Kentucky judge: Apartment incident raises questions about police SWAT deployment

Published 5:39 am Friday, July 2, 2021

Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd heard a case in May that he said changed how he’ll serve warrants.

“Had I known that they were going to send a SWAT team to arrest you on this warrant, then I never would have issued the warrant,” Shepherd said.

He was speaking to Theodrick Tillman, who was extracted from an apartment on Collins Lane by a Tactical Response Unit — Frankfort Police Department’s equivalent of a SWAT team — on May 9.

The SWAT team showed up to Tillman’s girlfriend’s apartment 2½ hours after an incident between him and his girlfriend occurred on Second Street, for which criminal misdemeanor charges are likely to be dropped. Police say that after a bystander called 911 on Second Street, Tillman’s girlfriend later called from the apartment.

Upon not being able to enter the unit, police say they called out for him for 30 minutes via bullhorn before firing a chemical agent similar to pepper spray through a window. Police say situational elements beyond the Second Street incident — in part felony warrants that Tillman had out — led to their calling a SWAT team.

Tillman said at a hearing from Franklin County Regional Jail via Zoom that the event was traumatic. He said he was asleep before the chemical agent burst through his window and was released into the apartment and that the incident has damaged his hearing.

“I feared for my life,” Tillman said. “Every time I get arrested now it’s in some aggressive manner. It’s overly aggressive towards me… I woke up from my sleep to this. I don’t want to keep going through this. I can’t deal with this no more.”

FPD Spokesperson Lynn Aubrey emphasized that police tried to enter the apartment at which Tillman was staying for 30 minutes before breaking the window.

“I don’t want to issue a warrant that is going to result in anything like that,” Shepherd said. “From now on, I’ll just issue a criminal summons…  I’m sorry for the way that this was handled that brought you back before the court today.”

Frankfort Police, in response to a State Journal open records request for body camera footage of the incident, said that no footage existed because body camera mounts for SWAT uniforms were still on order at the time.
Aubrey said that the mounts came in the mail late June.

She also pointed to the fact that each of the department’s SWAT team deployments are evaluated by a risk assessment matrix and that while the matrix didn’t merit an automatic deployment, several factors — including their belief that the door was barricaded and Tillman’s criminal record — contributed to the FPD’s decision.

Tillman is no stranger to Franklin County’s criminal justice system. He has several pending charges in Franklin County, including assault and resisting arrest. One charge in 2012 involved him assaulting two guards at the Franklin County Regional Jail.

Aubrey said that, given what police knew at the time, she would have made the same decision to deploy a SWAT team herself. She added that she believes the purpose of SWAT deployment is de-escalation, and that the incident with Tillman was a good example of that.

“People think we’re calling them (SWAT) out to incite violence,” Aubrey said. “We’re not. This is the best chance at de-escalation, and that’s what happened here.”

“When people hear ‘tactical response,’ they think we’re kicking in the door. That’s not what it is, It’s us securing the residents and calling the person out. If the person won’t cooperate, it’s us using what is the next least level of force that we can use, which in this case was putting gas into the apartment. In this case, and in most cases, the situation comes to a resolve with a less dangerous method.”

According to a State Journal open records request, FPD employees accrued 32½ hours of overtime as a result of the incident.

The incident

A police report regarding the initial incident details a call made at an address on East Second Street by a bystander.

An FPD officer responded and noted that Tillman’s girlfriend, Unique Stewart, told him that she and Tillman were riding together and he “became abusive” toward her. Because of that, the report says, she left the car and got a bystander to call 911.

By the time the officer got there, Tillman had left in Stewart’s car.

Stewart later recanted, and elected not to pursue any charges against Tillman. The charges were passed to continued counseling and a possible dismissal, per Franklin County Attorney Rick Sparks.

The State Journal was unable to contact Stewart despite reaching out multiple times, except for a brief interview in which Stewart said the situation began with a misunderstanding.

“What actually happened was I had a verbal altercation with him,” Stewart said. “The police were called. I don’t know what was told, but he (Tillman) had a probation violation warrant.”

Tillman called The State Journal last month to complain about initial coverage of the SWAT team apartment raid, saying that he thought the first article about the raid included an inaccurate police account of the situation. He did not offer comment on the record.

Aubrey said that around 4:30-5 p.m. Stewart called police at her apartment on Collins Lane, just off Louisville Road, claiming that she was unable to get in.

An officer responded and, per Aubrey, both Stewart and the officer tried and failed to get in due to the door being locked and barricaded with “an unknown item.”

Then the SWAT team came.

Aubrey said that after the team set up and an officer went up to the door and tried to call Tillman out again, the officers then used a bullhorn to try and coax him out for 30 minutes before breaking in the window with the chemical agent — shortly after which he came out of the apartment of his own accord.

In a court hearing, Tillman maintained that he was asleep at the time.

“There ain’t no protecting yourself when they’re using military-grade weapons to come in,” Tillman said. “They shot my window when I was asleep.”

The whole incident on Collins Lane lasted about an hour according to Aubrey.

Aubrey released reports regarding the call on Second Street but said that she couldn’t release the matrix or other reports from the SWAT call because Tillman has the ongoing misdemeanor criminal charges that resulted from the incident.

The justification

Though Tillman recalls a harrowing experience and claims that his hearing was damaged, police say that the situation went well because no one was harmed.

Aubrey said that Tillman was cleared by EMS before being booked into Franklin County Regional Jail that night.
Aubrey described a complex “threat matrix” system on which situations get scored based on a person’s criminal history, situational factors and whether they are believed to be barricaded in a place. Tillman’s situation was not so severe as to merit an automatic SWAT team callout, but was left to the discretion of the commanding officer at the time.

She said that since last July, SWAT has only been called five times. Other past incidents that FPD deemed to merit SWAT teams include a man barricading himself in a home with several firearms threatening to kill himself and potentially dangerous drug trafficking hubs.

“It’s an uncommon thing for us to do, because lots of people that have arrest warrants out there we go without an incident,” Aubrey said. “Unfortunately, occasionally we have a situation like this where the risk is higher that violence can occur. And we have to take that into consideration and do it in the safest manner possible.”

She added that FPD’s SWAT team trains twice a month, practicing responses to various situations.

Dr. Peter Kraska, a professor in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, studies police SWAT deployments across the country. He said that while he couldn’t comment on the merits of this particular situation, SWAT teams nationwide are often called out for situations where they aren’t needed.

“It used to be that that in most jurisdictions you have maybe one legitimate incident that needs the SWAT team every five years,” Kraska said. “Larger municipalities, maybe two or three a year at the most. As they’ve gotten into more of the mainstream, they’re called in for a lot of drug warrant work for minor drug infractions, things are more liberally labeled as needing a SWAT team like barricaded suspects. They’ve just become a more routine part of American policing.”

He said that prior to the war on drugs that proliferated as a result of the 1990s and 2000s “tough on crime” policies, SWAT team deployments were few and far between.

Kraska said that the most clearly warranted situations for SWAT teams were terrorist situations, hostage situations, and moments when a barricaded suspect is armed and dangerous.

The merits of SWAT deployment are uncertain, Kraska said.

“Despite the massive amount of attention given to police militarization, we don’t have any good studies, nor do we have good data on the extent to which SWAT teams help or hurt in normal circumstances,” Kraska said. “We do know that most of the time a SWAT team is deployed, nothing negative happens. We don’t have any comparison with real patrol officers handling those situations, though.”

He did note that one thing to look out for is SWAT matrix manipulation, as he’s been involved as an expert witness in several court cases where that was the case.

“As a general statement, the process needs some good oversight from higher level police administrators,” Kraska said. “There needs to be an annual review of those matrix instruments because they are easily abused and distorted.”

Though Tillman has other pending criminal cases, Sparks said that dismissal for the misdemeanors from the incident on Second Street will likely occur after a pre-trial conference that’s scheduled for Sept. 2.