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Inside the 'culture of violence' alleged by LAPD SWAT whistleblower

Kevin Rector and Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- After assessing the hilly terrain around a Sunland house where a homeless man had holed up one morning in May 2017, the Los Angeles Police Department's heavily armed SWAT team requested more firepower -- and got it in the form of a helicopter equipped for "aerial shooting," dubbed "Sniper-1."

By the time they'd left the scene hours later, the team had fired more than 40 rounds at 29-year-old Anthony Soderberg, including more than a dozen from the helicopter -- a first in LAPD history. Many of the rounds were fired from hundreds of feet away, and many came after a bloodied and unarmed Soderberg had exited the home, rolled off the edge of a patio and dropped into a ravine, where he'd later be pronounced dead.

The Los Angeles Police Commission ruled that the officers had opened fire when they were not in imminent danger or when they were too far away to determine if a threat existed. Of 13 officers investigated, the commission ruled that 12 had used deadly force in a way that "was not objectively reasonable and was out of policy."

It was one of three incidents that a SWAT officer reported to LAPD internal affairs early last year as part of a whistleblower complaint about the elite unit.

Now, that officer, SWAT Sgt. Tim Colomey, has filed a civil lawsuit accusing a group of veteran officers known as the "SWAT mafia" of creating a "culture of violence" in the unit that glorifies deadly force, and alleges commanders turned a "blind eye" to the problems despite his flagging them internally.

The lawsuit does not cite any specific incidents, but Colomey's attorney said they include the three cases he'd previously reported -- each of which offers a window into the actions of SWAT and how Police Department leaders handled them.

 

The helicopter incident resulted in few changes within the SWAT unit, as top commanders and SWAT leaders maintained the officers did nothing wrong.

In another incident, a SWAT team member shot a homeless man on a skid row roof with a Taser, jolting him to his death on the pavement below. In a third, SWAT members miraculously avoided killing a gunman after firing more than 80 rounds into a shed where he was hiding.

An LAPD source familiar with Colomey's statements to internal affairs, who requested anonymity to discuss the matter candidly, confirmed to the Los Angeles Times that Colomey had flagged the three cases as part of an earlier investigation into the SWAT team's selection process that began in 2018.

Colomey, who often worked as a negotiator for the unit and helped oversee the SWAT training academy, felt that the veteran officers who ran the "mafia" disregarded department rules governing the use of force and encouraged younger officers to do the same, according to his lawsuit. He claims the older officers called members of the unit who tried to deescalate situations or use less lethal weapons "cowards," and used nepotism to fill the unit with like-minded officers willing to "kowtow" to them.

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