In Memoriam

Fair warning: politics ahead. Outrage imminent. Abort! Abort! …or pick up your coffee and join me in a little thought experiment (for those looking for a calmer introspection on Memorial Day, there is this item in the P-I, written before I read this morning’s news).

Seattle WTO protests

© Steve Kaiser

The only guarantee in this little thought experiment is that we won’t find simple answers. You might think that life or death moments instantly reduce all questions to their simplest possible form. You’d be wrong about that.

I’d like – no, strike that – I need to write today about a deceased veteran. His name was José Guerena. It still is, because you’re going to hear that name a lot in the next few days.

As a member of Marine Wing Support Squadron 173, José served two tours in Iraq for his country.  For your country.

Then he got out and went back to raising a family in a quiet neighborhood of Tucson, Arizona with his wife of nine years and two sons, four and six. José worked a night shift at the Asarco Mission Copper Mine.

He had a military service record, including campaign medals. He had a couple of speeding tickets.

He had no criminal record. When they blew through his door on the morning of 05May, Pima County SWAT members weren’t holding a warrant for José Guerena. They were serving a search warrant on the address. No suspects were named.

In a salvo lasting seven seconds, SWAT members fired 71 bullets through the front door. The 26 year-old military veteran was hit 60 times. He slumped into the kitchen. Aid workers were not allowed into the home by officers who insisted that they were dealing with a barricaded suspect.

These are things that are known. They’re what attorneys might call “facts in evidence.”

Pause for testimony…  José’s rather pretty young wife, Vanessa, said that he had been home from work, napping, when she woke him up because there were men with guns outside. She said she saw a man in black point a gun at her through the bedroom window. Fearing a home invasion after her sister-in-law’s family was victimized by just such a home invasion that killed two adults and wounded a two year-old, Vanessa woke her husband up in a panic.

That crime remains unsolved.

She said he told her to take their youngest son (the eldest was schooling at the local kindergarten) and hide in the closet. Then he grabbed his rifle and took up a defensive position.

José kept an AR15 in his home. Police may or may not also have found a .38-caliber revolver at the scene. Both guns are legal to own, anywhere in Arizona, and the AR is a close analog of the M16 rifle on which the Marines trained José. He knew how to run one.

Hold that thought while you watch what happened next (WARNING: this video is not graphic, but is extraordinarily disturbing):

Police initially asserted that José fired on the assault team. Why the term “assault team?” Watch the video and tell me whether you think – as a voting, thinking, taxpaying citizen – that any policing was going on at Mr. and Mrs. Guerena’s standard-issue, slab on grade, tidy suburban house.

The sheriff’s department later reversed itself, acknowledging that not only had José not fired his weapon, he never moved the selector switch off “SAFE.”

Speculation after the fact is always risky and often irresponsible, but it seems safe to assume that every Marine (even an air winger) who served a couple of combat tours would have his thumb poised over the selector switch, and would instantly have selected “SEMI” had he any intent to fire.

The sheriff’s department speculated differently. When it changed its story in a press release, Pima County S.D. had this to say about the young Marine’s competence as a rifleman: “After a more detailed investigation, we learned that he pointed his assault rifle at SWAT officers, however, the safety was on and he could not fire.”

Or he exercised competent military fire discipline; a piece of training that – like running and pushups instead of doughnuts and coffee – hasn’t always carried over to militarized police units when they received their submachine guns, Kevlar helmets and armored vehicles.

I’ve got more cop buddies than Hispanic friends. They’re good men. While I may despise the occasional Hall Monitor attitude of “I’ve got this badge, so I get to push civilians around,” I also respect people who volunteer to put themselves at risk for the public weal. Most are considerate, professional people. They have to be.

Police work is no easy gig. Cops are required to modulate their responses across scenarios ranging from “panicked little old lady sees elephants in her living room and needs reassurance” to “punk with a Glock, running on fear and false pride, has no impulse control and even less trigger discipline.”

Cops aren’t the Gestapo in this country; not yet, anyway. That’s a cheap conclusion. Anecdote – even blood-soaked anecdote – ain’t data.

Another cheap conclusion, ever so jumpable to, is that José was killed by a racist sheriff’s department for the crime of “sleeping while brown.” A not very thorough search for Sheriff Clarence Dupnik reveals that he is the Arizona sheriff notorious last year for publicly refusing to enforce Arizona’s SB1070, a controversial law mandating harsh measures to curb illegal Mexican immigration. Dupnik called that law “racist, disgusting” and “unnecessary.”

Such conclusions aren’t even cheap, anymore. They’re free. You can download them all over the internet, all day long. Another one you may come across any minute now is that José Guerena was a “skitchy” vet, a guy barely restraining his PTSDemons who was just itching to commit suicide by cop, probably by shooting up a McDonald’s in a blaze of psychopathic glory. Y’know, like that guy who shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and those liberals crowding around her table – in the very same county where deputies killed José this month. Jared Laughlin was an army vet, wasn’t he?

Uh… no. No, he wasn’t. Ask yourself why so many people speculated that the shooter was a combat veteran. It’s an interesting question.

Some say the Pima County S.D. is just a goon squad of hitters. This is the third man they’ve killed since last August. It doesn’t take much checking to discover that the other two were a suicidal man who threatened police with a weapon, and a man who came after cops with a hammer and knife after calling himself in for murdering his wife.

Cold killers? Not so much.

There are no easy answers here. In the same press release wherein it castigated news agencies for demanding answers and hinting at cover-ups, the sheriff’s department announced that it would release no further information – possibly forever. Takes huevos, that does. The emperor may have no clothes, but at least he has bomb squad-level armor with which to cover his royal ass.

There are further ironies. The Pima County Sheriff’s Department initially stated that the warrant served on José’s house (but not on José, remember) was for a drug search. No drugs were found, but that quickly became irrelevant as the story emerged that they were seeking to break up a gang of men engaged in home invasions. The police guild’s attorney even crowed that they had found “the evidence they were looking for” in the form of a couple of guns, an unspecified piece of body armor and a ball cap with a Border Patrol logo.

Those caps are sold at roadside tourist stands for about eight bucks. Sadly for Arizona, they are the Copper State’s equivalent of “FDNY” t-shirts.

Let’s recap for a moment: the SWAT guys thought they were going after bad eggs involved in home invasions. The family they attacked had legitimate fears of a home invasion (see “sister-in-law,” above). It is entirely possible that José thought he was stopping just such an invasion when he told his family to hide and stood in the breach to defend his home.

Police reported that José said, “I’ve got something for you.” That’s testimony, not fact.

After shooting him down, SWAT operators prevented emergency medical technicians from attending to his injuries for over an hour while he bled out and died. That’s a fact.

Apparently not realizing that the family was already receiving dedicated emergency services, Vanessa called 9-1-1 and begged medical help for over five minutes. That’s a fact.

It’s probable that SWAT members were performing at their absolute peak. Wouldn’t you be, in that situation? It would certainly hold your full attention…

The result of all those expensively trained and equipped guys dedicating their complete concentration to a dangerous mission was a dead young veteran and no actionable evidence.

Those are facts.

Now we see a sheriff’s department sanctimoniously rationalizing their obvious cover-up, as though we can’t see them scrambling around like cucarachas caught in the clear light of day.

That’s not a fact. It’s my observation.

There are issues of competence here. Monday morning quarterbacking deserves its bad reputation, but it seems that if we can fly men to Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden in his fortified compound with one shot, it might just be possible to serve a warrant on a suburban household without pouring 60 rounds into a U.S. military veteran who never took his weapon off SAFE.

Police seemed surprised to find the mother and four year-old at home, as though four year-olds might have to be at work or something. They didn’t appear to cover the back door or check for other entrances. Vanessa saw them through the window, but apparently they didn’t see her.

And so the fog of war descends on a sunny Arizona suburb.

So here’s where the thought experiment part comes in. You’re (presumably) a civilian in these United States, where you still have the right to a public opinion. You also bear responsibility for everything the police do. After all, they do their work in the name of the public, and that’s us.

The cops presumably knew (or could find out) where José worked, and on what shift. What might have happened if officers had met José in his driveway and asked that he open his home? What if they had served a warrant on the home while José was off at work?

Would there have been a higher, or lower, chance of casualties?

Policing doesn’t seem to work that way anymore. Instead of a detective in a tie, too often citizens are met at their own door by what are, effectively, statist shock troops all dolled up in tac gear. The irony of a real soldier getting ventilated by civilian gun jockeys is a bitter one.

Here in Seattle, combat-armed police agencies patrol our Amtrak station. ATF honchos strut  around downtown, bristling with more weaponry than a mech infantry trooper. Unmarked and unplated black Suburbans blast up Interstate 5, stuffed with shaven-headed weightlifters in Oakleys and black nylon gearbags. They drive 90 mph, because they’re deep cover like that…

These days, police aren’t knocking (viz. video); they’re stacking the door in assault formations. They’re shooting dogs that don’t even bark. They’re shooting deaf old alky whittlers in crosswalks for non-responsiveness. These are not my speculations. They’re news stories.

Police are on a war footing, and why not? We’ve been talked into a War On Drugs. We’ve declared a Global War On Terror (José had medals from that one). We’re fighting a de facto War On Illegal Immigration, with Arizona’s mandatory stop and search laws now bolstered by the federal military technology of Predator drones along our southern border.

Clothes make the man… even the boy. I remember what it felt like the first time I shrugged on a backpack in the Boy Scouts, the first time I laced up a pair of combat boots, the first rifle I pointed at something alive. There is power in it, and fierce focus. There is a sense of urgent requirement, a call to action.

To continue our little thought experiment, what if we quit running our country like the savage, sexy fantasy of 24, started dressing most of our cops in blue serge with a badge, and had them patrol on foot? Maybe we don’t need so many armored soldiers of the state, urban assault vehicles or undercover traffic enforcement (seriously – traffic stings? Put marked cars on the road if we want to reduce overall bad behavior).

Civilized countries prefer their armies, air forces and navies to operate predominantly overseas for the same basic reason you don’t want professional rugby teams – no matter how talented – to practice in your living room. Pima County SWAT missed the memo.

José Guerena got it, loud and clear. May peace come to his family.

This is not a war, requiring a legion of secret agents and hoplites. It’s law enforcement. Should the rules of engagement be more, or less, stringent for the wardens of our domestic safety than they were for José Guerena and the Marines with whom he served?

Let’s outlaw hyper-militarized policing, and call a stop to door kickers in the night. If José didn’t bring that behavior home from Iraq, who are we to grow it here?

Let’s vote out politicos who saw away on the fiddle of fear. We’re busting through our debt ceiling while they sell us increasingly expensive weapons with which to fight Wars against concepts, contraband products and people who can’t produce their papers. Instead of protecting people and property, they’ve got our police fighting Wars.

Who is the next War really against? Will it only happen way over there in the ghetto, on the border, down the street where the bad people live?

Your security is your business. Your home is your castle. Are either worth fighting for?

José thought so.


  1. That’s an ugly situation. But trained guy not taking off the saftey? Even if he’s out of practice that boat doesn’t float. Reads to me like he was ready, identified his targets as police and chose NOT to take off the saftey and engage. The police were there for a fight…that is my opinion.

    I retyped what I would do / have planned about 6 times. There is NO way to say it nicely or without making everyone on either side mad at me. BUT…I wouldn’t be the one lying about my actions and I’d be breathing and singing. I guess that makes me a bad american for defending myself against all enemies forign and domestic. Doesn’t hurt I’ve some dogs that are bred to disassemble a man faster than minigun.

  2. These actions must end.
    There is but one way for that to happen.
    The burden is ours.

  3. Art Ellison says

    I agree with Jim. What happens we allow to happen. We vote these people into office. We somehow seem to approve of their tactics. We let them do our dirty work.

    I put myself in this position–what would I do if suddenly I found armed men outside of my house? Lacking any plausible reason for the long arm of the law to seek me, I would assume these people were not the welcome wagon and I would act accordingly. Living in fear is not my idea of living. I cannot say what I would actually do, but my law enforcement and military training might dictate my actions. Would this protect my family? Who knows? I’m sure they would come up with a justifiable reason for breaking my door down. Probably my dogs were barking too loud.

    Why can this happen in our country?

  4. This took place in a city known for home invasions by bad guys dressed like cops. And cops dressed like bad guys.
    The Guerena family lived in an suburb accustomed to violence. Jose had just come home from a midshift job & was awakened by his wife in a panic.
    The “SWAT” team was made up of visiting cops from neighboring towns and its training was suspect. The door breecher blew the door & was knocked backwards by the recoil. Team member(s)thought(?)the breecher had been fired at and responded in an all too familiar manner by emptying their clips into the house.
    There was only one professional involved in that thuggery-and he’s dead. Homeland Security my ass.

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