Killing Without Consequences: "Counter-Insurgency" Warfare in Greenfield, California

After eluding the police for more than a week, Alejandro Gonzalez surrendered in San Jose on January 10, 2011. The 22-year-old was the suspect in a non-fatal shooting that had taken place on New Year’s Day at a local bar called the Mucky Duck.

As should be expected, the police had done nothing useful to solve that crime. Their only contribution to the case was to stage a lethal SWAT raid against a man who had been nowhere near the bar when the shooting took place, and had nothing to do with it.

Four days after the Mucky Duck shooting – in which three people suffered non-life-threatening injuries — a multi-agency SWAT team invaded the home of 31-year-old Rogelio Serrato, Jr.  Serrato, who was known as Roger to friends and family, was not a suspect in the shooting.

The search warrant issued for Serrato’s house should have been executed by a small group of deputies. Although police contended that Serrato was “connected” in some way to Gonzalez, there was no reason to suspect that he was harboring the fugitive.  Liberty in Eclipse William Norman Grigg Best Price: $4.89 Buy New $58.85 (as of 01:25 EST - Details)

Serrato did have outstanding misdemeanor warrants, however, and apparently this was considered sufficient justification for sending in two dozen paramilitary drag queens who arrived in an armored convoy that included a Bearcat combat vehicle.

For about an hour, the invaders broadcast surrender demands via a “thunder-hailer” megaphone. One young female left the house and was taken into custody. Serrato – who, it is believed, was intoxicated and perhaps unconscious – didn’t comply.

A three-member “break and rake” team approached the house, shattered a window, and threw in a flash-bang grenade, which lodged itself between two highly flammable polyurethane sofas that were next to an artificial Christmas tree. One of the sofas immediately ignited. The fire quickly propagated itself through the house, generating a dense black cloud of highly toxic smoke.

Roused by either the sound of the grenade or the subsequent fire, Serrato began screaming and trying to leave the house. The sight of the unarmed man, clad only in his underwear, threw a scare into Sergeant Joseph Banuelos, who had supervised the “break and rake” team.

“Suspect!” shrieked Banuelos. Rather than rushing into the home to arrest the suspect, the intrepid sergeant – acting in the interests of that holiest of all considerations, “officer safety” – ordered his team to retreat to the Bearcat vehicle. The SWAT team then trained its weapons on the house, which effectively prevented the victim from escaping from the burning building.

Significantly, the use of a flash-bang grenade as a “scare tactic” was part of the raid’s tactical plan, rather than an improvised measure. Deputy Mark Sievers and Detective Al Martinez, who were part of the “break and rake” team, had previously ignited fires with flash-bang grenades, so they were aware of the potential fire risk involved in using that device. That the raid posed a potentially fatal fire danger is further demonstrated by the fact that the Greenfield Fire Department had been notified of the planned raid and was on standby.

The Fire Department responded quickly once fire enveloped Serrato’s home – but the SWAT team held them at bay for nearly a half-hour while the screaming victim was trapped inside. By the time the firefighters could enter the home, Serrato was dead.

Just a few days ago, Monterey County agreed to a $2.6 million settlement with Serrato’s family, which was paid by the county’s insurance carrier and absolves the sheriff’s office of legal responsibility. Speaking the language of institutional self-exculpation with remarkable fluency, County Attorney Charles McKee insisted that Serrato was to blame for his own death and that the officers should be “commended for trying to resolve a very tense situation.”

It’s often said that police are the country’s most dangerous street gang. One significant distinction between police and their private sector counterparts is that street gangs don’t expect to receive commendations when they kill innocent people.

It would be a wonderful thing if people could develop the intellectual equivalent of a computer utility that would remove uniforms, badges, and titles from news accounts of fatal police raids. Subtracting the indicia of “authority” would enhance the ability of people to see the truth about acts of aggressive violence, and recognize them as crimes irrespective of the claimed identity of those who commit them.

The killing of Roger Serrato was an act of murder through depraved indifference. The assailants had no justification to attack his home; they knew that their plan of attack posed the risk of a catastrophic fire; once that fire began, the assailants took no action to rescue the victim, and impeded the efforts of others to do so.

The SWAT raid was a specimen of police overkill born of opportunism: What’s the use of having a SWAT team unless it can be deployed to arrest people with outstanding misdemeanor warrants?

It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that police officials chose to attack Serrato’s home simply because his location — unlike that of the actual suspect, Alejandro Gonzalez — was known. If the police had actually investigated the Mucky Duck shooting, rather than seizing on it as a chance to preen on camera in paramilitary attire, they would have learned that Gonzalez was not a threat to the public.

A lawsuit filed by Todd Graham, one of the shooting victims claims that before he went to his car to get his gun, Gonzalez had seen several of his friends abused by a group of bouncers who had “escalated” a minor altercation into a life-threatening situation. At one point, a friend of Gonzalez named Mark Rosso, was thrown to the ground and pinned down by a bouncer and a bartender while another bouncer identified as “T.K.” beat and kicked him.

In pre-trial testimony, Monterey police detective Michael Bruno admitted that witnesses had described that assault to him. Witnesses also claimed that Gonzalez went to his car and grabbed a gun while his friend was being beaten.

Graham, a bystander who was leaving the bar when the shooting began, insists that Gonzalez’s decision to get his gun was made “in response to the actions of the bouncers.” Graham and two of the bouncers were the only ones who were shot.

As Judge Pamela Butler acknowledged in Gonzalez’s pre-trial hearing, the shooting was at least in part motivated by the desire to defend his friend, who was pleading for help and most likely in fear for his life. However, Judge Butler, a former gang prosecutor, insisted that Gonzalez’s alleged affiliation with the Norteno street gang meant that the shooting was “gang-related.”

This gave prosecutor Cristina Johnson a rationale for charging Gonzalez with ten felonies. The charges included not three, but four counts of attempted murder: One for the shooting of Graham, the innocent bystander; two for the bouncers who were attacking Rosso; and one more for the bartender who was helping to hold the victim down. While the bartender wasn’t shot, Johnson insisted that he be treated as a victim because he was in the “kill zone.”

The memory of man runneth not to an instance in which a police officer who used deadly force was charged for attempted murder because of the presence of an innocent victim in the “kill zone.” Where “qualified immunity” ends in such cases, “professional courtesy” takes over.

Witness the case of Robert Shawn Richardson and Paul Bradley Rogers, who were convicted of second-degree manslaughter after shooting and killing a five-year-old boy in Noble, Oklahoma six years ago while trying to kill a poisonous snake. Because they received deferred sentences, the officers served no time in prison, and their records have been expunged. Where the “law” is concerned, the incident never happened, and the victim, Austin Haley, never existed.

“If the roles were reversed and I had shot the gun, it would be much different,” observes Austin’s mother, Renee Haley. “I would’ve been sent to jail and the sentence would have been done more harshly.”

This is incontestably true. Austin wasn’t a cop; he was one of the “little people.” The same was true of Roger Serrato.

As Serrato’s grandmother tearfully told a Greenfield City Council meeting, he was not a saint – but he was a human being who should not have been summarily executed.

In seeking to justify the murderous raid on Serrato’s home, police applied the counter-insurgency template used by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan and applied it to “gang enforcement.”

In Gonzalez’s pre-trial hearing, Detective Bruno reported that a search of the suspect’s home found “clothing and other items” indicating that he may have been associated with the Norteno street gang. While he admitted – under cross-examination – that the Mucky Duck shooting was at least in part motivated by self-defense, he insisted that it had the effect of enhancing the gang’s image “by instilling fear in the community.”

That sort of thing never happens when masked Berserkers in military attire lay siege to a residence, of course.

Shortly after his associates murdered Roger Serrato, Greenfield Police Department spokesliar Phil Penko told a local television station that “whether he was at the Mucky Duck is irrelevant” because “someone connected to the house” was allegedly there at the time of the shooting.

This is a specimen of what counter-insurgency experts call “pattern of life” analysis. All that is necessary to justify potentially lethal action against any individual is to create a “link” or “connection” between that person and a “suspected militant” (or, in this case, a suspected “gang associate”) or an incident involving someone who meets that description.

In Afghanistan, “connections” of that kind have been used to justify midnight raids by kill teams. In Pakistan, the same analysis is used as the basis for drone strikes. We’re seeing plentiful examples of the former here domestically, and we can expect to see the latter approach rolled out in the “Homeland” within the next few years.