The Texas Biker Shootout Is Too Much for Waco to Handle
The local police department investigates its own actions, with few safeguards against the perverse incentives that this case presents.
Mike Stone / Reuters
CONOR FRIEDERSDORF MAY 20, 2015
Pity the police department of Waco, Texas, scene of the clash among rival motorcycle gangs that killed 9 people and wounded many more in a matter of minutes. Afterward, at least 170 bikers were arrested and held on $1 million bond each, even as officers pored over a crime scene covered in blood and strewn with weapons. Authorities also worried that more bikers would come to town and target cops, a clear stressor for many officers and their family members. Taken together, all of this is probably too much for a municipality of 129,000 to handle well.
Thus my concern that justice there may suffer.
Motorcyclists who attended Sunday’s gathering at the Twin Peaks restaurant reportedly ranged from leaders in an international outlaw biker gang to unaffiliated bikers there to hear a talk on legislative issues affecting all motorcyclists. One wonders how many members of the latter group are now sitting in jail.
18 Waco officers and four state troopers were at the scene, too.
The clash reportedly began between members of the Bandidos and Cossacks biker gangs. How many actually participated in the lethal violence? No one seems to know. The fight spilled into the parking lot. According to law-enforcement officials, when police tried to intervene, the bikers turned on them, forcing cops to fire. No video corroborating or contradicting that account has been released or acknowledged.
Among the 9 men killed, how many were shot by police? “Waco authorities said Tuesday they did not have an answer and did not know when they would,” the L.A. Times reports. “The investigation is expected to take weeks or longer as police try to unravel a complicated web of bullet trajectories, shell casings and medical forensics...”
After CNN reported that police killed four of the dead, Sergeant W. Patrick Swanton of the Waco police department declared, “The autopsies have not been completed and that information may very likely be incorrect," a defensible claim of uncertainty. The Waco Tribune reports that police aren’t even sure exactly how many of the officers present fired their weapons. Given all that Swanton doesn’t know by his own admission, he wasn’t credible when he went on to insist that if any police officers did, in fact, kill one or more of the dead men, they “absolutely saved lives.”
There is insufficient evidence for that assertion.
And McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara cannot possibly know that police “responded very swiftly and proficiently to a very bad and dangerous situation.” The L.A. Times quotes him as adding, “They felt their lives were in danger. You have to neutralize the threat. Their quick action resulted in saving more lives. You can’t second-guess if you have something under surveillance and it breaks loose.”
Those do not sound like law-enforcement leaders approaching a crime scene with open minds and following the physical evidence to whatever conclusion it suggests. Perhaps all the police officers present behaved proficiently and courageously. Maybe nearly all of them behaved well, but one panicked and shot unnecessarily, or aimed at a biker with a gun and accidentally hit a bystander instead. It does look like outlaw bikers bear most or all of the culpability for what happened, but that isn’t known for sure. And even if it was, it wouldn’t tell us which outlaw bikers were responsible or whether police bullets killed any non-outlaw bikers.
Yet The Waco Tribune reports the following:
Nearly 48 hours after a shootout... ‘three or four’ officers who fired at suspects during the melee are still on duty, officials said… While it is traditional procedure to remove from duty officers involved in shootings, ‘We absolutely needed their services because of the potential for violence and threat’ following Sunday’s shootout, Sgt. Swanson said. ‘We know with gangs, this most likely is not over. Will it happen in Waco?’
It is also common place during officer-involved shootings to pull in another agency to conduct the investigation, but Swanton said that won’t be happening with Sunday’s case. “We have the top shooting investigator in our area. He’s highly trained in officer-involved shootings,” Swanton said, adding that two parallel investigations will take place in an effort to maintain the integrity of those findings. He said some of that will also be assisted by the Texas Rangers, along with many other state and federal agencies. Swanton said he expects the responsibilities of the officers involved in Sunday’s shootout to be lessened over the coming days.
Police officers involved in shootings aren’t just placed on leave in case they did something wrong. Even when they acted impeccably, they’re at increased risk of everything from panic attacks to brief breakdowns to full-blown PTSD. It is safest to give them time to process what happened and make sure they’re okay for duty. It seems strange that Waco is both so short-staffed that they need these four police officers to stay on-duty and also uninclined to pull in another agency for the investigation.
I’d also question the wisdom of effectively telling members of the biker gangs who aren’t in prison, “The very cops who may have killed your brethren are out on duty today.”
And while I can’t speak for Waco’s shooting investigator, I can say that if I were in his position—a veteran cop in a small town invaded and traumatized by outlaw biker gangs—I’d find it unusually hard to turn in a report that made life difficult for colleagues I knew personally because they made an error amid mayhem they didn’t create.
Meanwhile, the decision to jail 170 bikers suggests that the Waco police are willing to charge significantly more people than were directly responsible for a killing or serious injury. The New York Times suggests that there is precedent for overreach in a case like this. After a 2002 altercation in Nevada that left three motorcycle gang members dead and another dozen injured, “About 120 people were detained by law enforcement. A total of 44 Hells Angels were indicted in federal court, but only seven were convicted. Six Mongols members pleaded guilty to state charges.”
And there is at least one perverse incentive for Waco to cast as wide a net as possible. “Authorities worked to tow 135 motorcycles—many worth upward of $20,000—and 80 vehicles to process them for evidence,” the Dallas Morning News reports. It wouldn’t shock me if a motorcyclist or a dozen who had no inkling of the impending violence and hurt no one in the altercation found their Harley-Davidson motorcycles seized and ultimately ridden by Texas law enforcement officers.
None of this is to cast aspersions on Waco police.
They’re in a difficult situation that they didn’t create, and the facts may ultimately show that all present courageously prevented the broader public from being harmed, in a busy shopping center, even as outlaw bikers began killing one another. The reason to take extra care here, to withhold judgment, and to solicit outside help is because so many factors present in the case could lead to faulty assumptions or rationalized corner-cutting, making truth and justice harder to attain. Anticipating and avoiding those pitfalls would make Waco police exceptional. So far, at least, they’re proving all too human.