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Inside the 'culture of violence' alleged by LAPD SWAT whistleblower

After assessing the hilly terrain around a Sunland house where a homeless man had holed up one morning in May 2017, the Los Angeles Police Department’s heavily armed SWAT team requested more firepower — and got it in the form of a helicopter equipped for “aerial shooting,” dubbed “Sniper-1.”

By the time they’d left the scene hours later, the team had fired more than 40 rounds at 29-year-old Anthony Soderberg, including more than a dozen from the helicopter — a first in LAPD history. Many of the rounds were fired from hundreds of feet away, and many came after a bloodied and unarmed Soderberg had exited the home, rolled off the edge of a patio and dropped into a ravine, where he’d later be pronounced dead.

The Los Angeles Police Commission ruled that the officers had opened fire when they were not in imminent danger or when they were too far away to determine if a threat existed. Of 13 officers investigated, the commission ruled that 12 had used deadly force in a way that “was not objectively reasonable and was out of policy.”

It was one of three incidents that a SWAT officer reported to LAPD internal affairs early last year as part of a whistleblower complaint about the elite unit.

Now, that officer, SWAT Sgt. Tim Colomey, has filed a civil lawsuit accusing a group of veteran officers known as the “SWAT Mafia” of creating a “culture of violence” in the unit that glorifies deadly force, and alleges commanders turned a “blind eye” to the problems despite his flagging them internally.

The lawsuit does not cite any specific incidents, but Colomey’s attorney said they include the three cases he’d previously reported — each of which offers a window into the actions of SWAT and how Police Department leaders handled them.

The helicopter incident resulted in few changes within the SWAT unit, as top commanders and SWAT leaders maintained the officers did nothing wrong.

In another incident, a SWAT team member shot a homeless man on a skid row roof with a Taser, jolting him to his death on the pavement below. In a third, SWAT members miraculously avoided killing a gunman after firing more than 80 rounds into a shed where he was hiding.

An LAPD source familiar with Colomey’s statements to internal affairs, who requested anonymity to discuss the matter candidly, confirmed to The Times that Colomey had flagged the three cases as part of an earlier investigation into the SWAT team’s selection process that began in 2018.

Colomey, who often worked as a negotiator for the unit and helped oversee the SWAT training academy, felt that the veteran officers who ran the “Mafia” disregarded department rules governing the use of force and encouraged younger officers to do the same, according to his lawsuit. He claims the older officers called members of the unit who tried to deescalate situations or use less lethal weapons “cowards,” and used nepotism to fill the unit with like-minded officers willing to “kowtow” to them.

Diana Wells, Colomey’s attorney, said that after Colomey spoke to internal affairs in the prior investigation, they produced a report, which Colomey received a copy of, that mentioned the “SWAT Mafia” and referenced the Soderberg case, but otherwise ignored Colomey’s concerns.

Wells declined to provide that report to The Times.

Greg Kirakosian, an attorney who represents Soderberg’s family, said Colomey’s claim of a corrupt clique encouraging deadly force when less lethal alternatives were available helps explain the circumstances in Soderberg’s case.

“They run by their own rule book as to what they deem an appropriate opportunity to use deadly force,” Kirakosian said. “The notion that they give thumbs up to these officers to use deadly force at any given time couldn’t be more true.”

The incident involving Soderberg began after a woman found him in her Sunland kitchen one morning. According to the subsequent investigation, gunshots were heard in the home and Soderberg was heard screaming, “I’ll put a bullet in your head.”

The SWAT team descended on the scene and Colomey came in as a negotiator. The standoff dragged on for hours — with officers deploying a camera-equipped robot to keep watch on Soderberg. They fired a projectile to crack a window, and used a stinger grenade and “hot gas” to agitate him and force him out.

Soderberg, 29, was seen with a firearm shortly after 1 p.m., and he fired at the helicopter about 1:08, the investigation found. But when he emerged at 1:48, he was no longer holding a weapon, and the Police Commission ultimately found that he was unarmed when he exited the house.

Kirakosian said Lt. Ruben Lopez had given the officers what amounted to a “shoot-to-kill” order. Colomey alleges in his lawsuit that Lopez was involved in suppressing his earlier complaints about the so-called Mafia and its members. Now, Kirakosian said he’d like to hear more from Colomey.

Soderberg’s family is currently suing the Police Department, alleging SWAT officers violated Soderberg’s rights and the LAPD failed to properly train its SWAT team.

The case was scheduled to go to trial in March, but was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. With the latest allegations, Kirakosian said he may have to request more time to collect evidence, given that the LAPD had not previously disclosed, as it should have, Colomey’s past concerns about Soderberg’s shooting or the prior internal affairs investigation that looked at it.

“They didn’t tell us about this other investigation or this other person who clearly knows facts about the case,” Kirakosian said.

Two years before Soderberg’s death, in May 2015, the SWAT team responded to reports of a man on the roof of a downtown building and found Carlos Ocana, 56, who also was homeless, atop a billboard.

According to a subsequent investigation, police decided to lure Ocana down from the billboard by placing a cigarette at the bottom of a ladder, and coax him further from the ledge by offering him a lighter. Instead, Ocana took the cigarette, pulled a lighter from his pocket, and turned back to climb back up the ladder, the investigation found.

Officer Steve Scallion then shot Ocana with a Taser.

Scallion later said he fired to prevent Ocana from climbing the ladder again. Instead, it jolted Ocana off the roof. He fell more than 15 feet and landed in a parking lot below, just missing one of two air cushions that firefighters had placed below him. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

Skid row residents protested the unit’s approach to the incident with Ocana, and said police needed to change their approach to mentally ill people in the area. They said Ocana had been terrified of the SWAT team, which had arrived with “big guns.”

Then-LAPD Chief Charlie Beck concluded that Scallion’s tactics “substantially and unjustifiably deviated” from his training.

The third incident flagged by Colomey occurred in June 2017, one month after Soderberg was killed.

In that incident, police alleged that a gunman in South L.A. had fled from them while engaging in a roving gun battle in which a police dog was shot in the leg and a SWAT team member had a bullet ricochet off his helmet.

Jose Rauda was ultimately cornered in a shed behind a home. After the officer’s helmet was grazed, the SWAT team members unleashed heavy fire on the shed, according to sources. Rauda was taken into custody, charged with attempted murder of officers, convicted by a jury and sentenced to life in prison.

Sources said Colomey took issue with the degree of force used in each of the three cases, arguing that much of the shooting could and should have been avoided. An LAPD source who is not authorized to discuss the matter and requested anonymity said Colomey seemed particularly irate about the shooting of Soderberg from a helicopter.

In a statement after Colomey filed his lawsuit, the LAPD acknowledged that it was already aware of some of his allegations, but said other claims were new and “deeply concerning.”

The department promised a thorough investigation by its inspector general, and said it is “committed to rooting out misconduct at all levels.”

It declined to answer questions about the past cases Colomey flagged, citing pending litigation.

The LAPD source said some of the SWAT members involved in the incidents Colomey reported are no longer on the team, having retired. The source also said that Colomey had long been aware of the influence of older officers in the unit, given his 11 years assigned to the team, and only took issue with it once he and others had a falling-out over how new members were selected.

Wells, Colomey’s attorney, said Colomey believes that “most of the officers and supervisors in SWAT don’t act like” the alleged SWAT Mafia veterans, but that he had come to realize in recent years “the very real influence” the older men had on “everything within the unit.”

Colomey remains a part of the elite Metropolitan Division but was transferred to a detail at Los Angeles International Airport in October, which worsened his commute from his home in San Bernardino County. He alleges he was transferred as retaliation for speaking out, or “freeway therapy,” as it’s known in the LAPD.

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