Elite Federal Prison Riot Teams’ Reckless Training Injures Staff with Munitions, Pepper Spray
The elite federal prison riot teams recently deployed by the attorney general to respond to violence and looting after George Floyd’s death committed embarrassing gaffes during training exercises that made the highly trained officers seem like amateurs. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) staff members were seriously injured because there was “inappropriate and dangerous” use of force and pepper spray during the mock exercises, according to an audit conducted by the Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General.
This may seem unbelievable considering the units, known as Special Operations Response Teams (SORT), are specialized tactical squads trained to respond to emergency situations such as prison riots, hostage taking, assaults on jail staff and inmate escapes. Officers must meet strict academic, psychological and physical requirements. All federal prisons have their own SORT and they usually have 15 members led by a commander or captain. Every year SORT members are required to meet qualification guidelines issued by the BOP’s Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP). That includes training exercises that mirror real prison emergencies. Teams follow strict rules involving the use of force and a lieutenant or higher ranking correctional services official must supervise a calculated use of force and use of Oleoresin Capsicum (OC), chemical agents, distraction devices, Specialty Impact Munitions, and less than lethal delivery systems.
Incredibly, during training exercises some teams evidently fail to adhere to BOP guidelines involving force and the use of explosives as well as chemical agents. Described as “inappropriate and dangerous events” by the DOJ IG, the careless training methods by these “elite” tactical law enforcement units resulted in needless and unacceptable injuries. The blunders must also be incredibly embarrassing for these specialized squads, which were recently deployed to Miami, Florida and Washington D.C. by Attorney General Bill Barr to respond to violent protests in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. During the mock exercises, the units, which are not identified in the report, deployed a distraction device munition in a confined space, which was not authorized for use under BOP policy, and SORT members deployed real OC spray rather than inert OC spray, also without authorization. SORT members also used force, including firing a simunition round against prison workers who were yelling to the SORT that they were “out of role” and physically vulnerable.
During the first mock exercise described in the report, the SORT deployed two “flash bang” type munitions to enter the location of the drill. The second munition hit a staff member role player and detonated, causing significant injury requiring surgery and ongoing treatment. The BOP subsequently determined that the flash bang deployed during the exercise was not an authorized distraction device munition listed in the manual and the agency has prohibited the device’s use. “In addition, during its review of this incident, the BOP was unable to locate the Tactical Operation Order (TOO) governing this mock exercise,” investigators found. In the second mock exercise BOP administrative staff members who were not involved in the drill secured themselves in a business office shortly after the event began. The BOP employees included those on restricted duty due to medical conditions. During the exercise, SORT members demanded the door to the room where the uninvolved staff were located be opened, attempted to breach the room using a crow bar, sprayed OC into the room without obtaining authorization, entered the room, and fired a simunition round that struck an employee in the chest. “In addition, there allegedly was a physical altercation, including pushing and shoving, between SORT members and the uninvolved staff members,” according to the report. Some of the events occurred after the uninvolved staff members shouted that they were “out of role” and physically vulnerable.
Investigators determined that individuals from the BOP regional office responsible for certifying the tactical team’s actions were present, though one monitor was outside the facility during the exercise. Other monitors did not have radios and could not communicate with SORT members. “In addition, the OIG determined that the Emergency Preparedness Officer who created the scenario for this incident left the building where the exercise was taking place before the SORT sprayed OC,” the report states. The watchdog recommends the BOP suspend all SORT mock drills until comprehensive guidelines are developed and remedial training on SORT policy and use of force applications during certification training.