Police considered a man facing drug charges holed up inside his mother’s home in a Rock Hill neighborhood last month a “high-risk” suspect, making it necessary for a 12-member SWAT team to break down a door to arrest him.
The parents of two men directly involved in the arrest question whether the large police response was necessary, given that authorities were serving a warrant on a man who didn’t appear in court on drug charges, “not a violent crime.”
A spokeswoman for the state agency responsible for training police officers says calling in a Special Weapons and Tactics team was likely the best way to resolve a situation that could have turned deadly.
On May 29, agents with the York County Multijurisdictional Drug Enforcement Unit went to an Andora Drive home in the Amber Ridge subdivision off Mount Gallant Road to serve a bench warrant on Sherard Weathers, 27, charging him with failure to appear in court. A judge had issued the warrant a week earlier after Weathers didn’t show up for trial on possession of crack cocaine charges.
Police wrote in a report that when Weathers saw them, he and another man, later identified as Andrew Castro, ran into his mother’s home.
Castro eventually left the house and was detained, the report states, while Rock Hill police officers on scene relayed information that Weathers had barricaded himself inside the house, refusing to obey police commands to come out. Minutes later, the SWAT team was called in.
SWAT members kicked in a door and arrested Weathers.
Days after paying $250 to replace her broken door, Collette Calhoun, Weathers’ mother, said she has been staying with friends because she feels uncomfortable in her home. She said she feels “violated for something as simple as a mistake.”
That mistake started a week earlier when Weathers was summoned to court for trial. He was then told that he did not have to show up when his attorney, York County public defender Ashley Anderson, learned that prosecutors likely would not call his case before a judge that week.
They later changed their minds, Anderson said, but she could not reach Weathers. She later learned Weathers had left a message for prosecutors saying he was out of town because he did not think he would go to trial. In the message, Anderson said, he said he doubted he could get back in time.
“We tried to call the case on May 22... he did not appear,” said Leslie Robinson, the assistant York County solicitor who prosecuted Weathers. “It was moved to June, but to ensure his appearance that bench warrant had been issued.”
On May 22, prosecutors and Weathers’ attorney appeared before Circuit Court Judge Edward Welmaker. Solicitors wanted to try Weathers in his absence, Anderson said, but the judge agreed to hear the case in June. Once officials confirmed that Weathers was not in town, Welmaker issued a bench warrant for his arrest, since he still did not appear in court when summoned.
“Ultimately, Judge Welmaker... believed Mr. Weathers had enough notice on Wednesday that he could have come back on Thursday,” Anderson said. The judge “acknowledged there was some sort of confusion and miscommunication, but believed Mr. Weathers had some notice to return.”
After her son’s arrest a week later, Calhoun said the SWAT team’s response was excessive and unnecessary.
“I’m kind of upset that the SWAT team would come out and take one man – an unarmed man – out of a home” for possession of such a small amount of drugs, she said. “They could have shot my son.”
Jurors earlier this month found Weathers guilty of possession of crack cocaine, and a judge sentenced him to three years in prison. The conviction followed his December 2012 arrest on six drug charges. He was accused of participating in several drug transactions on different days dating back to September 2012.
Drug agents who arrested him in 2012 reported that they found .04 grams of crack cocaine in his pocket, Anderson said. At trial, she argued that the amount of drugs in Weathers’ pocket was so insignificant that it was possible he didn’t know it was there.
Officers testified that Weathers told them he mixed crack cocaine with marijuana to smoke. No other drugs were found on Weathers when he was arrested, Anderson said, and none of his alleged statements had been written down or recorded. Jurors returned a guilty verdict. He still has drug charges pending, court records show.
On May 29, Andrew Castro walked across the street to give Weathers a cigarette and to eat Chinese food. He wound up on the ground in handcuffs.
After seeing an unmarked gray sports utility vehicle drive back and forth on their cul-de-sac, Weathers and Castro went inside Calhoun’s home because they were concerned something bad was about to happen, Castro told The Herald.
“We were walking toward the kitchen,” Castro said, “and we hear, boom boom boom ‘Sherard, we know you’re in there we know you’re in there.’ ”
Still suspicious, Castro said, he and Weathers decided not to open the door. The pounding continued until the people on the other side announced themselves as police.
Weathers refused to go outside, said Castro, who opened the garage door and saw guns drawn on him. Officers ordered him to the ground and placed handcuffs on him, he said. They put him in a patrol car and asked questions about Weathers.
After Castro’s father, Frank Castro, ran across the street in a panic, Castro volunteered to call Weathers on his cellphone. He put the phone on speaker, he said, and told Weathers that police were planning to call in a SWAT team. An officer shouted to Weathers that police would knock the door down if they had to.
“Sherard told them to knock the door down, because ‘I’m not going out there,’ ” Castro said.
As the waiting continued, Rock Hill police officers arrived at Calhoun’s home to assist the drug agents, according to a Rock Hill police report. About 30 minutes later, a Rock Hill police supervisor called in the SWAT team after deciding Weathers was a “high-risk” suspect, Rock Hill Police spokesman Mark Bollinger said.
The department’s SWAT unit is made up of full-time officers who volunteer on the squad part-time when the need arises. That includes when officers respond to barricaded suspects, hostage situations and high-risk warrant service, in which police are serving warrants on a murder suspect or “violent drug offender,” Bollinger said.
With Weathers, “there was a good assumption to err on the side of caution that he could have possibly have a weapon,” Bollinger said.
Weathers did not have a gun when he was arrested May 29. Bollinger said police consider a suspect’s criminal history, if they know it, when responding to such situations. “Narcotics and DEU folks were familiar with” Weathers, Bollinger said.
State Law Enforcement Division records show that Weathers was convicted in 2010 of assaulting a police officer while resisting arrest. Two years later, he was released from prison on probation. His other convictions include misdemeanor traffic violations. He has faced several drug charges in the past, many of which were dismissed.
In dealing with Weathers, police did not “go with, ‘He probably had a weapon,’ ” Bollinger said. “We go with, ‘He...possibly (could) have a weapon.’ He fit the criteria for a high-risk warrant service.”
Because Weathers refused to leave the house, police considered him a barricaded suspect, meaning he locked the door and would not allow police inside.
“It doesn’t mean they put dressers up against the doors,” Bollinger said. “They’ve locked themselves in the house and won’t let us in. Usually, that forces us to either knock out a window or ram a door. We have to use some kind of physical force to force our way in the house.”
Sending in a SWAT team could have been avoided, Bollinger said, had Weathers come out of the house when police ordered him to do so.
“Everything that was done was done because of his actions,” he said. “The whole incident’s on him.”
Andrew Castro says the SWAT response was jarring.
“This was uncalled for,” he said. “The way they knocked that man’s door down, the way they apprehended me...”
Victoria Middleton, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, urges police to consider whether any other measures are available before they engage in “military-style intervention.”
Nationally, the ACLU has been investigating police departments’ “reliance” on SWAT teams, she said, noting that a fraction of SWAT raids result in charges being filed.
“They often provoke fear, hurt individuals and families, and result in damages to property,” she said.
Frank Castro said he saw about eight police cars swarm his Amber Ridge neighborhood on May 29 before he heard police order his son to the ground and saw them put him in handcuffs.
“It looked like (Floyd) Mayweather was having a boxing match,” Frank Castro said of the commotion.
When he ran outside and asked officers why his son had been detained, he said, an officer told him Andrew Castro might be charged with harboring a fugitive.
“How are you going to (be) harboring a fugitive when he’s in the fugitive’s own house?” said Madeline Castro, Andrew Castro’s mother. “I feel that it’s over-exaggerated. I could see (using) the SWAT team if he’s wanted for murder or there’s been a kidnapping.”
But, she said of what Weathers was charged with, “it was not a violent crime.”
In South Carolina, police officers are taught to “take it one level higher than the event itself,” said Maj. Florence McCants, spokeswoman for the state Criminal Justice Academy.
“It does look a little intimidating, because you have a huge team, they’re walking around in huge gear... they come in with a strong presence,” McCants said. “They’re there for a law enforcement function. (The suspect) has verbally refused to comply to a law enforcement command. You don’t want to send one or two officers in that situation because things can change quickly.”
Like Bollinger, McCants said “barricaded suspects” don’t necessarily have to fortify the doors and windows of an area to evade arrest. When suspects stay inside a home and refuse to come out, she said, “oftentimes SWAT would be the best option” to get them out.
“You don’t know what could happen... but you know what you have on paper in front of you,” she said. “You don’t know what’s in (the suspect’s) head. That’s where the problem comes right there. You don’t want anyone other than the SWAT team addressing those types of incidents.
“It can go volatile really, really fast.”