Hair-trigger police officers in separate drug raids in Utah and Florida shot and killed unarmed men early this month. In one case, the dead man was a suspicious, argumentative neighbor; in the other, an apparent fleeing suspect. In both cases, police conduct is causing questions to be asked.
West Valley City, Utah, resident Bounmy Ousa, 60, died after being shot three times in the stomach by undercover narcotics officers in an unmarked police car parked in front of his home as they prepared to raid a house down the street the night of July 8. According to an account from West Valley City police Captain Steve Sandquist, Ousa walked up to their car, and they identified themselves as police officers and ordered him to go back inside. Instead, Ousa continued to argue with the detectives, walking around to the driver's side of the car as he did so.
According to Sandquist, Ousa reached behind his back and produced an object, prompting the detective on the driver's side to fire. "The officer feared for his safety. That's obviously why he took the shot," Sandquist said. "It was more than just reaching behind [his back]. He [the detective] wasn't guessing. He made an observation of what he believed" to be a weapon, Sandquist said.
Except that the detective apparently was guessing, and guessing wrong. Police would not say whether Ousa actually had a weapon -- a pretty good sign that he did not. But they were quick to release Ousa's criminal record, which included three counts of driving under the influence of alcohol in the early 1990s and one domestic violence charge. Sandquist also volunteered to reporters that Ousa's son, Steve, was a "documented member of an Asian gang."
Ousa's family members said he didn't even own a gun. "They can say what they want, but he was not armed," daughter Chandhda Ousa told the Associated Press. Her father was merely investigating suspicious men parked in front of his house and trying to protect his family she, said. "And he got killed for it."
Steve Ousa told KSL TV5 that police initially tried to suggest Ousa had been the victim of a drive-by shooting. "Me and my mom were looking out the blinds the whole time he went out, approached the driver's side door, and not even two or three seconds later they shot him three times. Then after they shot him, they turned on their light, and when we came out said, 'Oh, lucky we came in time, what happened?' And I was like, 'What do you mean, what happened?' and my dad was lying on the floor."
Steve Ousa, who said his gang status was ancient history, told the Salt Lake City station the police acted as if a rival gang member had done the shooting. "I don't have nothing against the police, but they're asking if it was a rival gang member, they asked me like three times, 'Are you sure no one drove by and shot your dad?' when I seen it with my own eyes like 10 feet from my window to the driveway."
As for his father allegedly reaching behind his back, Steve Ousa said his father had health problems that caused him to stand with his hand behind his hip sometimes. "If a 60-year-old man with gray hair approaches you, his shirt is tight because his belly is sticking out, do you think he's going to hurt anybody? My dad never hurt anyone in his whole life. He's a nice man, goes to work, takes care of our family."
The West Valley City Police Department has declined any further comment on the killing. Both the department and the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office are conducting investigations.
About 12 hours later and 2000 miles away, a bizarre mid-day drug raid in Sarasota, Florida, ended with a handful of penny ante arrests, a bunch of traumatized children, and 44-year-old Michael Meluzzi dead, shot by police as he fled the scene unarmed. According to the Sarasota Herald Tribune, the Sarasota SWAT team, undercover narcotics agents, and uniformed officers roared up to a Newtown home, jumped out of a van, and threw multiple flash grenades into a yard where children were playing as they executed their bust.
Meluzzi was in the yard when the SWAT team exploded into action, witnesses told the Herald Tribune. Meluzzi had put his hands up and was about to get down on the ground when the explosions went off. "The next thing you know, 'Boom!' They blew the fence in, and he started running," said Tyran Young, 18.
Sarasota police reported that they twice fired Tasers at Meluzzi, with one missing and the other having no apparent impact. Then Sarasota Police Officer Alan Devaney, who was patrolling the raid perimeter with a police dog, ordered Meluzzi to stop. According to police, Meluzzi "reached into his waistband" and brought his right arm up in a quick motion. Delaney feared for his life and shot Meluzzi once, penetrating his right arm and chest. Meluzzi died soon after in the hospital. "He (Devaney) believed he was armed," said Sarasota police spokesman Jay Frank.
No weapon was found.
Police were equally quick this time too to release Meluzzi's criminal record, which included convictions on burglary, aggravated assault, and cocaine possession. He had spent five of the last seven years in prison, state records show -- which could explain why he was fleeing yet another unhappy encounter with police. Neighbors told the Herald Tribune Meluzzi worked as a mechanic and frequently stopped by the raided home to fix the cars there.
In addition to a dead Meluzzi, the raid netted three people on charges of failure to appear in court and one person on cocaine possession charges. A small amount of cash and two weapons were seized.
As for throwing flashbang grenades into yards full of children, not to worry -- that's just business as usual, said Frank. "They were thrown outside the house as a diversionary tactic," he said. "It's standard operating procedure. They're not used to hurt anybody. They just make noise." Besides, there was a nice, friendly narcotics officer who "immediately went over to take care of [the children]." Presumably not one of those ones who look like Imperial Storm Troopers in their SWAT get-up. Or the ones trying to Taser people. Or the ones with snarling drug dogs. Or the ones who shoot a fleeing man before their eyes.