Fairfax police stage a SWAT raid on poker players
By Radley Balko January 28
Nine years ago this month, a Fairfax County SWAT team shot and killed 37-year-old optometrist Sal Culosi during a raid on his home. Culosi was suspected of wagering on football games, in violation of Virginia law. (I guess he should have played the lottery instead.) Culosi was unarmed. The police maintained that the shooting was an accident — that officer Deval Bullock mistakenly fired his weapon when the door to the SUV he’d just exited recoiled and bumped his arm, resulting in a direct hit to Culosi’s heart. Culosi’s family hired their own investigators, who more sensibly concluded that Bullock probably mistook the cellphone Culosi was holding for a gun, and shot him intentionally.
Four years ago this month, the Culosi family settled with Fairfax County for $2 million. But the county maintained that there was nothing excessive about sending a SWAT team to apprehend a guy with no criminal history, no indications of violent tendencies, and who was suspected of a nonviolent, consensual crime. It looks like they’ve held that line. From my Post colleague Tom Jackman:
On a quiet weeknight among the stately manors of Great Falls, ten men sat around a table in the basement of a private home last November playing high stakes poker. Suddenly, masked and heavily armed SWAT team officers from the Fairfax County Police Department burst through the door, pointed their assault rifles at the players and ordered them to put their hands on the table. The players complied. Their cash was seized, including a reported $150,000 from the game’s host, and eight of the ten players were charged with the Class 3 misdemeanor of illegal gambling, punishable by a maximum fine of $500. The minimum buy-in for the game was $20,000, with re-buys allowed if you lost your first twenty grand. . . .
Raids by Fairfax police on private poker games are not new — a similar game in Great Falls was raided in 2005. But in 2006, a SWAT team was called in to arrest a single suspect accused of betting on football games, and Officer Deval Bullock accidentally shot and killed optometrist Salvatore J. Culosi Jr. After that, the Fairfax police said they would use their tactical teams more judiciously. Still, the Fairfax police have continued to be unapologetic in their aggressive enforcement of gambling laws, as seen by their willingness to bet and lose large amounts of money to take down sports bookies. They will even make the effort to place an informant in a poker game and they are still willing to wield their heavy artillery to take down a roomful of unarmed poker players. . . .
“It’s crazy,” said the regular, looking back on the night of the raid. “They had this ‘shock and awe’ with all of these guys, with their rifles up and wearing ski masks.”
The police justification for the use of these violent tactics is dubious.
Fairfax police said they could not discuss the Great Falls case since it is still under investigation. “In general though,” police spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell said, “detectives have seen that some of the organized card games, even in private homes, may involve hundreds of thousands of dollars. At times, we’ve seen illegal activity involved in these games. Additionally, at times, illegal weapons are present. With these large amounts of cash involved, the risks are high. We’ve worked cases where there have been armed robberies.”
I address these poker raids (it happens all over the country) and such justifications for them in my book:
Police have justified this sort of heavy-handedness by claiming that people who run illegal gambling operations tend to be armed, a blanket characterization that absurdly lumps neighborhood Hold ’Em tournaments with Uncle Junior Soprano’s weekly poker game. And in any case, if police know that people inside an establishment are likely to be armed, it makes even less sense to come in with guns blazing. Police have also defended the paramilitary tactics by noting that poker games are usually flush with cash and thus tend to get robbed. That too is an absurd argument, unless the police are afraid they’re going to raid a game at precisely the same moment it’s getting robbed. Under either scenario, the police are acknowledging that the people playing poker when these raids go down have good reason to think that the men storming the place with guns may be criminals, not cops.
If you’re wondering, yes, that has happened.
Indeed, that’s exactly what happened to seventy-two-year-old Aaron Awtry in 2010. Awtry was hosting a poker tournament in his Greenville, South Carolina, home when police began breaking down the door with a battering ram. Awtry had begun carrying a gun after being robbed. Thinking he was about to be robbed again, he fired through the door, wounding Deputy Matthew May in both arms. The other officers opened fire into the building. Miraculously, only Awtry was hit. As he fell back into a hallway, other players reporting him asking, “Why didn’t you tell me it was the cops?” The raid team claimed they knocked and announced several times before putting ram to door, but other players said they heard no knock or an- nouncement. When Awtry recovered, he was charged with attempted murder. As part of an agreement, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison. Police had broken up Awtry’s games in the past. But on those occasions, they had knocked and waited, he had let them in peacefully, and he’d been given a $100 fine.
It’s absurd to think a bunch of poker players are going to open up on a couple of uniformed cops who come to a game, politely knock on the door and then hand out light fines. It isn’t at all absurd to think that a few poker players in a state with friendly gun laws might mistake a group of raiding, mask-wearing cops for armed robbers and fire at them out of fear. And that’s just the practical argument here. There’s also the more fundamental question of whether this sort of force and violence is justified against a bunch of people who are doing nothing worse than playing cards for money.
Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
WE NEED TO CHANGE THE COPS, NOT ENCOURAGE THEIR AWFUL BEHAVIOR
Boycott the following companies for hosting the Fairfax 2015 World Police & Fire Games
Apple Federal Credit Union,
B.F. Saul Company,
Glory Days Grill,
City of Fairfax, Karin’s Florist,
NOVA Media Services,
Clyde’s Restaurant Group,
IMC, ESPN 980,
Prince William Convention and Visitors Bureau and
Booz Allen Hamilton.
Want to change the murderous arrogance and indifference of the Fairfax County Police? Then fire the people who hire the cops and watch how quickly things change. Start with tossing Gerry Hyland out of office. He basically works for the cop’s best interest and not yours.
Bottom line, if politicians don’t fear that you can harm their careers, then you don’t exist. They don’t see you, they don’t hear you. You don’t matter.
Register to vote, form a political action committee. Run a candidate. Take back your government.