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January 23, 2005

Niagara Falls Stun Grenade Incident Shocks Residents -- DRCNet and LEAP Quoted

An article in Friday's Buffalo News, 'Stun' Device Burns Woman in Drug Raid, quoted yours truly as well as upstate New Yorker, retired police captain Peter Christ of Prohibition in the Media partner organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), to whom I had referred the reporter after he called. That's not the only reason I'm blogging it, though. :) The incident, which occurred in nearby Niagara Falls and in which police used a dangerous military-style device on a routine drug suspect raid, makes two important points.

One of those points is about the extremity of the current drug war, the use of paramilitary tactics such as stun grenades. This has been driven in part by the dilution of the strict separation between the military and domestic law enforcement, a dilution which began in earnest under the Reagan administration. My quote in the article characterizes the use of pyrotechnic devices in routine drug raids as "reckless" and takes the position that such equipment should be limited to extremely dangerous situations such as those involving hostages. An unidentified local woman also used the word "reckless." While withholding judgment on the specific situation without knowing more details, Peter makes some trenchant observations about the dangers inherent in such tactics and the values that lead to them being used so widely.

John Chella, Niagara's police superintendent, while regretting the injury caused still defended their use of the device, noting that police recovered a loaded weapon during the raid. I stand by my criticism fully -- results are what count, and the harm is not limited to the injured bystander but is felt in the fear of all her neighbors that their police could one day do the same thing to them. Policing is an inherently risky profession -- we should be grateful to our police officers for that reason -- but that does not afford them the luxury to used any available tactic to minimize all risk to themselves while increasing it to others. The least risky course for the officers would have been to just blow the house up and kill everybody inside. Obviously that's the most extreme example, and I'm not by any means implying that what the officers did in this case resembles it. But it's a question of balance and where in a given situation the line gets drawn. In my opinion pyrotechnics crossed the line in what by all appearances was a routine drug raid -- and again, results are what count.

But this leads to the second important point. The use of such tactics by police is not hard to understand, given that the dangers that the drug trade and drug war often present to them. There is an arms race going on between the drug fighters and the drug suppliers, and amongst drug suppliers, with prohibition is at the root of both. Hunting down marijuana dealers and their product is clearly not worth arms races with their attendant collateral damage. But the same principle applies even to the more dangerous drugs, which could be controlled instead and more effectively through some form of legalization.

Check out Dan Herbeck's and Bill Michelmore's critical examination of stun grenades in drug enforcement here, and click here for letter to the editor information or here to submit one online.

- Dave Borden, DRCNet

Posted by dborden725 at January 23, 2005 04:59 PM

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Nice work, Dave! I had been looking for the original story...it was hawked to MAP from Newsday and the Ithaca Journal as a non-bylined AP story and we couldn't find where it was originally pubbed...

Posted by: jackl at January 29, 2005 10:51 AM

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