Saturday, December 10, 2005

Passenger Shot on Orlando-Bound Plane Did Not Say "Bomb"

An Associated Press article by Curt Anderson reports that passengers are saying Rigoberto Alpizar did not say "I have a bomb" before air marshalls fatally shot him on Wednesday. Several passengers said they heard him say that he was clearly upset even before he got on the plane and seemed frantic to get off.

One passenger said he "absolutely never heard the word 'bomb' at all" during the uproar as the Orlando-bound flight prepared to leave Miami on Wednesday.
McAlhany, a 44-year-old construction worker who was returning home from a fishing trip in Key West, said he was sitting in Seat 21C when he noticed a commotion a few rows back.

"I heard him saying to his wife, 'I've got to get off the plane,'" McAlhany said. "He bumped me, bumped a couple of stewardesses. He just wanted to get off the plane."

Alpizar ran up the aisle into the first-class cabin, where marshals chased him onto the jetway, McAlhany said.

McAlhany said he "absolutely never heard the word 'bomb' at all."

"The first time I heard the word 'bomb' was when I was interviewed by the FBI," McAlhany said. "They kept asking if I heard him say the B-word. And I said, 'What is the B-word?' And they were like, 'Bomb.' I said no. They said, 'Are you sure?' And I am."

Added another passenger, Mary Gardner: "I did not hear him say that he had a bomb."

Officials say there was no bomb and they found no connection to terrorism.

The White House, predictably, defended the shooting:

"From what we know, the team of air marshals acted in a way that is consistent with the training that they have received," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters at Thursday's briefing.

The two air marshals said Rigoberto Alpizar had made a bomb threat.

McClellan said the agents acted Wednesday to protect other passengers.

"It appears that they followed the protocols and did what they were trained to do," he said.

Well, they probably did, but it's possible that the "protocols" are the problem.

Air marshalls are federal law enforcement officers, and as such are trained to use lethal force, and nothing short of lethal force, when confronting a perceived threat to public safety.

Shooting to maim or injure -- rather than kill -- is not an option for federal agents, said John Amat, national operations vice president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which includes air marshals in its membership.

"The person was screaming, saying he would blow up the plane, reaching into his bag -- they had to react," Amat said.

"The bottom line is, we're trained to shoot to stop the threat," said Amat, who is also a deputy with the U.S. Marshals Service in Miami. "Hollywood has this perception that we are such marksmen we can shoot an arm or leg with accuracy. We can't. These guys were in a very tense situation. In their minds they had to believe this person was an imminent threat to themselves or the people on the plane."

Okay, they have to react; they have to stop the threat: But why did they have to shoot to kill? Saying Alpizar was an imminent threat, or that they thought he was, doesn't answer that question. Trained law enforcement professionals should be able to stop an imminent threat without killing people as a matter of course. Obviously, there are some situations where lethal force is unavoidable. But I don't accept that lethal force is the only option in every situation where an individual appears to be an imminent threat.

Plus, in this case, there were signs that Rigoberto Alpizar was not the imminent threat that the officers said he was.

First, Alpizar had cleared all the security checks. If he had had a bomb in his backpack, surely airport security would have found it.

Second, there were obvious signs that Alpizar was mentally ill. His wife was with him, and just before the air marshals shot him, she was shouting at them that her husband was manic-depressive and had not taken his medication. Alpizar was shot as he was attempting to run off the plane; he had been agitated even before he got on the plane, and several passengers heard him saying in a very desperate way that he had to get off the plane. If untrained passengers could hear this, shouldn't federal law enforcement officers trained to recognize and appropriately handle mental illness have been able to see that Alpizar was terrified, not belligerent; and that he was frantically trying to escape some perceived threat, and was not trying to explode a bomb?

Third, as the AP article quoted herein indicates, a number of passengers have said that they never heard Alpizar use the word "bomb." And if you read the media coverage of this shooting carefully, you will see that it's always the air marshals or other federal officials who claim that Alpizar said he had a bomb. As far as I can tell from the articles I have read, none of the passengers on that flight reported hearing Alpizar use the word "bomb" or say he had a bomb at all.

I don't fault the air marshals because they were merely following their training. But I do fault the training. It seems to me that the air marshals, and other federal law enforcement officials, are trained to react out of fear, instead of being trained to actively listen, observe, and respond in a variety of ways depending on the situation and the threat level. If their only option when faced with a threatening situation is to shoot to kill, then we're all in big trouble.

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