Anchorage

The aftermath of a SWAT standoff upends life in a neighboring Anchorage apartment

The SWAT team arrived in the middle of the night. Dillon Spring, a 26-year-old living in a top-floor apartment of a frowsy yellow apartment complex in Fairview, had attacked another tenant with a hammer.

Anchorage Police Department officers showed a warrant to search his apartment. A charging document in the criminal case against Spring describes what police say happened next: When Spring refused to open the door, officers rammed it down. As an officer wearing a protective shield tried to shove past a makeshift barricade, Spring opened fire with an assault rifle, wounding a police officer.

Linda Smith, a 64-year-old great-grandmother, was on her couch in the apartment downstairs, watching television. She heard it all.

“Boom, boom, boom,” she said. “They started shooting up over my head. I’ve never been so scared in my life.”

So began a 10-hour standoff that ended with a police officer shot and a suspect arrested.

Beyond those serious consequences, there was another less visible result of the violence in Fairview that night: During the course of police efforts to flush Spring from the apartment, police shot dozens of tear gas projectiles inside. Windows were smashed. A door, demolished. Hallways were riddled with holes.

Limiting damage to the structure was — understandably — not the top priority in the police response to the volatile standoff.

But in the aftermath, the bystander tenants of this small, low-income apartment complex came home to a building now permeated with tear gas, a difficult-to-clean chemical agent. The incident revealed a little-known truth: When police destroy property or deploy chemicals in a home — no matter how justified or necessary for public safety the action is — it’s not the government that’s responsible for cleaning it up. The property owner is on the hook. Rarely will insurance cover the damage.

Standoff

After Spring opened fire, five police officers who had gone to the apartment hustled the wounded officer outside and began life-saving medical treatment. The wounded officer, identified in court documents as Dominick Eubank, was hospitalized with a gunshot wound to his lower body. Police declined to offer an update on his condition last week.

“Should the officer choose to address the community at a later date, he will do so,” police spokeswoman Renee Oistad wrote in an email.

An online fundraiser for Eubank and his family has raised $34,905 to date. An update by Eubank’s spouse posted on March 23 said the challenges had been “daunting” as his recovery continued.

The lengthy standoff put SWAT tactics in full view of the neighborhood: Officers used an armored BearCat vehicle, wore gas masks and used a drone and loudspeaker during the hours Spring was barricaded inside the apartment.

Spring eventually surrendered and was walked in handcuffs to a police car. He has now been charged with the attempted murder of the six officers police say he fired at. If convicted, he could face a life sentence.

Chemical agent

After Linda Smith was rousted from her apartment during the chaos upstairs, she sought refuge in a relative’s apartment nearby. When she and her neighbors straggled back into the building post-standoff, she found the tear gas canisters used by police had left a noxious odor inside.

It was concentrated upstairs, but the smell was everywhere, Smith said.

Police had taped a bright green notice to the front door of the building. There were two substances on the property, it explained. The first was orthochlorobenzalmalononitrile, commonly known as “CS” or tear gas. The second was oleoresin capsicum, or pepper spray.

She wondered who was going to clean it up. It was immediately clear it wouldn’t be the police.

“The Anchorage Police Department is not responsible for cleaning up the chemical agent left on the property. Private clean up companies are available to clean the property at your expense,” the sign read.

“Some chemical agent generally remains in the property until the property is cleaned and/or sufficiently ventilated with air,” the flyer warned. “Anyone going close to entering the property may experience effects from the chemical agent.”

Tear gas is used by law enforcement to incapacitate people by provoking overwhelming irritation to the eyes, mouth and lungs. When tear gas is used outdoors, as it might be in response to a riot, decontamination is easier. But indoors, the chemical lingers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that in concentrated amounts, long-term doses can have serious health effects, including breathing problems.

Police use chemical agents to “gain compliance” with an uncooperative person, wrote Oistad, the police spokeswoman.

“The hope is that using chemical agents will allow officers to make the arrest without having to utilize a higher-level use of force,” she wrote.

APD has not responded to a request submitted March 29 for records showing how many times police have used chemical agents in the past five years. The Alaska State Troopers publish detailed information about their use of force. That data shows that between 2016 and 2021, troopers used tear gas projectiles 10 times, and pepper spray projectiles 23 times.

‘I shouldn’t be living here like this’

Smith, the grandmother in the apartment below the standoff, wasn’t sure what to do next. She has a chronic inflammatory lung disease, or COPD, which causes obstructed airflow from the lungs and can go hand-in-hand with asthma. But she has nowhere else to go, and was thankful to be able to afford rent with a housing voucher. The apartment had been a stable home for her for years.

In the days after the standoff, just being in the apartment sent her to the emergency room, she said. Doctors prescribed her steroids for her lungs and sent her home.

Two weeks later, the acrid smell of tear gas was no longer strong in her apartment. Smith said she had been wearing a mask inside because she was worried about toxic chemicals from the tear gas lingering. In the upstairs hallway, she could see heaps of a mysterious white substance, possibly residue from the tear gas, which takes a powdery form until exposed to heat.

“I feel hopeless right now because I shouldn’t be in this building,” she said. “I shouldn’t be living here like this.”

Her granddaughters agreed. Alysha Lee started an online fundraiser, hoping to gather enough money to move her grandma out of the apartment. She had relied on her grandmother to watch her toddler son, but that seemed out of the question now.

Matysha Bolin, another granddaughter, felt the same way. Bolin took leave from her job at Brown Jug because she didn’t want to bring her child over to the apartment for babysitting.

“Even if you can’t see it, it’s there,” she said.

The granddaughters were frustrated that for weeks they had seen no sign anything was being cleaned up, aside from a sheet of plastic stretched across the demolished apartment where the raid happened.

‘Property owners are just out of luck’

Phillip Elrod owns the yellow building and two other identical apartment complexes on Ingra Street. He said he’s owned and managed rental apartments all over Anchorage for 40 years. Tear gas was not on his list of worries.

“I’ve never had something like this happen,” he said.

Elrod said he did some basic cleanup after the SWAT raid, but not much more. He said he was waiting for insurance to pay for a contractor to remediate the tear gas and other damage.

It will be a big job: Decontaminating a home from tear gas “tops the list of structural maintenance nightmares,” according to Aftermath, a national crime-scene and biohazard cleanup service. Lingering tear gas or pepper spray can make a home “uninhabitable” and professional cleanup can take weeks, involving hazard-suit clad workers removing everything from carpeting to drywall to insulation, according to the company.

“The entire process can be very difficult and time-consuming, but being meticulous is the only way to completely remediate tear gas residue,” the company warns.

Elrod said he was shocked to learn that insurance wouldn’t cover it, because the damage was caused by law enforcement.

“This really stinks,” he said. “I don’t think landlords realize this.”

In a few places, property owners are compensated for damage caused by police actions. But that’s not the norm, said Jeffrey Redfern, an attorney with the libertarian nonprofit law firm Institute for Justice. Damage caused by SWAT team operations is rarely covered by insurance. That’s because insurance policies commonly include an exclusion for damage caused by government activities, including police actions.

“Property owners are just out of luck,” he said.

The issue isn’t whether the police action was warranted. From a law enforcement standpoint, “clearly they did the right thing,” he said. “But it’s also not the owner’s fault” the property was destroyed.

A series of legal cases have challenged uncompensated damage from law enforcement actions, including a case in Texas where a SWAT team destroyed a woman’s house when a former handyman took refuge there while being chased. That case will go to trial next month.

More legal challenges have reached the higher courts because more municipalities have and use military-style SWAT tactics, Redfern said.

“This kind of damage is becoming more common,” he said.

Smith is still hanging on in the apartment. On Friday, Elrod said he took some additional steps to clean the space, including putting a real door on the apartment permeated with tear gas in an effort to control the residue. Elrod said no other neighbors have complained.

Smith’s granddaughters aren’t so sure the door is sufficient. She didn’t do anything, and now her home is making her sick, Bolin said.

“Why is she living here like this?”

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a reporter who covers news and features about life in Alaska, and has been focusing on corrections and psychiatric care issues in the state. Contact her at mtheriault@adn.com.

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