Despite the New York City Police Department's best efforts, public anger continues to mount over the May 16 death of a 57-year-old Harlem women after police mistakenly targeted her apartment in a botched drug raid. Alberta Spruill, a church volunteer and long-time city employee, was preparing to go to work when, at 6:10am, police raiders kicked her door in, tossed a concussion grenade into her apartment, handcuffed her and left her terrorized. Police eventually called an ambulance after she complained of feeling ill, but she died of heart failure before reaching the hospital.
Since the, Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R) and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly have apologized for Spruill's death, and police supervisors with command responsibilities for the raids have lost their jobs. Bloomberg spoke at Spruill's funeral, taking personal responsibility and acknowledging that "at least in this case, existing practices failed."
But it is precisely those "existing practices" that have contributed to criticism of the department in Spruill's death. According to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, a city agency, complaints about abusive police raids have been on the increase since the late 1990s, with 768 cases in 2002 compared to 466 in 1998, an increase of 65%.
An unknown number of raids, relying on unreliable informants, bad intelligence, excess testosterone, or a combination of all the above, have hit the wrong targets, and some of their victims are already suing the city. As Spruill was being buried Tuesday, Christine Chapman was in federal court in Manhattan filing a lawsuit over a mistaken raid in which police broke into her apartment at 6:00am on April 2, tossed flashbang grenades, entered with guns drawn, ransacked her home, and broke her TV and fish tank. She and her two teenage sons were held for hours before police admitted raiding the wrong place and released them.
The same thing happened to Marie and Robert Rogers, ages 62 and 64, and Michael Thompson on successive October days last year. "When I heard about what happened to this woman, I broke down and cried," Rogers told the New York Times. "You would have thought that I knew her. Then I was angry." Ironically, Rogers and her husband were watching "Cops" on television when a real life riot squad broke through their front door without warning.
"I thought I was going to die," he said. "I thought the people coming into my house were trying to kill me." Oops, wrong address. The New York Times says the Rogerses are suing.
So is Thompson, a 41-year-old nurse, who was eating breakfast when his mahogany door suddenly splintered and his inside French doors shattered before the weight of invading drug squad marauders. After being cuffed and held at gunpoint, Thompson was released as police admitted they had the wrong address. "They had the whole house surrounded," he said. "If I ran or resisted, who knows what the result would have been. It was just a matter of time before there was a tragedy."
The mayor and the police have promised investigations, but a variety of organizations and advocates, including the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Rev. Al Sharpton, are calling for an independent inquiry. More than 150 people showed up for a rally to commemorate Spruill and demand justice for her death on Tuesday. And along with the police killing of unarmed African immigrant Ousmane Zongo a week later, Spruill's death will no doubt focus the minds of the estimated 100,000-plus people expected to rally June 4 against New York's draconian drug laws. Drug raids, trigger-happy policing, drug war gulags... the people of New York can make the connections for themselves.