Death of San Marcos officer highlights perils of serving warrants

Updated Dec 05, 2017

When San Marcos police officer Kenneth Copeland went to a home to serve an arrest warrant, he embarked on a law enforcement mission known in the profession for being fraught with danger.

Such operations often involve a suspect who has previously refused to quietly surrender and turn himself in, experts say, making it necessary for police to use more aggressive means to get that person into custody.

The mission might involve a person who feels desperate to stay out of jail or who already has a history of violence.

And conducting such a mission at a person’s house also leaves officers at a particularly dangerous disadvantage because the suspect might have quick access to weapons or know where to hide and surprise them, experts say.

“If you go to someone’s home, I tell people that it’s an away game,” said Thor Eells, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, an organization that promotes education and training for SWAT teams across the U.S.

“They have every advantage,” he said. “(The occupant) knows where all the hiding places are, where all the locks are, how far it is from your couch to the kitchen where you may have knives. I don’t know if I am going to turn a corner and you could be there and potentially ambush me.”

Police say the death of Copeland, who was killed Monday in the San Marcos Police Department’s first line-of-duty death, underscores the danger of serving warrants and highlights why departments often rely upon tactical teams to serve both search and arrest warrants, even though critics frequently suggest using such militarized equipment is unnecessary and overzealous.

READ: ‘Ken was a hero,’ says San Marcos police chief

Officials say Copeland, a 58-year-old father of four who had been with the department for nearly 20 years, was shot in an ambush-style attack while attempting to serve the warrant in the El Camino Real subdivision for a domestic violence assault charge.

They have not disclosed how many officers were participating in the operation, but have said Copeland was wearing a protective vest.

Court documents show police were attempting to arrest Stewart Thomas Mettz, who authorities confirmed Tuesday night is the man they believe fatally shot Copeland. The suspect remained in the hospital Tuesday.

According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, a total of seven officers were killed while serving a warrant in 2015-16, among the 280 officers who died in the line of duty nationally during those two years. Officials said none of the officers killed serving warrants was from Texas.

But during the past 15 years, officers across the state have been injured or killed in the course of such work.

READ: Documents identify man at center of San Marcos police shooting

Fort Worth officer Hank Nava, who originally was from Round Rock, was killed in 2005 while serving an arrest warrant for a parole violation at a mobile home in Tarrant County. His killer received a life sentence without the eligibility for parole.

In Austin last year, officer James Pittman was shot and injured while serving a search warrant on a North Austin home where police said a suspected drug dealer lived.

Attorneys for Tyler Harrell, who was 18 at the time, have said he did not know that the predawn intruders in his home were police when he fired. In a case in which the actions of police received scrutiny, Harrell was charged with attempted capital murder, but faces no drug-related charges.

Tom Verni, a former New York City police officer who now serves as a cable news law enforcement consultant, said serving warrants is often considered as dangerous as traffic stops and responding to domestic violence calls, which also often involve entering someone’s home.

“The tie-in with those dangerous jobs is the unpredictability factor,” he said. “You never know what you are going to be walking into. You don’t know what the mindset of the person is that you are going to be dealing with.”

Across the nation, Verni and other experts said serving warrants is often left to a squad of officers, particularly in smaller agencies, who train together and plan the logistics of such operations. Agencies that are not large enough to have SWAT teams might rely upon a neighboring agency or be part of a regional task force of tactical officers.

Before entering a home, to mitigate the danger, they might investigate who lives there, the hours they are at home and whether any occupants have previous criminal records. They might try to question others who have been inside a house to glean information about its layout, experts said.

READ: Surprised by Austin SWAT near your home? It’s for your safety, police say

Max Westbrook, a retired Austin police lieutenant who worked in the Austin Police Department’s organized crime division and is now a law enforcement consultant, said many agencies conduct a thorough analysis about whether officers or a SWAT team should serve a felony warrant.

Austin police had a checklist, Westbrook recalled, and if a suspect met certain criteria such as prior convictions for assaulting an officer or for weapons, the SWAT team would serve the warrant.

Westbrook said he was often involved in serving warrants with his team for narcotics-related crimes. He usually felt anxious before doing so.

“Certainly serving warrants, your senses were heightened and you try to be very aware of your surroundings,” he said. “As an officer, you begin to understand that certain aspects of our job are more risky than others.”