Justice for Sal Culosi

Monday, January 17th, 2011

My column this week looks back at the Sal Culosi case. Culosi was killed by a Fairfax, Virginia SWAT team five years ago this month. Last week, his family settled with the county for $2 million. As I argue in the column, a settlement that large in a hard-to-win lawsuit against a police officer is an admission of guilt, no matter how county officials will try to spin it.

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35 Responses to “Justice for Sal Culosi”

  1. #1 |  SJE | 

    While this should end the matter for the Culosi family vs Fairfax County, there should also be a mechanism for the citizens of the county to look into this case: it is their money, and their police department. Is there some way for an impartial inquiry that is not another coverup?

  2. #2 |  CyniCAl | 

    The cost of doing business.

  3. #3 |  Matt I. | 

    If someone killed a member of my family like that, then came out to intimidate me, I would gun them down and whoever supported them just as simple as that. I’d make an example out of the entire police precinct if I had to.

  4. #4 |  BamBam | 

    Radley, good until the end: “As much as anyone can in a case like this, they have found the justice they’ve been seeking.” The blog entry you quote from Sal’s mom indicates that their hope for justice has been compromised. This tells me that did NOT find the justice they were seeking, but rather an extremely watered down version.

  5. #5 |  BamBam | 

    @1, people have to care enough to be aware of what is going on in their backyard, and then care enough to do something about it. APATHY and FEAR … the cornerstones of a tyrant controls on a populace.

  6. #6 |  SJE | 

    BamBam: I agree. The problem I have is that there does not seem to be a mechanism for an independent investigation. The British and their commonwealth brethren (e.g. Canada, Australia) set up independent comissions of inquiry, akin to the “special prosecutor.” They typically pick someone who is a very well respected lawyer who is not beholden to either side (such as an old retired judge) and give them enormous power to investigate. You can’t trust politicians or prosecutors to investigate, and judges are only supposed to rule on legal disputes.

    They come up with a report and then its up to the political and judicial process to decide whether to charge with crimes. At least with an investigation, you have a report that clears the air and hopefully gets to the truth, and forms a basis for future policy.

  7. #7 |  Law Prof | 

    The special commission reports in the UK are every bit as POLITICAL as can be. The “respected” Judge or ex-Politican is expected to produce a report the minimizes the divergance from the “elite viewpoint” and limits the damage to the government.

    Only a person who can be trusted (based on decades of toeing the line) to throw as much whitewash as possible will ever be appointed. Like Harvard men, those Eton boys know which side of the toast has the butter on it.

    When you can choose the investigators, you can determine the result (=/- 5%).

  8. #8 |  Warren | 

    Reason is not loading for me.

  9. #9 |  johnl | 

    Ditto Warren.

  10. #10 |  SJE | 

    Law Prof: I don’t doubt that there are ways to game the system, such as determining the “terms of reference” that define the scope of inquiry and, or course, chosing the judge.

    At the same time, the Royal Comisisons have uncovered serious problems with police and political corruption. They can only do this because (a) once they are started, they cannot be stopped by either the politicians or cops (e.g. a settlement by the cops, or the prosecutor dropping charges, does not end the inquiry) and (b) the commissioner’s future career prospects are less likely to be influenced by his decision.

    For example, the many “accidental” deaths of aboriginals in custody were only given proper examination by Royal Comissions in Canada and Australia, when the politicians were unable or unwilling to investigate.

  11. #11 |  Cornellian | 

    In Canada, governments (federal and provincial) generally try to avoid appointing a Royal Commisssion to look into anything that might embarrass the government, precisely because they are hard to control. So the hurdle is putting enough political pressure on a government to appoint the Royal Commission in the first place. If you’re a politician, a retired guy with a secure pension and an eye on how history will judge him is the last person you want looking into your affairs.

  12. #12 |  Radley Balko | 

    This tells me that did NOT find the justice they were seeking, but rather an extremely watered down version.

    My point is that they fought about as much as anyone could expect them to, and they shouldn’t blame themselves for taking a settlement after 5 years. They got as much justice as anyone can get in a case like this, and should feel they did well by their son’s memory.

    That it wasn’t enough to feel like real justice wasn’t their shortcoming, but the product of a system stacked against them.

  13. #13 |  SJE | 

    @11: I agree. Of course, those proposing the RC can ask “what are you afraid of?” Its far from perfect, but the current system in the USA aint so great either. If you rely entirely on journalists and bloggers, you merely need to keep things secret and no one will find out (thank you, VA “open government” laws). There needs to be someone with the power to investigate.

  14. #14 |  Gordon | 

    With the corrupt Horan no longer the DA, can / will the current DA bring charges?

    And while I’m asking, can I have a pony? *sigh*

    But, seriously, the fact that we grant police special authority means that they should be held to a higher standard, not a lower one.

  15. #15 |  Big A | 

    #14- Exactly. Kinda like how it’s okay for a gas station attendant to have saggy pants, but not a kindergarten teacher. More responsibility requires more professionalism. And those who don’t display such professionalism should never make it into a position of such responsibility.

  16. #16 |  Robert | 

    Not enough. What about the REST of us who didn’t get money? What does the public get when their LEOs kill, lie and then intimidate and cover up? This wasn’t a private affair.

  17. #17 |  BamBam | 

    Radley, you said “they have found the justice they’ve been seeking.” I understand what you intended on communicating, but it’s a poor choice of words in the article. By saying “they” you are speaking for them, as if the Culosi’s wrote to you and told you their feelings. A better wording is what you said in post 12 above :-]

    Keep up the excellent and NECESSARY work to pursue justice through educating people and shining a spotlight on evil, corrupt people. You are far more a hero than pretty much any cop.

  18. #18 |  Whim | 

    Excellent REASON article, Radley.

    Your blog tracked this tragedy from its inception. I did not realize the culpability of the Fairfax County Detective David Baucum in enticing Sal Culosi, Jr. into increasing his betting stakes above the $2K state limit for running a wagering operation.

    Clever entrapment. Detective Baucum deserves a commendation for resourceful entrapment of an Optometrist.

    Regarding using SWAT to serve warrants for victimless, non-violent crimes:

    By doing so, the police can transfer virtually ALL the risk to the citizenry. After all, the police have repeatedly and boisterously proclaimed that the most important thing to them is to go home safely at the end of their shift.

    Even if it leaves a non-violent suspect dead…….

    The sad Sal Culosi case proves the concept is not theoretical.

  19. #19 |  Gordon | 

    Whim (#18) makes an important point. Since when does “officer safety” trump individual rights? I don’t think it even trumps individual human dignity (e.g. being so very quick [eager?] to put people on the ground). How can they “protect and serve” if they regard their own “safety” as being more important than those they’re supposed to be protecting?

    And how is it that “department policy” or “department training” magically transmogrify into law? Really? The police get to make their own law? That seems to be what’s happening as they use “policy” or “training” as justifications for violating individual rights. They use “disorderly conduct” or “failure to obey” charges to punish individuals who do stand up for their rights. How the hell can “failure to obey” even be a crime in a free society??

    If a police officer cannot deal with non-violent individuals face-to-face, professionally, with civility and respect, then they are unfit to serve in a position of authority and public trust. Period.

    Allowing our public servants to behave as though they are our masters will be our downfall if we permit it.

  20. #20 |  delurking | 

    $2M is not enough. The police got off too easily.

  21. #21 |  Stephen | 

    The family did not get the justice they deserved but I agree with Radley that this is as close as they are ever likely to get.

    Looks to me like this case was actually tried by the insurance company and the cops were found guilty.

  22. #22 |  Whim | 

    SWAT raids dramatically increase the risk to the resident.

    Take a look at this police SWAT video where a drug suspect was shot dead in his own home last year.


    Yes, it was a nighttime, No-Knock Dynamic entry, dramatically increasing the confusion and mis-identification inherent in a NIGHTTIME No-Knock SWAT raid.

    Yes, every police officer was holding a firearm, which is actually counter-intuitive if the police are actually going to handcuff an individual.

    Yes, there were confusing shouts from the police, with multiple officers yelling over each others’ yells.

    Yes, the startled suspect was shot three times, twice in the chest and once in the head, before he was even given a chance of dropping the golf club he was holding in front of him.

    The man’s life was extinguished within 7 seconds of SWAT entry into the house.

    Yes, the police handcuffed the wounded suspect, to ensure a complete bleed-out without rendering assistance. EMT was “called”.

    Yes, the District Attorney cleared all the police involved.

    P.S. The drug search warrant alleged he was a drug dealer, but SWAT did not find anything other than an insignificant amount of contraband, at the personal usage level, i.e. a small amount of marijuana, and meth residue.

  23. #23 |  Stephen | 

    I wonder if there exists a map of the cost of insurance by county for covering cop screw ups.

  24. #24 |  GreginOz | 


  25. #25 |  Lloyd Flack | 

    It can be great fun when corrupt cops and politicians end up in front of a Royal Commission. Since they are not part of the justice system but fact-finding on behalf of the executive there are no privelliges against self-incrimination. What they say cannot be used as evidence against them in a court but they have to tell the truth no matter how embarassing. Great giggles when they get caugt in a whopper.

    And there have been cases when an enquiry was set up to make one lot look bad and ended up uncovering some very different wrong doing.

    There is a danger of one of these commissions merely confirming the pre-conceptions of the commissioner and the counsel assisting the commissioner. But in general they are more effective at dealing with corruption than anything in the US.

  26. #26 |  Windy | 

    Gordon wrote:
    “Allowing our public servants to behave as though they are our masters will be our downfall if we permit it.”
    We already permit it, it will “be our downfall” if we CONTINUE to permit it. As for independent investigations, all too often “citizen review panels” are far too accommodating to law enforcement, and the “investigation” turns out to be nothing more than cursory look at the case with a “conclusion” the LEO(s) did nothing wrong.

  27. #27 |  David Ruttenberg | 

    Good work Radley. :)

  28. #28 |  perlhaqr | 

    @Whim, #22: P.S. The drug search warrant alleged he was a drug dealer, but SWAT did not find anything other than an insignificant amount of contraband, at the personal usage level, i.e. a small amount of marijuana, and meth residue.

    Every time I read this sort of phrase, I think to myself “Ah, the house was clean, but they didn’t want to walk away completely empty handed.”

    “Finding” a baggie of marijuana or meth large enough to count as personal use could fit inside the wrist of the glove of the cop who did the finding.

    Aside from the fact that I absolutely don’t think such things should even be illegal, after the Kathryn Johnston affair, I’m not even capable of believing the cops when they say they “found” such an amount when executing a “dealer” warrant, anymore.

  29. #29 |  Pablo | 

    #26 Windy–the main problem with citizen review panels is not that they are too accomodating to LE, but that they have no teeth, e.g. their recommendations are usually not binding. Here in Atlanta, the CRB at times finds against the officer, recommends some disciplinary action, and such recommendations are ignored by the PD.

  30. #30 |  Charlie O | 

    We’ve been hearing ad nauseum for over a week now about the Tucson shooting, yet, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything on national media about Sal Culosi. This man was was murdered by a government agent. That alone should merit the same attention if not more than Jared Loughner. I don’t know what it going to take for law enforcement personnel to be held personally responsible for these action, but I can only hope that more Americans starting shooting back and hitting more and more of their targets while doing so.

  31. #31 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    So someone tells the pig who killed Sal that the taxpayers paid $2M and he finishes his coffee and donut without skipping a beat. Do I have it right?

  32. #32 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    #29 is correct. Love it when CRBs request interviews with officers and the hog union tells them to pound sand.

  33. #33 |  Bob | 

    Huh! I was under the impression that the cop who shot him, Deval Bullock, was bumped by a car door. Apparently, that wasn’t the case. according to the official report:

    Following significant investigation, review, and analysis, the Department has concluded that the unintentional shooting was due to a reflex-like involuntary muscle contraction experienced by MPO Bullock as he was drawing his weapon and moving toward Mr. Culosi. Although the act was clearly unintentional, MPO Bullock was held accountable and responsible for the unintentional discharge, and a violation of Department regulations was sustained against him.

    Let me get this straight. He pointed a loaded gun, safety off, at an obviously unarmed, compliant man… then pulled the trigger. And… his punishment is 3 weeks unpaid leave and subsequent reassignment?

    “reflex-like involuntary muscle contraction” I think the technical term for that is “Trigger happy”.

  34. #34 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    The old “RLIMC”!

    Remember when a non-cop used that excuse to get away with murder? No.

  35. #35 |  Bob | 

    Wow, that videos containing the results of the Culosi’s independent investigation are damning.

    Assuming the data are accurate (Location of the cars, casing, and tranjectory) then there is no way Bullock’s testimony that he fired near his car door is truthful.