Police in Niagara Falls, NY, are under fire after a flash bang grenade thrown into an apartment during a marijuana raid last week left a local woman hospitalized with serious burns. Rhiannon Kephart, 18, was in bed at the Niagara Falls residence when the Niagara Falls Police Quick Entry Team tossed the incendiary device into the apartment, where it exploded, burning her. Police conceded that Kephart was neither a target of the raid nor trying to impede their heroic endeavors, the Buffalo News reported.
Niagara Falls police used the gung-ho tactics while assisting Homeland Security Department agents in a raid on a cross-border marijuana operation. They arrested one man, a 24-year-old, and recovered one weapon, a 9mm handgun. While Niagara Falls police professed chagrin at the injury to Kephart, they defended the use of the grenade.
"We feel terrible about this. It's very unfortunate," Niagara Falls Police Superintendent John R. Chella said. "The intended use of a device like this is to stun people or to divert their attention -- not to hurt anyone. Officers used the flash-bang because they were concerned that loaded assault weapons would be kept inside the residence," Chella said. "As it turned out, there was a loaded gun recovered."
Neighbors were not as sanguine as Chief Chella. "That seems kind of reckless," said one woman, who asked not to be identified. "We have families with children living here."
"We heard glass breaking and what sounded like a gunshot," said Kevin Lunt, who lives across the street with his girlfriend, Dawn, and their three young children. "The kids were so scared they jumped into bed with us," he told the News. Lunt and other neighbors were shocked to learn police had caused the explosion by throwing a grenade into a residence. "We thought the neighborhood was fine when we moved here," said Lunt. "But I think it's time to look for another place."
The Buffalo News contacted DRCNet and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition to comment on such police tactics. Former Tonawanda, NY, police captain and LEAP cofounder Peter Christ told the News the use of such devices was part of a dangerous militarization of policing. "I'm not making any judgments about this Niagara Falls incident, because I wasn't there and I don't know their reasons for using it," Christ said. "But these are like military devices. When you use it, you're putting people in danger. The reason people accept the use of devices like this is our society's lack of respect for the people who are being arrested. They're just 'drug dealers' or 'drug addicts.' You'll never see one of these thrown into the house of a bank president who's being arrested for fraud."
And DRCNet executive director Dave Borden got his two cents worth in as well. "I think the recklessness of using a device like this is self-evident," he told the News. "These tactics should be limited to very exceptional situations, such as a hostage situation. Not in a routine drug case."
[Borden further elaborated on some of the incident's implications in DRCNet's Prohibition in the Media blog, writing, " [t]he 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."]