Threshold Of Danger: After A Deputy’s Death 1 Year Ago, What Has Changed, What Has Not

Nearly one year ago, Oklahoma County Sergeant Bobby Swartz was shot and killed while trying to serve an eviction notice in southwest Oklahoma City. 

Wednesday, August 9th 2023, 10:35 pm

Nearly one year ago, Oklahoma County Sergeant Bobby Swartz was shot and killed while trying to serve an eviction notice in southwest Oklahoma City. 

Fellow deputies Mark Johns and Melody Norton barely survived the ambush. Norton is back on the job and facing the same dangers as that tragic day.

News 9's Lisa Monahan & photojournalist Mike Weber got a first hand look at the dangers associated with civil enforcement.

When neither side can see the other's point of view, the simple act of serving an eviction notice can put law enforcement on the threshold of danger.

One year ago, August 22, 2022, that danger proved deadly for Oklahoma County Sheriff's Deputy Sgt. Bobby Swartz, and traumatized surviving deputies Mark Johns and Melody Norton.

The incident underscores a disturbing, nationwide trend in which angry tenants take out their frustrations, sometimes in a lethal manner, on the deputies tasked with serving legal paperwork. 

"The animalistic way that he was shooting," Dep. Norton said. "I just remember thinking, like this is it."

The brush with death, as traumatic as it was, did not deter Deputy Norton in continuing her life's work but it made her even more aware of the risks associated with civil enforcement.

"We have any number of random papers and go into a lot of crazy places," she said. "You just never know, you never know who's going to be where."

While no one would have predicted enforcing an eviction would end so tragically, the incident did reveal possible flaws in the system.

"Much like the day when Bobby was shot and killed, it was posted when we were coming back," said Oklahoma County Sheriff Tommie Johnson.

He explained any given eviction can take up to 45 days to complete.

"Everything we do, we notify you of what's going on. We have to give you the ability to get out," said Johnson.

During the process, deputies with the civil enforcement unit make several stops at the home to post notices - with the final warning specifying when they'll be back to change the locks.

"We returned on the date that they told him we were coming back," Johnson said. “That transparency, both a courtesy and a requirement under the law, proved a dangerous liability. In this case, Plank was ready. He was ready for us and he had his own plans."

The sheriff's office hadn't done anything wrong, but, in hindsight, court records contained warning signs that might have helped prepare for the possibility of Plank's ambush.

A protective order filed the week prior indicated Plank was angry, wanted to end his misery, and had at least eight guns in the home. It remains unclear if deputies were made aware of that situation.

To better understand the process and its risks, Deputy Norton, now back on duty, let us ride along for a day.

And civil procedures, we learned, can sometimes be very un-civil.

"It is riskier than most people think," Dep. Norton said.

The risk is also routinely underestimated, as the enforcement unit is underfunded and understaffed, according to OCSO.

"I have this many to post, this many to lock out -- today. It's a lot," Dep. Norton said of the day's caseload.

She has an average of about 100 legal documents a day, and that comes with its own set of risks.

Typically, when serving an eviction notice, the deputy has only a name and an address. 

The deputies are rarely armed with background checks including an evictee's criminal history, or information on prior incidents at their residence.

"A lot of these we are just blind about," Norton said. “We try to get in and out of places pretty quickly."

After everything Norton has been through, she's also changing the approach.

"What I've been doing is putting an exact date and time, but I know that I won't be back at that exact date and time," Norton said 48 hour notice is required by law but she reiterated that she has started showing up at an undisclosed time.

Teaming up with other deputies for eviction calls, when possible, also adds a layer of protection.

"I have started just kind of trying to ride together most days because it just seems like even things that aren't a big deal turn into be a big deal at some point," she said.

In a day's work, alongside the deputies, we witnessed them handle all manner of stressful interactions.

"The reality is, they had been knowing something was going on," Norton said. “I think sometimes people think if I just ignore it long enough it'll go away. Not so."

The deputies realize the people involved in their civil enforcement actions are often in dire straits, struggling with issues that will likely only be compounded when they deliver worse news.

They try to show compassion, but they have to get the job done and past experience has shown, sadly, that sometimes people do shoot the messenger.

"We don't know what's in their house," she said. “We are thinking with good intentions and that's not really what everybody else is thinking."


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