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    SWAT team shooting a mistake, sheriff says

    The incident involving an unarmed suspect happened as the special squad was serving a warrant in a drug case.

    By JANE MEINHARDT

    © St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000


    LARGO -- Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice said last week's shooting of an unarmed man was a mistake that should not have happened.

    "I think it's fairly clear at this point that it was an accident," Rice said Thursday. "There's no way that shot could have been anything but an accident. We're looking into it to make sure it doesn't happen again."

    Because an internal investigation into the Aug. 18 shooting of Torrance L. Marshall is still ongoing, Rice declined to elaborate.

    Marshall, whose arrest record includes several violent crimes and numerous drug charges, was shot in the jaw. He was in good condition Thursday at an area hospital.

    Deputy Eric Gibson, a five-year veteran, was placed on paid administrative leave after the shooting. A narcotics detective who has been a SWAT team member about two years, he returned to work Tuesday after talking with a psychologist and taking tests to determine whether he was fit for duty, said sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha.

    Gibson shot Marshall, 24, as the SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) Team converged on a duplex at 1718 S Washington Ave. at 3 p.m. Aug. 18 to serve a search warrant for narcotics detectives. Deputies had previously bought crack cocaine twice at the duplex.

    Gibson was one of six or seven SWAT deputies surrounding the duplex, according to sheriff's officials. The SWAT team rammed the door and dropped a diversion device, a metal container that emits a very loud noise and bright light.

    Sheriff's officials said Gibson had drawn his department-issued Beretta 9mm semiautomatic handgun as he and other deputies went into the duplex.

    Gibson demanded to see Marshall's hands to determine if he was armed and was bumped from behind by another deputy, causing Gibson to fire his gun once, officials said. Details about whether Gibson was the first deputy to confront Marshall and how far away Marshall was were not released.

    Deputies later found a .38-caliber handgun in the duplex. They also confiscated 105 grams of crack cocaine, six packets of marijuana and $601.

    Marshall was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, trafficking in cocaine, possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and operating a crack house.

    It was the second accidental shooting involving the SWAT team since its inception in 1983, said Deputy Jim Wentz, a SWAT team supervisor.

    The first happened in 1989 during in-house live-fire training. Two SWAT deputies were doing movement drills together and firing at separate targets, Wentz said. One of the deputy's shots hit his partner in the hand.

    All deputies are trained in how to hold their handguns with their fingers off the trigger.

    "What we teach is finger off the trigger until you assess your threat," Wentz said. "Whether you put your finger on the trigger is dictated by the actual situation you're in and the threat you feel. Your reaction until you see somebody's hands may be finger on the trigger."

    The Beretta 9mm guns deputies use are double-action, which means the hammer goes back and then forward before the gun fires. A person has to pull the trigger for each round.

    The shooting Aug. 18 was the seventh by SWAT deputies in 18 years, he said. Five involved armed suspects who either fired at deputies, shot at other people or pointed a gun at deputies. All five suspects were killed.

    The SWAT team is used to serve warrants, handle hostage cases and in other situations involving a threat to deputies or others. Last year, the team served nine search warrants and was involved in three barricade cases.

    This year, the team has served seven search warrants for investigators.

    "Usually, they are narcotics warrants," Wentz said. "Under our general orders, we go when a case meets certain criteria that includes things like the history of the suspect, the threat involved and whether or not the suspect is armed."

    The 24 SWAT deputies, who earn about $1,000 extra annually for being team members, receive 140 hours of in-house training a year. SWAT sharpshooters and team members with specialties receive additional training.

    All SWAT deputies must pass periodic qualifying courses with their weapons, which range from Beretta handguns and 12-gauge shotguns to AR-15 semiautomatic rifles.

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