Two more SWAT raids gone bad in the past couple of weeks have kept the spotlight on the aggressive police units and the tactics they employ. In Polk County, Georgia, an elderly Cedartown woman was hospitalized after suffering a heart attack as a local police SWAT team and DEA agents swarmed the wrong house. In Detroit, in an incident that drew national attention, a 7-year-old girl was killed by police gunfire in a SWAT raid at the wrong apartment in a house. The SWAT team was attempting to arrest a murder suspect, so there was arguably more of a case for SWAT than in the routine drug cases we normally track in Drug War Chronicle. But the incident tragically demonstrates the potential dangers arising from such aggressive police tactics.
The two raids come before the national outrage generated by the now infamous dog-killing SWAT raid in Columbia, Missouri, has had a chance to die down. In that raid, a videotape of which went viral on YouTube, a SWAT team executing a marijuana search warrant burst into a family home and shot two dogs, killing one, before ushering the suspect's terrified wife and young daughter out of the home. All police came up with was a tiny amount of pot and a pipe.
In the Georgia raid, Helen Pruett, 76, was home alone when nearly a dozen agents entered her property with guns drawn in search of drug dealers. They were actually looking for another residence on the same property, but mistakenly -- after two years of surveillance -- hit hers.
"She was at home and a bang came on the back door and she went to the door and by the time she got to the back door, someone was banging on the front door and then they were banging on her kitchen window saying police, police," said Pruett's daughter, Machelle Holl, adding that her mother was scared to open the door until the Polk County Police Chief convinced her she was safe. "They never served her with a warrant. At that point, she said the phones were ringing with the other men that were in the yard and they realized that it was the wrong address," said Holl.
Police Chief Kenny Dodd said police realized the subject they were looking for was not there. "She made us aware that she was having chest pains and we got her medical attention. I stayed with her and kept her calm and talked with her, monitored her vital signs until the ambulance arrived," said Dodd.
Bizarrely for a wrong address raid, police said the property had been under surveillance for two years. The DEA said it is investigating how the wrong address raid address raid occurred. That didn't mollify Holl.
"They have totally made a really bad mistake. You would think that with the officers and the SWAT team and the DEA they would make sure that all of their I's are dotted, all of their T's are crossed before they go bursting into someone's home like that," said Holl. "My mother was traumatized. Even the doctor said this is what happens when something traumatic happens. He said it's usually like a death in the family or something like that just absolutely scares them half to death, and that is what has happened," said Holl.
In the Detroit raid, the SWAT team was attempting to arrest a murder suspect, making the decision about whether to use SWAT potentially more complicated than in the routine drug cases we normally track in Drug War Chronicle. But the incident tragically demonstrates the potential dangers arising from such aggressive police tactics, and it resulted in the death of a seven-year-old Aiyana Jones.
According to a statement Sunday by Assistant Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee, police had tracked the killer of a 17-year-old man the day before to the house. "Because of the ruthless and violent nature of the suspect in this case, it was determined that it would be in the best interest of public safety to execute the search warrant as soon as possible and detain the suspect if while we sought a murder warrant," Godbee said. "Our intelligence was accurate in this case. The suspect in Mr. Blake's death was found inside the home and arrested... But to locate him, we first had to make entry into the home. At approximately 12:40 this morning, members of the Detroit Police Special Response Team, or SRT, executed this high-risk search warrant," the assistant chief explained.
"According to our officers, and at least one independent witness, officers approached the house, and announced themselves as police. As is common in these types of situations, the officers deployed a distractionary device commonly known as a Flash Bang. The purpose of the device is to temporarily disorient occupants of the house to make it easier for officers to safely gain control of anyone inside and secure the premise," Godfree continued. "As the lead officer entered the home he encountered a 46-year-old female immediately inside the front room of the house. Exactly what happened next is a matter still under investigation, but it appears the officer and the woman had some level of physical contact. At about this time the officer's weapon discharged one round which, tragically, struck seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley Jones in the neck/head area. Officers immediately conveyed Aiyana to St. John's Hospital while others apprehended the suspect and cleared the rest of the residence."
The SWAT team was accompanied by film crews for A&E's "The First 48," a reality TV show that follows police homicide investigators in the crucial first 48 hours after a murder has been committed. The network was taping the raid for a documentary. The videotape could play a crucial role in how this case plays out, and copies of the tapes were reportedly turned over to the state police later in the week. The state police are investigating the incident.
Prominent Michigan attorney Geoffrey Fieger, who is representing the family in a civil suit filed this week, has questioned the police version of events. Saying he had obtained video footage shot by the TV show camera crew, Fieger said it showed officers rushing the house and throwing a flash grenade through a window before an officer fired into the home from the front porch.
The police account was "entirely false," Fieger said. "Of course, I have seen the videotape and the videotape vividly portrays the fact that a percussion grenade device was thrown through the front window and a shot was fired immediately from the outside from the porch," he said.
"No murder suspect was found in Aiyana's house," Fieger added. "In fact, there's an upstairs apartment next door which the police did not have a search warrant for and that is where he surrendered, they went into that house too. But he was not in Aiyana's house."
This isn't the first time the behavior of Detroit area SWAT teams has generated lawsuits. According to the Detroit Free Press's archive of stories on the Aiyana Jones killing, a civil suit is pending against Detroit SWAT for a 2007 raid at a home where children were present and a dog was killed, and another lawsuit is pending against the suburban Southfield police for a 2004 raid in which a 69-year-man was brutalized. Police in that raid found a small amount of marijuana in an adult son's dresser drawer.
Such raids have consequences. The anger is palpable in Detroit. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) has called for a federal investigation, the Rev. Al Sharpton will address Aniya's funeral, and the city council is preparing its own review. The anger is also still palpable in Columbia, Missouri, where the dog-killing pot raid continues to reverberate. On Sunday, demonstrators picketed the police station, and city council meetings for the past two weeks have been packed with citizens complaining about the raid and demanding that heads roll. The mood wasn't helped by the police department's announcement Thursday that it had investigated itself and found its actions "appropriate."
Neil Franklin is a former Maryland police officer with SWAT experience. He is also the incoming head of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). For Franklin, SWAT has limited legitimate uses, but aggressive, paramilitarized policing has gone too far. He blames the war on drugs.
"Back in the 1970s and 1980s, we didn't use SWAT teams to conduct search warrants unless it was a truly documented violent organization," he said. "As the drug war escalated, we started using SWAT to execute drug-related warrants. When I first started as an undercover officer, the narcotics team executed the warrant, along with two or three uniformed officers, but not with the high-powered weapons and force we use today. The drug war is the reason for using these teams and the driving force behind them."
"Whatever one thinks about using SWAT tactics when looking for a murder suspect, the results in Detroit show how dangerously volatile the tactics really are," said David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org, who is also the moving force behind the Americans for SWAT Reform web site. "There is every reason to believe that conducting a late night raid and detonating flash bang grenades led to the physical contact between the woman and the officer in which the gun discharged, killing the girl. All the more reason to avoid those tactics wherever possible, certainly for routine drug search warrants."
As the Chronicle and others, most notably, Radley Balko at Reason and The Agitator blog have reported, these aggressive drug raids gone bad are not flukes, but occur on a regular, if unpredictable, basis. As they become increasingly routine, so do the risks associated with them -- for police and citizens alike. Next week, the Chronicle will be taking a look at what can be done to begin to rein them in.