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West Virginia Police Kill Man Trying to Escape Drug Bust

Editor's Note: This year, Drug War Chronicle is going to try to track every death directly attributable to drug law enforcement during the year. We can use your help. If you come across a news account of a killing related to drug law enforcement, please send us an email at psmith@drcnet.org.]

This year's sixth drug law enforcement killing occurred Friday afternoon in Charleston, West Virginia, when officers from the Kanawha County Metro Drug Unit shot and killed a Detroit man after his car hit an officer as he attempted to flee a drug arrest. Police identified the dead man as Stiney Richards, 38.

Drug war takes a life in Charleston (Image via Wikimedia)
According to Charleston Police, undercover officers with the Metro Drug Unit made a large crack cocaine purchase from Richards, whom they said had a criminal record that included drug and weapons offenses. When they attempted to arrest Richards, he jumped in his car and attempted to flee, hitting one plainclothes officer as he did so. The officer was not seriously injured.

Other officers opened fire, or, as WSAZ-TV strangely put it, "fired back," mortally wounding Richards, who managed to drive a few blocks before crashing his car. Police have not said that Richards shot at them, or even that he was armed.

"Because the incident took place in Charleston our detectives are investigating," Lt. S.A. Cooper said. "The officers who actually discharged their weapons do not work for the Charleston Police Department but there were officers from numerous agencies at the scene."

Kanawha County Prosecutor Mark Plants will review the case after police file a report, but he was already hinting at what the outcome of his review will be. "This shooting is like any other shooting in Kanawha County -- I have to look at the evidence and make a determination whether that shooting was justified or not," Plants said. "But these are people who put their lives on the line every day, perfect strangers yet willing to sacrifice their lives. In today's age, violence against a police officer is not that uncommon."

The Metro Drug Unit is a federally funded drug task force that has been in existence since the 1980s. It includes officers from the Charleston, South Charleston, Dunbar, St. Albans, and Nitro police departments, as well as the Kanawha County Sheriff's Department and agents from the DEA.

The killing of Richards was the second violent incident for the Metro Drug Unit in little more than a week. On January 28, a Charleston police detective was shot in the hand when an occupant of a house being raided on a drug search warrant opened fire, shooting through a closed door. Residents of the house had been the victims of a home invasion robbery days earlier.

Charleston, WV
United States

Louisiana Cop Kills Man in Drug Deal Gone Bad

Editor's Note: This year, Drug War Chronicle is going to try to track every death directly attributable to drug law enforcement during the year. We can use your help. If you come across a news account of a killing related to drug law enforcement, please send us an email at psmith@drcnet.org.]

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/port-allen-wafb.jpg
A Louisiana man became the third person to die so far this year during a drug law enforcement operation. Eric Williams, 18, was shot and killed Wednesday afternoon by an undercover narcotics officer in Port Allen in what police said was a drug buy that turned into an armed robbery attempt.

According to West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Mike Cazes, undercover narcotics agents were making buys in "known drug areas" when a woman and her boyfriend set up a deal. The narc was waiting in a motel room waiting for the woman to arrive so he could purchase $50 worth of Lortab. When the woman entered the motel room, she closed the door, but opened it again, and a masked man entered.

"Came through the door immediately shoved her down and started having a gun at the agent. The agent kicked him, gave him money he was asking for and started shooting," said Cazes, adding that Williams was trying to fire a loaded .45. "The only reason the agent's still alive is the bad guy, the gun he had was on safety."

Cazes said the agent shot Williams four times. The shooting is under investigation by the state police, but the sheriff said his agent did nothing wrong.

The woman and her boyfriend were jailed on $1 million bonds on charges of being a principal to armed robbery by use of a firearm.

Port Allen, LA
United States

Cops Used Fake Patient IDs to Buy Medical Pot; Was It Entrapment?

Location: 
MI
United States
Oakland County Sheriff's deputies used phony Michigan medical marijuana cards -- created on a county computer -- to trick state-approved medical marijuana providers into selling the drug to the police. Days after the drug buys, county narcotics agents raided two medical marijuana dispensaries. Defense attorneys for more than two dozen people arrested in the raids are crying foul, saying their clients were trapped into lawbreaking while trying to stay within the state law.
Publication/Source: 
Detroit Free Press (MI)
URL: 
http://www.freep.com/article/20101020/NEWS05/10200341/Cops-used-fake-patient-IDs-to-buy-medical-pot-was-it-entrapment-

Lethal Sting: How the War on Drugs Killed a College Student

Location: 
Tallahassee, FL
United States
The Tallahassee Police Department isn't getting any medals; they're the targets of a massive lawsuit. And Rachel Hoffman is dead, shot with the very gun the cops sent her to buy.
Publication/Source: 
The Huffington Post (CA)
URL: 
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vince-beiser/lethal-sting-how-the-war-_b_767197.html

North Carolina Sheriffs Want to Know What Drugs You're Taking

Location: 
NC
United States
The North Carolina State Sheriffs' Association is seeking access to state computer records that identify which residents have prescriptions for painkillers and other controlled substances. Patient advocates say opening up people's medicine cabinets to law enforcement would deal a devastating blow to privacy rights.
Publication/Source: 
TIME (US)
URL: 
http://wellness.blogs.time.com/2010/09/09/some-state-sheriffs-want-to-know-what-drugs-youre-taking/

Jury Finds Officer "Justified" in Trevon Cole Shooting

Location: 
Las Vegas, NV
United States
As predicted, a Las Vegas coroner's inquest into the Trevon Cole shooting found the police officer's actions justified. Only one police officer has been found at fault in a shooting in the procedure's 30 year history. Officer Yant by contrast has shot peole three times, twice fatally.
Publication/Source: 
Las Vegas Review-Journal
URL: 
http://www.lvrj.com/news/officer--shooting-victim--made-me-do-my-job--as-testimony-continues-101234024.html?ref=024

Raid Victim Family May Hit Vegas Police with RICO Suit

(This article includes minor updates from the original version published 8/19/10.)

Andre Lagomarsino, the attorney representing the estate of Trevon Cole and his fiancé, Sequoia Pearce, said last Thursday he is considering a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) lawsuit against the Las Vegas Police Metropolitan Department in the shooting death of Cole in a June drug raid at the apartment shared by Cole and Pearce. In addition to a possible RICO claim, the lawsuit would assert wrongful death, assault and battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. It would also assert civil rights violations.

Trevon Cole
"We are considering a RICO claim," Lagomarsino told the Chronicle. "The claim would say there is a pattern of criminal conduct by this organization. A similar claim was brought against the LAPD. It only takes two events to constitute a pattern under RICO," he said.

There is already one other questionable police shooting that could be the second event. Last month, Las Vegas police shot and killed Erik Scott, 39, outside a Costco store in Summerlin. There have been five officer-involved shootings in the city so far this summer and 17 this year, though Cole and Scott were the only fatalities among them.

Though best known for its criminal provisions targeting certain criminal enterprises with asset forfeiture and up to 20-year sentences per racketeering count, the RICO statute also has a provision allowing for civil lawsuits by plaintiffs claiming to have been harmed by those enterprises. Successful plaintiffs can collect treble damages.

Cole was fatally wounded by Detective Brian Yant as he and other officers executed a search warrant alleging that Cole had sold 1.8 ounces of marijuana to undercover officers in three buys over a series of week. Cole was unarmed. Yant said he shot after Cole made "a furtive movement," but Pearce, who was present during the raid, said Cole was on his knees with his hands raised and complying with commands when he was shot.

Yant has been involved in two other questionable shootings, one of them fatal. In that incident, Yant said the victim was threatening him with a gun, but the gun was found 35 feet away from the victim's body.

Yant also misidentified Cole as another Trevon Cole from Houston, Texas, despite the two men having different dates of birth, middle initials, ages, and appearances. He also mischaracterized the record of the Houston Trevon Cole, portraying him in the search warrant affidavit as a major drug dealer when his only arrests were marijuana possession misdemeanors. (See more detailed coverage of the raid and its aftermath here.)

When there is a police-involved fatal shooting in Las Vegas, it goes before a coroner's inquest to determine whether the officer involved was criminally negligent. That happened on Friday and Saturday, with the coroner's jury coming back with a verdict of "justifiable" on the shooting. The finding was not unanticipated, especially given the history of coroner's inquests there (only one police officer has been found criminally negligent in about 200 inquests since 1976, and that verdict was later overturned) and the one-sided nature of the inquest process (only the district attorney can present evidence and ask questions), it is considered unlikely that Yant will be found criminally negligent.

"I would guess they will find it justified, but I'm hopeful they will look at the fact that [Cole] had nothing in his hands," Lagomarsino said the day before the inquest began.

While Lagomarsino also cited Yant's history of shootings "under suspicious circumstances," he pointed a finger at the police department too. "This is cleared at higher levels," he said. "It is the policy and procedure of the Metro police to conduct these raids the way they do."

The Las Vegas attorney told the Chronicle last week that once the inquest was over he would file a lawsuit "within two or three weeks." He told local media Monday the lawsuit will now move forward, although he did not outline its precise shape.

Las Vegas, NV
United States

Coroner Probing Marijuana Raid Killing of Unarmed Man [FEATURE]

(Update: Officer Yant cleared by inquest as predicted. Family may bring RICO lawsuit.)

On the night of June 11, 21-year-old Trevon Cole and his nine months pregnant fiancé, Sequoia Pearce, were sitting at home in their Las Vegas apartment, settling in for a quiet Friday evening in front of the TV. But Cole didn't live to see the next day. Instead, he was the target of a drug raid and was shot and killed by a Las Vegas narcotics detective as he knelt on his bathroom floor, hands in the air. (Read our earlier coverage here.)

Trevon Cole, killed in his bathroom by a police officer, had just 1.8 ounces of marijuana
Since then, questions and outrage have mounted as the circumstances surrounding Cole's death have emerged. A coroner's inquest, which is done with all fatal shootings by Las Vegas police, is set for Friday. Given the history of such inquests -- only one police killing out of 200 in the past 35 years was found unjustifiable -- justice is unlikely to be done there.

The affidavit in support of the search warrant targeting Cole gave the impression that police thought they had a major drug dealer on their hands. Detective Brian Yant, the officer who wrote the warrant and who pulled the trigger on Cole, wrote that "almost all" drug dealers keep "sophisticated and elaborate" records and that police expected to find such records, as well as guns and drug paraphernalia. Cole had a "lengthy criminal history of narcotics sales, trafficking and possession charges," Yant wrote.

Police found no guns. They found no evidence of a "major drug dealer." They did find a small, unspecified amount of pot (Pearce contends they found no drugs and were angry they could not), a digital scale, a cell phone, and $702 in cash (of which $350 was found to have come from jewelry Pearce pawned days earlier to pay rent). Oh, and a spent .223 caliber rifle cartridge in the bathroom.

The search warrant affidavit also misidentified Cole, confusing him with another Trevon Cole from Houston, Texas. The other Trevon Cole had a different middle name, was seven years, older, is three inches shorter and a hundred pounds lighter. His "lengthy criminal history"? Three misdemeanor marijuana possession arrests. The only criminal record the now dead Trevon Cole had was for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle as a teenager.

"Don't they ever run the dates of birth down there?" asked an incredulous David Doddridge, a retired 21-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department who now runs a private detective agency and is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).

"The standard ID is name and date of birth," said Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer who is now an assistant professor of law, police science, and criminal justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "They had a different initial for the middle name. It should have been obvious that this was not the same guy."

Part of the problem is pressure to perform, said Moskos. "These guys are judged by how many warrants they can get," he said. "But it's better to conduct one good warrant than five bad ones."

"Each squad is trying to serve the most warrants, get the most dope, so you have a tendency to exaggerate and embellish, and sometimes even fabricate on the warrants," said Doddridge. "They invent handguns inside the house so they can get a dynamic entry warrant, and then they go in, kicking down doors, rushing in with guns drawn, forcing everybody down on the floor. It's very scary, everyone is going in with guns drawn, they're sometimes shouting over each other, it's a very tense and dynamic situation and just a tremendous opportunity for somebody to get shot," he said.

"It's really crazy, a waste of time and money, but they have to justify their existence," said Doddridge. If they're not serving warrants, they'll get sent back to patrol. You have to produce."

According to the search warrant, police had made three undercover pot buys from the Trevon Cole they ended up shooting. The total haul was 1.8 ounces of marijuana and, also according to the warrant, when police wanted to make a big score -- $400 worth -- with Cole, the alleged major drug dealer, they had to reschedule because Cole didn't have that much on hand.

Not incidentally, under Nevada law, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana is decriminalized. Yant and his dope squad buddies were going after Cole for allegedly selling them amounts of marijuana it wasn't even a crime to possess.

"Like other tragic incidents, this brings into question the need to use such force in raids on people who at best are being charged with a non-violent crime," said Mike Meno, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Especially in this case, where officers are coming into a house with guns drawn. We saw a man get killed and it turns out it wasn't even the man they were after."

Trevon Cole and his fiancé, Sequoia Pearce
"This is just another tragic incident in the failed war on marijuana," said Dave Schwartz of Sensible Nevada, which seeks marijuana law reform there. "People are being killed even for small amounts, and it just makes no sense. This is yet another death caused by prohibition, not by marijuana."

It is also another death caused by Detective Yant. The killing of Cole marked the third time Yant has controversially used his police firearm. In 2002, he shot and killed a robbery suspect, claiming the suspect, who was on the ground, aimed a weapon at him. But although the suspect's gun was found 35 feet away, coroner's inquest took only half an hour to find the shooting justified.

The following year, Yant shot and wounded a man with a baseball bat, saying he mistook the bat for a shotgun and that the man had attacked him. But the man said he never threatened Yant and dropped the bat before Yant fired. Since he wasn't killed, there was no coroner's inquest, but Yant was exonerated in a departmental investigation.

"Any time an officer is involved in three shootings, they may be justified, but it's a classic red flag example of when the department should wonder about the officer," said Moskos. "There are shoot/don't shoot scenarios where furtive movement may provide some justification for shooting, but this guy Cole didn't have a weapon. In hindsight, it's obvious he was no threat," he said.

"This guy Yant did a lot of bad things in this raid," said Moskos. "He got the wrong person, he shot an unarmed guy. The department certainly has to look at this officer."

Yant is on paid administrative leave pending the coroner's inquest and the results of a departmental investigation.

It could be that Yant is a case of the wrong guy in the wrong job for the wrong reasons. "Some guys like being street cops, some are more analytical and want to be detectives," said Doddridge. "Then you have the gung-ho types, maybe ex-military or wannabe military with their shaved heads. They want to get in on the action, they're the kind of people who gravitate to SWAT or narcotics. In these units, they are disproportionately gung-ho types. It's trouble on top of trouble," he said.

It wasn't always like that, Doddridge recalled. "Back in the day, if we had a drug warrant, we would just drive up in a black and white with our .38s, but now, somebody sells 1.8 ounces of marijuana, you call in the big boys. They have all this federal money, those Byrne grant funds, and they have to justify that. When you have a military mentality, you have to have an enemy, and that makes the war on drugs a war against the people."

"This looks like another fucked up raid and unnecessary death in the drug war," summed up Moskos. "Even in the best case scenario for police, doing undercover buys and raids for small amounts of marijuana seems like a waste of resources. Why do that?"

"The important thing to remember is that hundreds of raids like these occur across the country every year because we are militarizing our police forces and issuing orders to take down houses of people accused of nonviolent offenses," said Meno. "Trevon Cole's case is a perfect example of what can go wrong. He was sitting at home with his fiancé, there was nothing violent going on, and bang! -- he's dead. This was on a Friday night in Las Vegas," noted Meno. "You'd think there would be something more important officers could be doing on a Friday night."

And now for the coroner's inquest. It is performed by the Clark County District Attorney's office and overseen by a court hearing master with a jury of citizens hearing the facts. The goal is to simply find if the death was justified, excusable or criminal in nature.

But no one represents the dead person. The family of the deceased or their attorneys are not allowed to speak present evidence. They are not allowed to call witnesses who might contradict the police or prosecutors' version of events. They can submit written questions, but it is up to the judge to decide whether to ask them. [Editor's Note: The Chronicle has an appointment to interview Cole family attorney Andre Lagomarsino on Thursday and will be posting updated material then.]

The ACLU of Nevada has called the system a "story-telling exercise, an opportunity for the police, with the assistance of the DA, to tell their side of the story" and likened it to "the sound of one hand clapping." As noted above, in 34 years of inquests and 200 hearings, only one officer has been found criminally negligent.

Justice for Trevon Cole? Don't hold your breath. But the city of Las Vegas will most likely have to pay big time down the road once the inquest is done, and Cole's family then proceeds with its wrongful death lawsuit.

Las Vegas, NV
United States

DEA's "Project Deliverance" Will Undoubtedly Fail to Deliver

DEA acting chief Michele Leonhart, and her boss, US Attorney General Eric Holder, are bragging about a major, DEA-led operation that has netted 2,200+ arrests, with pounds of drugs and millions of dollars seized. "Project Deliverance" involved more than 300 law enforcement agencies, more than 3,000 DEA agents, and took 22 months. According to DEA's press release, they captured 1,262 pounds of methamphetamine, 2.5 tons of cocaine, 1,410 pounds of heroin, and 69 tons of marijuana, plus $154 million. Michele Leonhart announcing ''Project Deliverance'' Operationally, Deliverance was certainly a big project -- it's easy to see why they're excited. And for the thousands of people throughout the US who were arrested in it, it's a life-changing event, though for the worse. But will Project Deliverance make any real difference in drug use and the drug trade? Is the operation really a big deal, when examined next to the reality of drug use and the drug trade in the United States today? I hate to be a wet blanket, but if history is a guide, Project Deliverance will have no long-term impact on the drug trade. Though notable in its scale, the operation is only one of many carried out by the US and allied governments over decades. During that time, the measure of drug availability -- price, an increase implies a product is less available, relative to its demand* -- has gone in the opposite of the intended direction, and dramatically. For example, the average US street price of cocaine is less than a fifth in real terms than it was in 1980. Previous drug sweeps have seen their temporary gains erased in just one or two weeks. The reason is that the big sounding numbers touted by Leonhart, while large for the agency and our government, are small compared with the drug trade. Deliverance's 2.5 tons of cocaine constitutes less than one percent of the 300 metric tons of cocaine the government estimates are consumed annually in the US. So does the 69 tons of marijuana. They did get a few percent of the heroin, if numbers don't deceive, but even that's still small. And the 2,200 alleged dealers and traffickers arrested in Project Deliverance make up a similarly tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of people employed in the US by the illegal drug trade. Some drug businesses will doubtless be extinguished by Project Deliverance, but others will have little difficulty replacing the lost supply or filling the open positions. And how much powder or weed did the investigators let go by during the 22 months it took to complete the operation? How much will they have to let slip by during the months or years it takes to mount the next one? In an uncharacteristically "big picture" review published a few weeks ago, the Associated Press declared the 40-year drug war a failure by every measure. Will media follow that lead and go beyond the surface in their reporting on Project Deliverance? I have a few suggestions for those intrepid reporters who would like to:
  • Ask DEA or DOJ spokespersons if they expect the substances targeted in the sweep to be less available to US consumers of them, and if so for how long.
  • Ask them if previous operations, individually or collectively, have had that effect. If they say yes, ask them to be specific as to what their evidence is, and compare it with numbers like the aforementioned cocaine prices.
  • Do some follow-up, say two or three weeks from now. Ask government officials, cops who walk the drug beat, and drug users, what if any difference they saw in the supply of the targeted drugs, and if so if they see still any. Follow up again in one or two months. See if DEA will give you early access to the price data.
Be forewarned, though, DEA reps will probably be less excited to address those questions than they were for the press conference. * Nitpickers and drug war defenders may point out that demand for cocaine has also dropped since 1980, and that the price drop could be explained that way. No dice -- frequent, "hardcore" cocaine and other drug use remained roughly constant despite a drop in the number of "casual" users, and it's the frequent users who account for the vast majority of the consumption.

Feature: Reining in SWAT -- Towards Effective Oversight of Paramilitary Police Units

As is periodically the case, law enforcement SWAT teams have once again come under the harsh gaze of a public outraged and puzzled by their excesses. First, it was the February SWAT raid on a Columbia, Missouri, home where police shot two dogs, killing one, as the suspect, his wife, and young son cowered. Police said they were looking for a dealer-sized stash of marijuana, but found only a pipe with residues. When police video of that raid hit the Internet and went viral this month, the public anger was palpable, especially in Columbia.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/contracostaswat.jpg
SWAT team, Contra Costa County, California
Then came a botched SWAT raid in Georgia -- not a forced entry, but otherwise highly aggressive, and directed at the wrong building -- that left a 76-year-old woman hospitalized with a heart attack.

And then came the tragedy in Detroit two weeks ago, where a member of a Detroit Police SWAT team killed seven-year-old Aiyana Jones as she slept on a living room couch. Allegedly, the officer had a tussle with the girl's grandmother as he charged through the door after a flash-bang grenade was thrown through the window, and the gun discharged accidentally, though the account has been disputed by the family's attorney. In this instance, police were not looking for drugs but for a murder suspect. He was later found in another apartment in the same house. Again, the public dismay and anger was palpable.

Botched (wrong address or wrong person) raids or raids where it appears excessive force has been used are certainly not a new phenomenon, as journalist Radley Balko documented in his 2006 study, "Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Policing in America." But most raids gone bad do not get such wide public or media attention.

The victims often are poor, or non-white, or both. Or -- worse yet -- they are criminal suspects, who generally generate little sympathy, even when they are abused.

And while they were originally created to handle very special problems -- terrorist incidents, hostage situations, and the like -- there just aren't that many of those. As a result the use of SWAT has seen "mission creep," where SWAT teams are now routinely called out to serve search warrants, particularly in drug cases. In 1980, 2,884 SWAT deployments were recorded nationwide; the number today is estimated by experts at 50,000 annually or more.

The sheer normality of SWAT teams doing drug raids now, as well the status of their victims, has resulted in effective immunity and impunity for SWAT teams that commit errors or engage in unnecessary force. Most of the time when a raid goes bad, nothing happens.

It seems to take an especially outrageous incident, like Columbia or Detroit, to inspire public concern, and even then, it is the citizenry and perhaps part of elected officialdom against the powerful law enforcement establishment. Creating effective oversight over SWAT teams and their paramilitary raids is not easy -- but it can be done, or at least started.

The now infamous 2008 raid on the home of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, Mayor Cheye Calvo by a Prince Georges County Police SWAT team is a case in point. In that raid, police were tracking a package they knew contained marijuana, and once it was delivered to Calvo's house and taken inside, the SWAT team rushed in, manhandled Calvo and his mother-in-law and shot and killed Calvo's two dogs.

But further investigation showed the Calvos were doubly victimized, not criminals. They were victims of drug dealers who would send packages to unknowing addresses, then pick them up after they were left by the delivery man. And they were the victims of a SWAT team run amok.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/pasadenaswat.jpg
SWAT team, Pasadena, Texas
But Prince Georges SWAT hit the wrong guy when it Calvo's house, and not just because Calvo and his mother-in-law and his dogs were innocent victims. Calvo was not just an upstanding member of the community -- he was the mayor of his town. And beyond that, his former day job with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) gave him both personal connections to legislators and the knowledge to work the system.

Prodded by Calvo and others, the Maryland legislature last year passed a bill making it the first state to make any attempt to rein in SWAT. That bill requires each agency with a SWAT team to file annual reports detailing their activities and the results of their raids. The effort was opposed by law enforcement, of course, but legislators were swayed by hours of gut-wrenching testimony from raid victims.

"It was the telling of the stories of a number of people who had suffered either botched or ill-advised raids," Calvo explained to Drug War Chronicle. "It happens so often, and the stories don't get told in a meaningful way, but my incident made such wide headlines that people called me reaching out, and once those circles developed, we were able to get some political momentum," he recalled.

"I happened to be in a unique position," he said. "Through my experience at NCSL, I knew a lot of legislators and worked with the Judiciary Committee in Maryland to get a bill drafted. When we had hearings, it wasn't just one or two stories, probably more like a dozen, including people we didn't know about, but who just showed up to tell their stories. There was a wrong house raid with a dog killed, there was a warrant served at a bad address, a mother whose house was raided after her son was caught with a gram of marijuana, there was a triple no-knock raid at three homes with the same name on all three, there was a former member of the judiciary committee whose mother's home was raided because police were looking for a relative. They kicked in her door and knocked her to the ground," Calvo recalled.

"Each story helped connect the dots," he explained. "Those stories made a powerful case. We were not saying the Assembly should micromanage the police, but we wanted to shine a light on what was happening. The first step was making people aware, and getting the SWAT data makes tangible and comprehensive what is otherwise anecdotal."

Although the first formal report on Maryland SWAT raids is not due until this fall, preliminary numbers from the first six months of reporting have already generated more stories in the press and kept the issue alive. And they provide grist for the reform mill.

"It's not just the number of raids, it's that 92% of them are for search warrants, not hostage situations or bank robberies or the like," said Calvo. "It's that two times out of three, they kick in the door. It's that in some jurisdictions -- Prince Georges, Anne Arundel, Annapolis -- the majority of deployments are for misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies. Prince Georges had 105 raids against nonviolent offenders in six months, and that speaks to deeper policy problems. Baltimore County deployed only once for a nonviolent offense. That's more a model of professionalism."

Calvo said he plans to use the full year's worth of SWAT raid reporting due this fall to return to Annapolis to push for further reforms. "The legislature could impose training standards or other statewide protocols," he said. "It could impose more transparency. A full year of data will be helpful with that. Hopefully, the reporting requirement passed last year will end up being just the first step in a multi-step process to insert some better judgment into the process for when these paramilitary units are deployed."

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/swatcartoon2.jpg
PolitickerMD cartoon about the Calvo raid
The dog-killing SWAT raid in Columbia, Missouri, has also resulted in activism aimed at reining in SWAT, and it has already had an impact. Under withering public criticism, Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton quickly instituted changes in the SWAT team's command and control structure and when and how it could be used. He also came out for marijuana legalization, saying he believed many police would be happy to not have to enforce pot prohibition.

The activism is continuing, however. "There is a lot going on in response to that raid," said Columbia attorney Dan Viets, a member of the board of national NORML. "The ACLU and NORML are involved, but so are groups of citizens who have not been activists before. And our police chief has been pretty responsive -- he doesn't have that bunker mentality that so many cops do," Viets said.

"For us, it's not so much SWAT as the use of search warrants for nonviolent crimes. Whether they have SWAT on the back of their jackets or not, they still do the same brutal stuff," the defense attorney continued. "The execution of a search warrant is almost always a violent act, it's a home invasion. It isn't that they're SWAT that matters, it's the fact that they engage in violence in the execution of those search warrants," he said.

"We are trying to suggest that police not use search warrants for nonviolent crime," said Viets. "They can rely on the tried and true: Send in an informer to do a controlled buy, then get an arrest warrant. Even the chief has said that they would try to arrest people outside their homes."

Similar outrage and activism is occurring in Detroit, where anti-police sentiments were loudly voiced in the days after the killing of Aiyana Jones. Police brutality activists usually isolated in their complaining are being joined by everyday citizens. The Detroit City Council is investigating. The Rev. Al Sharpton spoke at Jones' funeral. But whether the uproar results in a reformed SWAT policy remains to be seen.

"The death of that girl in Detroit was an inevitable result of the broad use of these things," said Calvo. "When you're doing 50,000 or 75,000 SWAT raids a year, it will eventually happen."

"Whatever one thinks about using SWAT tactics when looking for a murder suspect, the results in Detroit show how dangerously volatile these tactics really are," said Dave Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org, who is also the moving force behind the Americans for SWAT Reform web site and campaign. "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. That's all the more reason to avoid those tactics wherever possible, certainly in routine drug search warrants."

"In Detroit, they were going after a murder suspect, but there are a whole lot of questions about their tactical intelligence," said criminologist David Klinger, a former LAPD and Redmond, Washington, police officer and author of "Into the Kill Zone: a Cop's Eye View of Deadly Force," who now works for the Police Executive Research Forum. "Did they know there were children present? Why didn't they just do a contain and call?" where police secure the perimeter and tell the suspect to come outside, he asked.

While sending in the SWAT team in Detroit may be justified, said Klinger, the use of SWAT for small-time drug raids is not. "If you're sending in a SWAT team for a small amount of marijuana, that doesn't make sense," said Klinger. "There are some domestic agencies that don't understand that they should be utilizing some sort of threat assessment. That's one of the big issues regardless of who has oversight. A lot of it is a training issue about when SWAT should be utilized."

There are different pressure points where reformers can attempt to get some control over SWAT deployments. They range from the departmental level, to city hall or the county government, to the state house, and to Congress.

"The first level of oversight should be within the agency, whether it's the chief or some other officer with oversight over SWAT," said Klinger. "You need to make sure they have appropriate command and control and supervision, appropriate surveillance, tactical intelligence, and evidence of something out of the usual as opposed to just 'there's drugs there.' There needs to be a threat matrix done -- are there unusual fortifications, is there a history of violence, are weapons present other than for self protection?"

Neill 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," said the former narc.

"Because police have become accustomed to serving so many warrants, they've also become accustomed to using SWAT for every warrant," said Franklin. "In the past, they were more selective. You had to provide the proper intel and articulate why a SWAT team was needed, what was the history of violence, what was the prospect of violence. Some departments now are very strict -- you have to ID the house and the people you're after, you have to photograph the house and the door you're going to go through, you have to know who should be in that house, what special circumstances may be involved, and whether there are children or animals in the house -- but now, I think a lot of departments aren't doing the proper intel."

"You need a threat matrix that talks about unusual weapons," said Klinger. "Does some guy have an automatic shotgun? Is he a major dealer? That's when you might want to send in SWAT, but it's not a good idea to routinely use SWAT."

In addition to doing surveillance and gathering intelligence, police need to ensure they are using the right personnel for SWAT teams, said Franklin, alluding to the fact that such teams are often accused of having a "cowboy" mentality. "These guys are self-selected and handpicked," he said. "You need people in good physical shape, but you have to have a process for selecting the right people with the right personalities."

Franklin also pointed a finger at judges. "I think a lot of the time, judges give warrants out too easily," he said. "A lot of them are just boilerplate, already typed up; you just fill in the blanks and a little detail. They are too easy to draft and get approved by a judge. The judges need to be a bit more strict and ask some questions to ensure a no-knock warrant is justified."

But departmental policies are where to begin, Franklin said. "Policy is the critical point," said Franklin, "policy is the key. And maybe judges need to be involved in asking those policy questions. Are there kids in the home? Dogs? Special circumstances? Do you have photos? I don't think judges are asking enough questions, and there is too much rubber-stamping of warrants. The judges are too loose on this; they need to tighten up."

The next levels of oversight -- and opportunities for intervention -- are the local and state governments, said Klinger. "It generally stops with the mayor and city council, but now Maryland has a law where they have to report, and I don't have a problem with that. We are a representative republic, and the power of the police is very strong. The government operates by the consent of the governed, and the governed need to have information about what their police are doing. Why not?"

There is plenty of work that could be done at the state level, said Eric Sterling, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation (CJPF). "You could amend a state criminal procedure statute to require that a specialized kind of warrant would be needed to use a SWAT team. You could spell out particular things that had to be established, you might require additional verification of informant information beyond an ordinary search warrant, or specific evidence about possession of weapons and evidence about their connection to criminal activity, you could require higher degrees of confirmation about the address, you could require specific findings regarding the presence of children or the elderly, that a buy be done not by an informant but by a member of the law enforcement agency, that there be continuous surveillance of the property for some period before the raid takes place to verify who is present," Sterling said, ticking off a list of possibilities.

As Missouri attorney Viets noted above, it's not just SWAT, it is aggressive tactics like dynamic entry and no-knock raids that are also under scrutiny, whether done by SWAT or by other police units. It is those situations that are most dangerous for police and citizens, with the breaking down of doors, the yelling of commands, the flash-bangs, the confusion. And even the cops are talking about it.

"There is a big debate going on in the SWAT community," said Klinger. "Do you do a dynamic entry, or do you do something less? Some agencies will do a breach and hold, where they get through the front door, but stop there until they make contact with people inside. Another version is the 'contain and call-out', where they announce their presence and ask the people to come outside. Then, officers can carefully, slowly go through the place, and you know that if someone has a gun, he's after you. Sometimes we need to be aggressive, and there's nothing wrong with a dynamic entry, but you want to make sure you're using SWAT in the appropriate circumstances. We want to be minimally aggressive."

"It's those no-knock warrants, whether it's SWAT or not, where people tend to get hurt, where their animals are slaughtered," said Franklin. "That seems to be the norm now. You hear SWAT personnel joking about this all the time. If you know there's an animal in the house, why don't you just have Animal Control along? Unless that dog is so aggressive he's actually ripping people apart, he could be secured. Mostly they are just doing what they are supposed to do: barking and holding their ground."

[Ed: In many cases including the raid in Columbia, a warrant has nominally been served as a knock-and-announce, but the waiting is so short that it effectively equivalent to a no-knock. The term "dynamic entry" roughly applies to both kinds of situations, and "no-knock" is often used to refer to both kinds.]

"I don't know why they're shooting dogs," Klinger said with a hint of exasperation. "Unless they were being aggressive and attacking, you need to rethink what you're doing if you're shooting dogs. Just take a fire extinguisher with you and zap the dog with it. Shooting dogs unnecessarily suggests a lack of training about how to discern what is and is not a threat."

As long as the war on drugs continues, so will the issues around SWAT, no-knock raids, and search warrants. "The vast majority of these warrants are drug related," said Franklin. "The ultimate solution is ending prohibition. That would resolve so many issues."

Somewhat surprisingly, Klinger agreed. "We should just legalize drugs and call off the hounds, but if we're going to have drug prohibition, we have to be able to enforce it," he said. "If the rest of the polity says no to legalization, we can't have a regime where dopers just sit in their homes and do what they want. But if we are going to have the prohibition model, we need appropriate oversight over policing it."

Sterling pointed out some other pressure points for SWAT reform until we get to that day when drug prohibition is just a bad memory. "A private way of thinking about this is to use the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. to include in accrediting criterion better control or management of the way in which SWAT teams are used," said Sterling.

There are also reform possibilities at the federal level, Sterling said. "If you want to set national standards, Congress arguably has the power under the 14th Amendment in terms of equal protection to enforce the Fourth Amendment," he said. "You could provide that SWAT activity carried out outside the limits of such a special warrant could result in civil liability, denial of federal funds to the agency, or potential criminal penalties. There are examples of this in the wiretap law. It's very, very strict in its requirements about what law enforcement agencies have to do and it has very strict reporting requirements. There is certainly precedent in national law for how we regulate highly invasive, specialized law enforcement activities."

Sterling, a Maryland resident himself, said the Maryland SWAT reporting law passed after the Calvo raid shows political space can be created to support reform, but that it isn't easy. "It took raiding the mayor and killing his dogs and their being completely innocent white people to get relatively minor legislative action," he said. "The record keeping requirement is clearly a baby step toward challenging SWAT, and there was very decided knee-jerk law enforcement opposition to it."

It's going to take some organizing, he said. "You have to have a collection of groups deciding to make this an issue the way they made addressing the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity an issue. I'm not aware that this has developed yet, and perhaps this is something the drug reform community should be doing. We could take the lead in trying to raise this with more powerful political actors."

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