Serving a warrant is fraught with risk

Trooper shot

December 13, 2006|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,Sun Reporter

In the calm before the knock on the suspect's door, an officer attempting to serve a warrant often has no idea what's on the other side. He has no idea whether the suspect is armed, whether he's on drugs, whether he's willing to die to avoid arrest.

Serving an arrest warrant "is one of the most dangerous things you can do," said Lt. Col. Steven McMahon of the Baltimore City Police Department. He supervises the Regional Warrant Apprehension Task Force, which was executing a warrant yesterday in which an officer was injured and the suspect killed.

"The majority of them [suspects] know there's a warrant for them. They know if they're caught ... they're going to jail for quite a long time. That makes them all the more dangerous," McMahon said.

The task force's officers serve thousands of warrants a year. Most arrests go smoothly, and shootings such as the one yesterday in Baltimore County that left state police Tfc. Eric D. Workman fighting for his life are rare, authorities said.

Of the more than 17,000 law enforcement officers who have been killed in the line of duty in the United States, 449 died while serving an arrest warrant, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund in Washington. The first such death on record occurred in 1792, when Isaac Smith of the New York City sheriff's department was gunned down while serving a warrant.

Two officers from Maryland have been killed just before they were about to make an arrest: Wallace J. Mowbray, a state trooper killed in 1975; and Mark K. Murphy, a Prince George's County police officer killed in 1988.

Talbot County Sheriff Dallas Pope said he has served thousands of arrest warrants, and each time, he gets the "chills."

"There is some sense of calm until you're right there," said Pope, a retired state trooper. "And then you seem to develop this heightened awareness of everything going on around you, of whether it's a dog barking on the other side of the door, or just a tingle. You're controlling your emotions and controlling your reactions to the smallest stimuli, because you're saying, `This has got to be right. This has got to be safe.'"

Bruce Mendelsohn, spokesman for the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, said the serving of a warrant is fraught with risks to an officer, who often has never been in the building he's about to enter and does not know whether the suspect is armed.

"Officers don't want to be in an enclosed space," Mendelsohn said. "You don't have much room to maneuver."

Serving warrants has evolved in recent years into a specialty within law enforcement, with officers being taught tactics and grouped into task forces. The Regional Warrant Apprehension Task Force was created in 2000 and is made up of officers from area police agencies, the Maryland State Police, the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service. Members are deputized to make arrests outside their jurisdiction, allowing them to track fugitives as they move throughout the region.

It is on track to serve more than 10,000 arrest warrants this year.

Baltimore County Sheriff R. Jay Fisher, who helped create the warrant task force, said, "The key to serving a warrant is doing homework."

"You need to find out the general layout of that apartment or business or home, to give you all the information you need," he said.

Officers check the suspect's background to determine whether he has a violent past or has resisted arrest before, Fisher said. Officers also might talk to people familiar with the building they're about to enter, such as a landlord, to learn the layout. In some situations, officers will perform surveillance as other officers knock on the door.

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

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