FBI agents face danger executing search warrants, experts say

Sometimes tragedies like the one in Sunrise can’t be avoided

Serving a search warrant is one of the most dangerous situations law enforcement faces, because of the unpredictability of suspects on the other side of the door, experts say.

MIRAMAR, Fla. – University of Miami criminology professor Alex Piquero says that executing warrants is among the most dangerous calls for service for the FBI and other agencies.

“Law enforcement personnel don’t know what is on the other side of that door,” said Piquero, a criminologist for more than 25 years and chair of UM’s sociology department.

After two FBI special agents were killed and three others injured Tuesday morning serving a warrant in Sunrise, Local 10 News spoke to several experts about these perilous situations.

Sources told ABC News that the FBI agents were met with rifle fire after they breached the doorway as part of the child pornography investigation.

That doorway is where the danger can begin.

“The threshold of a door is what they call the dead zone — it is not where you want to be,” said retired Miami Police Deputy Chief and SWAT Commander Frank Fernandez.

Chris Nelson, who served for 26 years in the FBI’s San Francisco and San Diego offices says that even if the agents did everything right, “yesterday still could have happened ... if you have a determined violent opponent.”

Barry Golden is a retired U.S. Marshals service senior inspector who spent 27 years tracking down local, state and federal fugitives — and the last seven years of his service tracking down convicted sex offenders.

He says there’s an inherent danger to serving search warrants.

“Some people react very violently,” Golden said. “A small percentage of those crime suspects react in a deadly manner and resort to gun violence against law enforcement.”

The suspect Tuesday, since identified as 55-year-old David Lee Huber, took his own life after shooting at the agents.

The weapon he allegedly used also likely contributed to the incident turning deadly for the agents.

Nelson said the normal bulletproof vest that an FBI agent wears is “generally only designed to stop handgun rounds, it is not designed to stop rifle rounds.”

“There are not many vests that can protect an officer from a rifle round,” Fernandez added.

FBI Miami’s Special Agent in Charge George Piro explained Tuesday how the bureau conducts search warrants almost daily.

“We thoroughly research and meticulously plan to take into account any threats or dangers,” he said. “The vast majority of these warrants occur without incident, and the investigation continues. The operation this morning in Sunrise ended tragically, with the subject opening fire on the members of the search team.”

Experts say information about the suspect is critical to the planning. Huber was not believed to have had a violent criminal history before this case.

“You want to know how many times they was arrested what they were arrested for,” Golden said.

“Does he have a history of violence, a history of carrying weapons,” Fernandez said.

A checklist of those type of questions helps determine the potential threat level and related resource allocation.

“If after that checklist it is deemed the threat level is low, then SWAT is not going to be utilized,” said Fernandez said, who is also the retired Hollywood Police Chief and a Department of Justice police practices expert.

But, he added, “these things have an inherent danger regardless of using a SWAT team or not.”

As Golden put it: “The one thing you can’t guard against is you don’t know the mindset of the person on the other side of the door.”

And, as Nelson says, “it only takes seconds” for the something tragic to happen.

“They put their lives on the line every single day when they leave the house, not knowing if they are going to return that evening,” Piquero said.

Also see...

Richard Swearingen, commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, addressed the dangers that search warrants present in an interview at the Florida Capitol on Dec. 15. You can watch that by clicking here.

The FDLE also shared the following materials about search warrants from their basic recruit training program courses given to law enforcement, correctional, and correctional probation officers in the state. Note that some local agencies may choose to provide additional training.

About the Author:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."