OGDEN, Utah (AP) — Police Chief Mike Ashment had a difficult task before him: In the aftermath of a shootout in which one of his officers was killed and several others were wounded, he had to identify where the officers went wrong — even though, in his mind, they were heroes.
“Once this thing went sideways, they did everything heroic, and over and above, (they) performed outstanding things,” Ashment said of the January 2012 shooting that erupted as Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force agents served a knock-and-announce warrant at an Ogden home.
But Ashment acknowledged that the officers made mistakes both before and during the drug raid on Matthew David Stewart’s Jackson Avenue home. He said this month that he believes those mistakes were due to complacency — that the officers who entered Stewart’s home that Jan. 4, 2012, evening thought they would find an empty grow house, not an armed man.
“This is a guy who is considered a low-level marijuana guy,” the Ogden chief said. “And we let our guard down. … We didn’t go there prepared for a gunbattle.”
A summary of the police agency’s internal shooting review report, released this month as part of a Salt Lake Tribune open-records request, shows that many policy violations — including that some officers were not wearing bulletproof vests — occurred because they thought no one would be home.
“It appeared that all, if not most, of the agents believed they would find the home vacant,” the shooting report reads.
The report said that during two unsuccessful “knock-and-talk” attempts — when agents attempted to knock on Stewart’s door to make contact with him — the same kitchen light was on. Agent Jason VanderWarf said in an interview with investigators after the shooting that they believed the light could have been on a timer, which indicated that no one actually lived there and it was just a “grow house.”
Also, a so-called “pre-surveillance” of the home was supposed to have been conducted by a specific officer 30 to 60 minutes before the raid — but was never done.
In addition to other errors, the report noted four violations of Ogden police policy and procedure:
1) A sergeant on “light-duty status” should not have been at the raid, due to physical limitations. Sgt. Steve Zaccardi testified during Stewart’s preliminary hearing that he had shoulder surgery a month prior and was wearing an arm sling during the raid. He stayed outside the home, he testified, and later left the scene to take an officer to the hospital.
2) Five Ogden officers violated policy by failing to carry an extra fully loaded magazine. “Some agents ran dry of ammunition during the gunbattle and had to verbally announce that they were out, which most likely was heard by the suspect,” the report says, adding that this also may have caused agents to advance toward gunfire to cover the retreat of other agents who were out of ammo.
3) Four Ogden officers violated standard protocol by failing to carry their assigned police radios. This caused confusion, the report said, because information was not relayed efficiently and effectively to responding patrol officers.
4) While it was not a “technical violation,” several officers — including slain agent Jared Francom — did not wear bulletproof vests when entering the home. The report notes that at that time, the policy read that an officer “should” rather than “shall” wear a bulletproof vest. This policy has since been changed, requiring all field officers and any officer involved in a search warrant to wear body armor.
The report — which did not include names of the officers involved — said discipline for the officers ranged from a formal notice of caution to an entry in an officer’s yearly performance evaluation.
The report also was critical about the lack of leadership once bullets started to fly. Two sergeants were on the scene, the report said, but when other officers responding to reports of an officer being shot arrived at Stewart’s house, they didn’t know who was in charge or where to go.
Zaccardi had left the scene to take a wounded officer to the hospital, and Sgt. Nate Hutchinson was inside the home when shots were fired.
“The sergeant (in the home) was very heroic,” Weber County Attorney Dee Smith said. “He dragged two guys out and was shot four times.”
But the report said there should have been an incident commander outside the home who could take control “once the situation deteriorated.”
“It is likely that this would have identified evacuation points, medical staging areas and a safe route to the target location,” the report reads.
Twelve recommendations for policy changes were listed in the shooting review report, which Ashment said have been implemented. They include that officers receive more training, that pre-surveillance is required before serving a search warrant and that a supervisor who is not part of the entry team is on-scene.
It also became a requirement that all officers must wear “full entry gear” when entering a home during search warrant service, and that supervisors must do a gear check before entry.
Ashment said the policy changes have helped remedy issues of conflicting policies between police agencies that serve on the strike force, and also helped make officers safer. Francom’s father, Jade Francom, complimented Ogden for investigating the shooting and instituting changes. He said the only person he blames for the death of his 30-year-old son, the father of two children, is Stewart.
“I love (the strike force officers) to death and it upsets me we’ve got everyone in the state playing armchair quarterback,” Jade Francom said after the report was released.
Erna Stewart, Matthew Stewart’s sister-in-law, said that she felt the policy changes were “good,” but not enough.
“I want to see a full revamp of how they police in our community,” she said, adding that her family is opposed to police using “dynamic entry” to go into homes while serving search warrants.
Matthew Stewart was charged with capital murder for allegedly killing Francom and seven first-degree felony counts of attempted aggravated murder for allegedly trying to kill other officers.
He also was charged with one second-degree felony count related to alleged marijuana cultivation.
Stewart, 39, was awaiting trial in May 2013, when he hanged himself in his Weber County jail cell.
Erna Stewart said Wednesday she was disappointed that, in the aftermath of the shooting, the community was divided into “sides” — the police vs. Stewart’s family and their supporters. She said she wants a healing process for everyone.
“We feel really badly,” she said. “No one should have to go through what our families have been through.”