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Training for the unknown: how officers prepare to serve drug warrants


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OGDEN — Drug officers nationwide serve thousands of warrants every year with little trouble. But when Utah officers served a knock and announce warrant in Ogden last month, a drug officer was shot and killed.

"The potential for extreme danger is rare," says Randy Watt, an expert in police tactical operations. "But when they go bad inside these locations, they tend to go very bad."

Police say Matthew Stewart shot and killed Officer Jared Francom and wounded five others when they served that warrant Jan. 4. While the details of what went wrong that night remain unknown, KSL News decided to take a closer look at the police training and tactics officers use when they serve those drug warrants.

"The problem is, when you're on the outside of the door, you don't know what the person is doing on the inside," Watt said.

The training

That shooting rocked Ogden, and law officers across the region. How could something like that happen? Why knock and announce rather than just break the door down?

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KSL examined those questions with Watt. He trains officers in police tactics, and trained Ogden SWAT teams for years. He's also an expert in counter-terrorism tactics and trained troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Watt also happens to be a colonel in the Utah National Guard, and he tried to make me understand just how dangerous, how stressful, and how nerve-wracking it can be when a police officer serves a warrant at a person's home.

He ran me through several scenarios at the door of a staged home at the Swanson Tactical Training Center in Ogden.

At first, he took me through the drills alone. In each of those drills, I announced that I waws a police officer and I wanted to talk to the person inside.

Watt played the role of the person inside. He was armed with a paint pellet gun, and I had a gun that merely clicks when I pull the trigger.

After announcing my intent, Watt instructed me to do what I needed to do to get him to comply with my orders. "Everything in here is an unknown," he warned me.

KSL's Jed Boal trains for warrant servicing operations with Randy Watt, an expert in police tactical operations.
KSL's Jed Boal trains for warrant servicing operations with Randy Watt, an expert in police tactical operations.

The first time I go went through the door, he shot me right away — once in each leg. The pellets stung, and in theory the suspect got the best of me in that round.

"You don't know if everybody in here is going to submit or not," Watt said. There was certainly not the submission I expected when I barked out that I was a police officer, so I went outside the door and prepare to enter again.

The next time through the door, Watt was standing in the living room with his back to me and a gun in his right hand. I shouted at him to drop the gun, but he turned and shoot me in the chest.

"If the bad guy knows you're coming, it does not matter how skilled you are coming through the door," Watt said.

Those pellets really stung, so I wanted to get it right.

"You don't want to get shot, and you don't want to shoot me unless you have to. Right?" Watt said.

"Right," I answered.


I've just demonstrated that I can turn and shoot you faster than you can shoot me. That's the world police officers live in, and yet there's a great deal of reluctance.

–Randy Watt, tactical operations expert


#watt_quote

Watt was also shooting me with pellets so I'd take the exercise seriously and respond physiologically as the training exercise progressed to more complex scenarios.

"I've just demonstrated that I can turn and shoot you faster than you can shoot me. That's the world police officers live in, and yet there's a great deal of reluctance," Watt said.

My pulse quickened, my breathing accelerated, and the adrenaline surged. "The brain is trying to deal with an overload of information," Watt explained.

There was even a trace of fear because, again, I didn't want to get hit by those paint pellets.

"You can see why we don't want to go through that door unless we absolutely have to go through that door," Watt said.

After he ran me through a few more scenarios, and I finally got him to comply, he suited me up in body armor and ran me through knock and announce drills with several officers.

Knock-and-announce vs. no-knock warrants

Researchers estimate police officers across the nation execute 40,000 to 50,000 drug warrants at people's homes each year; one every few days in Ogden alone. The vast majority of the time, Watt says nothing goes wrong.

"You don't know if today is going to be the 1 percent day," he said. "You don't know if this is going to be the 1 percent warrant. You don't get to choose."


Researchers estimate police officers across the nation execute 40,000 to 50,000 drug warrants at people's homes each year; one every few days in Ogden alone.

In 2010, FBI statistics show three officers were killed in tactical situations, like high-risk entries.

When police arrive at the door with a no-knock warrant or a knock-and-announce warrant, as was the case in January in Ogden, Watt said the tactics are not that different. But the time on the doorstep is.

The U.S. Supreme Court has determined 15 to 20 seconds at the doorstep is reasonable. Watt trained officers to count down from 20 on the police radio, but that wait has consequences.

"If you have a serious, dedicated bad guy who has decided today is the day to take on the police, you've just given him 20 seconds — a long time in a tactical environment — to prepare mentally, to access weapons, and to position himself to do the most damage," Watt said.

Former Ogden police chief Jon Greiner said knock-and-announce warrants are better for good will in the community, but we witnessed the heightened danger last month.

"A knock-and-announce may make us more vulnerable because it gives the person on the inside of the door time to make a decision," Greiner said.

The knock-and-announce is more common because the criteria for the no-knock are tougher. Police must ask tough questions: Does the suspect present a danger to the officers? Is there a chance evidence will be destroyed if police announce themselves? Might the suspect escape? If the answer is yes, a judge may issue a no-knock warrant.

"They're set in law," Watt said. "We don't have a choice."


There are people out there that really don't like us, that have ulterior motives; and some want to die today. That's what it boils down to: they want to die today.

–John Greiner, former police chief


#greiner_quote

Civil rights watchdogs criticize what they call a creeping trend toward para-militaristic techniques to serve these warrants.

Greiner says he does not know the details of the January shooting, but we'll see how the puzzle fits together in due time. "It may not be a perfect puzzle, but at least you can go back and say, 'This is what happened in this situation.' And you can train to it," he said.

Greiner believes trainers across the country will create new scenarios that drive home the potential danger for officers.

"There are people out there that really don't like us, that have ulterior motives; and some want to die today," Greiner said. "That's what it boils down to: they want to die today."

So law enforcement officers continue to train for the worst case scenario to ward off any possibility of complacency.

"He never knows if the person he's going to run into, or he's involved with at that time, is just an innocent person or his worst nightmare," Watt said.

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Jed Boal

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