Yavapai County Sheriff Buck Buchanan is making no apologies for the actions of his Special Weapons and Tactics team earlier this year when one of its members tackled and injured an innocent 75-year-old man during a manhunt.
Two weeks ago, the county was served a $1.25 million excessive force claim, alleging police brutality.
"Without being on the scene," said District 3 County Supervisor Chip Davis, in whose district the incident occurred, "I wouldn’t determine who was in the right or in the wrong. I know it’s difficult for law enforcement officials when they’re dealing with a murderer and I’m sure their emotions and caution levels are running very high."
On the other hand, Davis said, "If this man was not the suspect, we should be pretty careful in dealing with innocent people. I mean, this is the land of the free."
Davis said the matter would be reviewed and a decision made whether to pay or reject the claim. Denying it will open the door to a lawsuit.
Buchanan, who is up for re-election next month and this week saw two of his veteran officers indicted on a number of federal offenses, said his deputies acted appropriately because the man refused to obey orders.
Ralph Andrew Drollinger said his ribs were cracked and his hip broken at the legbone when a SWAT officer slammed him to the ground from behind during a sunrise raid on his campground this past April. He required surgery and months of rehabilitation, leaving the hospital just 10 days ago. He said doctors believe it’s unlikely he will fully recover.
Officers state in an incident report that they were "securing the area" in their hunt for Stephen Edward Tatro, 48, wanted for first-degree murder.
"Violence potential was extremely high due to the nature of his previous crime and for officer safety it was decided to secure everyone in the area until Tatro was located or it was determined he was not in the area," according to the incident report. It went on to state once the SWAT team was in place, they would announce over a public address system their presence as law enforcement and order everyone in the area to "come out with your hands up."
According to the report, 10 officers were on the scene, Drollinger was the only civilian.
Says Dave Counce, Drollinger’s attorney, "… ‘secure,’ it seems pretty obvious to me, means to get everybody there out and get them handcuffed."
Counce continued, " … I just don’t know of any valid concern that would warrant handcuffing an innocent citizen just because he’s in the general area that they’re searching for a criminal who obviously doesn’t match the description of this citizen."
He also couldn’t help but point out they forced Drollinger to lay injured in the mud awaiting medical treatment, clad only in under shorts and a t-shirt.
"I’ve never run across a case where law enforcement officers found it necessary to treat a guy of this age in the fashion they treated this guy, particularly given they knew he wasn’t the criminal they were looking for and he had done nothing to threaten them," he observed.
An internal investigation of the incident exonerated the SWAT officers of any wrongdoing. The Yavapai County Sheriff’s Incident Review Board, which consists of three deputies including one who was on the scene that night, found " … Drollinger’s refusal to cooperate with several lawful orders of the SWAT team, which resulted in not only the alleged injury to this person, but also caused the injury to Deputy McFarland" as justification for the action taken.
Incident reports said McFarland apparently injured himself with his gun when he tackled Drollinger. He received eight stitches in his chin.
The review board finding states, "Mr. Drollinger at one point was armed, although he did not threaten anyone with the weapon." Drollinger said his weapons were legal and he was only defending himself, agreeing to drop the small handgun when he learned they were deputies.
The finding also asserts the SWAT team used "only the minimum necessary force" to secure Drollinger. It also states no department policy or procedure was violated, and determined allegations of unprofessional attitude and assault to be unfounded.
Buchanan refused a request by The Verde Independent/Camp Verde Bugle to review the department policy manual with regard to securing an area and the use of force. Lt. Ted Symonds said it is an internal administrative document, exempt from public review. Buchanan’s refusal came based on his citation of a provision in the U.S. Code. He said its release would constitute a security threat.
Buchanan defended McFarland, saying the "use of force" consisted of McFarland, who is about five-foot-ten and weighs about 175.
"All (McFarland) did was try to make sure this individual he didn’t know wasn’t a co-conspirator or a bad guy," Buchanan said. "We don’t know if Drollinger is an accomplice; he in fact had a weapon on or about his person."