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March 10, 2010

You don’t know SWAT

An Okolona woman ambushed by Metro Police cries foul at department’s SWAT team

By late evening on June 25, 2007, Sharon Ramage had already swept the deck, cleaned the kitchen and ironed a freshly laundered load of clothes. That mundane housework was interrupted, however, when a loud explosion rocked the house.

“I thought something blew up outside,” she says. “It shook the whole house.”

The 60-year-old grandmother, who has lived in Okolona for more than two decades, hurried into the living room where she heard heavy banging, glass shattering and people hollering outside.

Suddenly, armed men wearing protective goggles and masks busted through the back door carrying automatic rifles. Ramage tells LEO Weekly they swarmed from every angle, pointing firearms at her, before tackling her to the floor, binding her hands with plastic flex cuffs, and holding her down at gunpoint.

The 35-member platoon was part of the Louisville Metro Police Department’s elite, well-equipped and well-trained Special Weapons and Tactics team, better known as SWAT. The specialty unit was serving a search warrant in an investigation involving Ramage’s 32-year-old son, Michael, who was a suspect in a child sex abuse case at the time.

Despite five hours of searching the premises, officers gathered no evidence of wrongdoing against her son, who apparently stayed at her house on occasion, but was not a full-time resident. Ramage insists that if police had knocked on her door instead of deploying SWAT, she would’ve allowed investigators to search without hesitation.

Instead, she alleges, police caused significant damage to her house and severely injured her back, knee and foot after throwing her against a granite fireplace and slamming her to the floor.

“It happened so quickly I thought someone was breaking in my house. One guy kept yelling ‘F-you,’” says Ramage. “I didn’t know what was going on with everybody screaming and hollering.”

A year after the incident, Ramage filed a federal lawsuit against the city claiming police violated her Fourth Amendment rights and used excessive force when executing the search warrant. The lawsuit also challenges a department policy that requires Metro Police to deploy SWAT if a certain number of points are reached based on a “risk assessment” scorecard.

Now, after lingering in the U.S. District Court in Louisville for nearly two years, the case is finally gaining traction, with both parties asking the judge to rule. In recent weeks, lawyers for both sides have deposed witnesses in an effort to shed light on exactly what unfolded inside the Ramage residence, and to determine whether the city’s SWAT policy is constitutional.

Louisville attorney Daniel Canon, who is representing Ramage, says the police department’s arbitrary arithmetic violates the U.S. Constitution and endangers citizens in their homes because it eliminates an officer’s discretion and overlooks individual circumstance — which in this case resulted in SWAT securing an unimposing women with no criminal history.

When serving a search or arrest warrant, police use a point system based on six different categories, including the nature of the crime, criminal history of the suspect and how difficult it will be to gain entry into the residence. If that scorecard adds up to 25 points or higher, service by SWAT is mandatory, regardless of what investigators or their commanders know about a particular case.

Lt. Col. Vince Robison, an assistant chief with LMPD, wouldn’t comment on the pending litigation, but says the goal of the point system is to protect officers who may miss important details about a suspect or location when executing a warrant.

“Every door you knock on there’s a risk, whether you have SWAT with you or not. And I think we use SWAT when it’s appropriate,” says Robison, adding that officers have been shot while serving search warrants.

In this case, police detectives learned during the course of their investigation that Ramage’s son had an arrest record that included charges of wanton endangerment, illegal possession of a handgun and carrying a concealed deadly weapon. However, police never issued a warrant for his arrest — only a search warrant — despite claims that he posed a threat to officer safety.

The search warrant required SWAT’s involvement mainly because Ramage’s house was considered “fortified” due to a steel gate and iron security door, both of which were open when SWAT executed the warrant. That added 10 points on the police risk assessment and, as a result, Canon says, police were required to escalate the level of force against his client.

“It makes sense to issue a search warrant in an investigation like this, however, it doesn’t make sense to send 35 storm troopers to kick down the doors when the only person at home is a 60-year-old lady,” says Canon. “And it doesn’t make sense to do that based on a mathematical formula.”

The Metro Police SWAT team — one of nine specialty operation teams in the department — was created to respond to confrontations with hostage takers, barricaded suspects and other situations that require specialized training or equipment.

“Our position is they don’t have the right to search private residences in a militaristic fashion like they did in this case,” says Canon. “The fundamental policy change that needs to be made is to do away with a mathematical formula that mandates an escalated level of force.”

Ultimately, the flimsy sex abuse case against Michael Ramage was dismissed in exchange for his guilty plea in an unrelated drug possession case. But by that point, his mother says the damage had already been done to her. For the past few years, she claims to have had continuous nightmares about the incident, adding that she has lost all faith in police.

“You’re sitting there with guns poked in your face (and) you’re scared to death,” she says. “I’m afraid police are getting so aggressive that it’s like an army coming in your house. They’re just busting in with full force before they really know what’s going on. And people can get hurt instantly.” 

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