Shootout that killed N.Y. trooper highlights risks that elite MRT members take
By Michael Virtanen
Acting state police Superintendent Preston Felton immediately ordered an administrative investigation into the shooting that also left fugitive gunman Travis Trim dead and Trooper Richard Mattson wounded, but he insisted "a well-crafted strategy" had been used in the manhunt for Trim.
"This is never going to be an easy job for us. When you get up and you put your pants on, you recognize you might not come home that day," said Felton, a 26-year veteran. "But that's not going to stop a New York State trooper from doing his job."
Another of their members, Joseph Longobardo, died in September, three days after he was shot while searching for gunman Ralph "Bucky" Phillips as part of the state's largest manhunt. After Longobardo's death, the union that represents troopers said the search for Phillips, who shot two other troopers during five months on the run, was "poorly planned, poorly organized, poorly led and poorly executed," and it sharply criticized top agency and state officials.
There has been no criticism this time, however, even after the preliminary investigation showed Brinkerhoff, 29, was killed by a fellow trooper's bullet.
"The friendly fire death of Trooper Brinkerhoff was a tragic accident, and a terribly unfortunate result of the chaotic events," the union said. "The (union) commends Superintendent Preston Felton for his leadership, and for being honest and forthcoming to the troopers' families, the (union) and the public regarding this issue."
But critics argue that SWAT teams themselves can make situations more dangerous, especially in raids on homes, where the margins for error become small. Tragedy, like Brinkerhoff's death, can be one mistake away.
Such raids can needlessly strike non-violent drug offenders, bystanders and wrongly targeted civilians, said Radley Balko, a former analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. Balko is author of "Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America," a report critical of the way SWAT teams often are used, citing hundreds of instances.
"If you're dealing with armed suspects who present an immediate threat to the community, I don't generally object to the use of SWAT teams. It's using them to serve warrants on people suspected of non-violent crimes that I find troubling," Balko said. "I guess the general rule of thumb is that if a SWAT team is defusing an already violent situation, it's probably an appropriate deployment. If they're creating a volatile situation (breaking into the home of a suspected drug offender, for example), it's an inappropriate deployment."
FELTON, who took over in March from retiring Superintendent Wayne Bennett, said the state police conducted "a thorough and complete review" of procedures after Phillips' surrender and made changes, which he didn't specify.
"We have addressed almost all the concerns," he said.
THE MOBILE Response Team was launched in 1980 in anticipation of the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. It was only eight years after the tragedy at the Summer Olympic in Munich, West Germany, left 11 Israelis dead, and security was very much on the minds of organizers. State police modeled the MRT after the SWAT units formed in 1967 in Los Angeles, two years after the deadly Watts riots.
In the Delaware County incident, on April 25, a seven-member MRT unit went into the farmhouse after an electronic alarm was tripped an hour earlier. Police said Trim, 23, was hiding upstairs with a handgun and rifle and opened fire. The Mobile Response Team replied with 69 shots, hitting Trim twice in the chest and once in the head. Brinkerhoff was shot in his body armor by Trim and in the back of the head, below a Kevlar helmet, by a fellow trooper.
Mattson, 39, was hit in the arm by a bullet from Trim's rifle. His wound required surgery at Albany Medical Center, and he was allowed to go home this past Tuesday.
The manhunt began the previous afternoon after Trim shot Trooper Matthew Gombosi, striking body armor, during a traffic stop outside a convenience store in Margaretville. Trim sped off but abandoned the stolen minivan off a rural dead-end road 3 miles away, not far from the farmhouse.
Trim's body was found inside the farmhouse several hours after the shootout and after a state police tear gas round caused a fire that burned much of the structure.
Phillips shot Trooper Sean Brown in the stomach during a traffic stop in Veteran, outside Elmira, early on June 10. Phillips, who had broken out of the Erie County Jail in April, was driving a stolen car and fired several shots at Brown and his partner. Brown, who was released from the hospital several days later, has returned to work.
On Aug. 31, Phillips shot Longobardo and Donald Baker Jr. as MRT members staked out the home of Phillips' former girlfriend in Pomfret, Chautauqua County. Baker was shot in the torso and hospitalized for nearly three months.
Nearly six months earlier, Trooper Andrew Sperr was shot four times after stopping a pickup for a minor traffic violation on March 1 in Big Flats, also outside Elmira. Anthony Horton had just robbed a bank and was making a getaway in a truck driven by Bryan Adams.
Sperr wounded Horton and Adams before he died.
The seven troopers shot in little more than a year mark one of the deadliest periods in the 90-year history of the New York State Police and the sharpest spike in three decades. Each death is noted in a brief account on the agency's Wall of Honor. Wounded troopers shooting back is a recurring theme.
Since the troopers were assembled in 1917, in response to a deadly payroll robbery four years earlier in rural Westchester County that had gone unpunished, 26 members have been shot and killed, while 83 others have died violently on the job, mostly in crashes, according to the agency's records.
The state police's ranks have grown considerably from the time the first 237 troopers rode horses in rural stretches of New York, to 4,800 now, including some 800 added since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City.
In the 1920s and 30s, 51 troopers died violently, mostly in crashes on motorcycles or in open cars. The evening of Oct. 8, 1923, Trooper Roy Donivan was shot dead by three bandits on Saratoga-Albany Road, now U.S. Route 9, where he was a decoy to catch "highwaymen" who were robbing travelers. Donivan shot one of the three, who were caught at a roadblock in Loudonville.
Five troopers were fatally shot in the 1920s, unmatched until the 1970s, when five were gunned down, three within five months in 1974. Investigator Leslie Grosso was accidentally shot in the chest in New York City on May 21, 1974, during an undercover drug operation, the last friendly fire death before Brinkerhoff's.
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