretty jaded against the media because of the reporting on it,” he said. “Quite frankly ... they want this thing to go away, they want this to be closed and they want to move on.”

Erna Stewart said she believes her family has also been dragged through the mud during the ordeal for suggesting police were “just as responsible” for the tragedy that unfolded, a stance she still holds.

“I'm sure the officers and their families would agree, nobody should ever have to go through something like this,” she said. “In reality, it was a perfect storm of horrible events.”

Ultimately, there is still disagreement between police and Stewart’s family on the primary lesson of the tragedy. Erna Stewart said she believes police, as a matter of policy, ought not to enter suspects’ homes for non-violent offenses.

”That's all fine and dandy,” she said of the proposed changes for more firepower. “But how about not going into people’s homes for low level crimes? We do believe there is a time and place for SWAT tactics, (but for suspects of non-violent crimes) it’s creating violence out of a non-violent situation.”

County Attorney Smith is frequently asked whether the human toll suffered at Stewart’s home was worth a search warrant for marijuana plants. He said the question is naive as to the nature of police work.

“Enforcing drug laws comes with some risk. It's just the reality of it. But everything police do comes with some risk,” Smith said. “Officers around this country every year die, a lot of them, making traffic stops. The same thing could be said -- is it worth it to stop someone from speeding? Well of course it's not worth an officer’s life. But it happens and we can't say ’well, because it's dangerous we're not going to enforce the law.’”

Ashment said the department was hesitant about releasing the Shooting Review Report or alternatively its summary because he didn’t want to de-emphasize the valor of the strike force agents. He said he was also worried about the focus on the officers’ procedural violations because those missteps weren't ultimately responsible for Francom’s death or the injuries to the other officers. 

"It’s really more about Matthew Stewart shooting up our police officers than it (is) a marijuana legalization issue,“ Ashment said.

But that didn’t stop from a policy agenda dominating news coverage in the aftermath, the chief said. 

”I think part of it comes from the vocal minority who has a pro drug legalization agenda,“ Ashment said. ”I think that if you dig a little deeper you'll find the people who are showing up and making an issue of this are actually changing the message and not talking about the facts.“

The ordeal hasn’t prevented and won’t prevent police from upholding drug laws, he added.

"When we have a neighbor who is up in arms about (a nearby) drug dealer or a drug house and their neighborhood is just going to hell because of all that activity ... those phone calls don't go to the press, those phone calls come to me,” Ashment said. “It’s our job to respond to that and to do our best to (enforce) those crimes.”

Many non-violent crimes are very difficult to enforce without a home search warrant, Smith said, including theft, identity and check fraud, possessing child pornography and drug distribution.

“The only way for police to stop it and to obtain the evidence to convict the person is to go into the house,” Smith said. “(Some activists say) police should never come into people’s homes for non-violent crimes. ... That’s not true because we have people who are victimizing good, hard-working people with these check frauds all the time and they have to go into that house ... to put a stop to it.”

Where are they now?

Ashment took over as police chief just two months after the shooting occurred,taking charge of a department still reeling from the tragedy. 

“It was kind of like drinking out of a fire hose, I guess, a lot to take in and a lot to deal with,” he said, adding the department is to this day affected by what happened. 

The name of Ogden police headquarters was changed to the Francom Public Safety Building in 2013.

Five officers besides Francom were hit by Stewart’s gunfire, and four of them were injured critically. These officers were Ogden police’s Kasey Burrell, Shawn Grogan and Michael Rounkles as well as Jason Vanderwarf from Roy police and Nate Hutchinson of the Weber County Sheriff’s Office. Today, Smith said, all of them are moved on from the strike force, but not because of the incident at Stewart’s home. 

“The strike force is really a temporary assignment,” Smith said, noting it lasts usually two to four years, sometimes five. “They’ve all kind of gone through the normal course of their career from here. Some (of them) have moved on, not because of this (incident), just because their time was up or another opportunity presented itself.”

Each of the officers is still with the same department as at the time of the shooting, Smith said, and some still “carry some scars and some injuries” but all are fully capable to continue in their line of work.

“It’s amazing because the first officer shot almost at point blank range in the face (suffered) significant damage, another officer was shot directly in the mouth still has a bullet lodged in his neck, another officer shot in the head and the stomach spent a couple weeks in a coma. Another officer as he's dragging guys out is being shot -- shot four times dragging fallen officers out,” Smith said. ”To me it's amazing they're all back to work willing to continue to serve and protect this community after going through that. It says a lot to me of their character and their strength that they're still (working) with us.“

Ashment added he was impressed with their resilience.

”The fact is that these guys ... you know, went through a lot and they're back -- back doing the job,“ he said.

The Utah Peace Officers Association lists each of the injured agents as 2013 Purple Heart recipients for their ”sustained wounds inflicted intentionally by an armed offender or adversary.“ 

  • Burrell, who sustained injuries to his stomach and face, is a Master Police Officer working in Ogden’s Community Policing Program.
  • Grogan, who sustained injuries to his face, is a Master Police Officer working in Ogden’s Patrol Division.
  • Rounkles, who sustained injuries to his leg, is a Master Police Officer working in the Ogden Metro Gang Unit.
  • Vanderwarf, who sustained injuries to his hip, is a detective working in the Investigative Division for the Roy Police Department. Vanderwarf also works as a spokesman for the department. 
  • Hutchinson, who sustained injuries to his chest area, his arm and his hip, is a detective working in the Investigation Bureau for the Weber County Sheriff’s Office.

Contact reporter Ben Lockhart at 801-625-4221 or blockhart@standard.net. Follow him on Twtitter at @SE_Lockhart. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/blockhartSE.

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