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Who Was Killed in America's Drug War Last Year? [FEATURE]

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #765)
Consequences of Prohibition

For the past two years, Drug War Chronicle has been tracking all the US deaths directly attributable to domestic drug law enforcement, including the border. You can view the 2011 deaths here and the 2012 deaths here.Soon, we will hand our findings out to criminal justice and other professionals and then issue a report seeking to identify ways to reduce the toll. In the meantime, we can look at the raw numbers from last year and identify some trends.

A New Orleans police officer was indicted for killing Wendell Allen during a drug raid in March. (family photo)
Before we begin, though, it's important to note our resource and data limitations, as well as explaining what gets included and what doesn't. We depended largely on Google news alerts for "officer shoots" or "officer kills" and their variations (trooper shoots, deputy shoots, police shoot, etc.) We can't claim that the list is exhaustive -- some initial reports never mention drugs, although they were involved; some others may have slid through the cracks. (Our tally includes several cases where people collapsed and died during or immediately after being arrested; the drug link became apparent only weeks or months later when toxicology reports came back. We could have missed others.)

We also used fairly tight criteria for inclusion. These deaths had to have occurred during drug law enforcement activities. That means people whose deaths may be at least partially blamed more broadly on drug prohibition (overdoses, AIDS and Hepatitis C victims, for example) are not included. Neither are the deaths of people who may have been embittered by previous drug law enforcement operations who later decide to go out in a blaze of glory, nor the deaths of their victims.

It's only people who died because of drug law enforcement. And even that is something of a grey area. One example is traffic stops. Although they ostensibly are aimed at public safety, drug law enforcement is at least a secondary consideration and, sometimes, as in the case of "pretextual stops," the primary consideration, so we include those deaths when it looks appropriate. Another close call was the case of a Michigan father accused of smoking marijuana and reported to Child Protective Services by police. He was shot and killed in a confrontation with police over that issue. We included him even though it was not directly drug law enforcement that got him killed, but the enforcement of child custody orders related to marijuana use. It could be argued either way whether he should not have been included; we decided to include him.

Because we are a small nonprofit with limited resources, we have been unable to follow-up on many of the cases. Every law enforcement-related death is investigated, but those findings are too often unpublished, and we (I) simply lack the resources to track down the results of those investigations. That leaves a lot of questions unanswered -- and some law enforcement agencies and their personnel, and maybe some others, off the hook.

We attempted to provide the date, name, age, race, and gender of each victim, but were unable to do so in every case. We also categorized the type of enforcement activity (search warrant service, traffic stops, undercover buy operations, suspicious activity reports, etc.), whether the victim was armed with a firearm, whether he brandished it, and whether he shot it, as well as whether there was another type of weapon involved (vehicle, knife, sword, etc.) and whether the victim was resisting arrest or attempting to flee. Again, we didn't get all the information in every case.

Here's what we found:

In 2012, 63 people died in the course of US domestic drug law enforcement operations, or one about every six days. Eight of the dead were law enforcement officers; 55 were civilians.

Law Enforcement Deaths

Officer Victor Soto-Velez was ambushed in
Law enforcement deaths began and ended the year. The first drug war death, on January 4, was that of Ogden, Utah, police officer Jared Francom, who was serving on the Weber-Morgan Metro Narcotics Strike Force when he was shot and killed during a "knock and enter" SWAT-style raid on a suspected marijuana grower. Five other officers were also shot and wounded, as was the homeowner, Matthew Stewart, who is now charged with his killing and faces a death sentence if convicted.

The last drug war death of the year, on December 14, was that of Memphis police officer Martoiya Lang, who was shot and killed serving a "drug-related search warrant" as part of an organized crime task force. Another officer was wounded, and the shooter, Trevino Williams, has been charged with murder. The homeowner was charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.

In between Francom and Lang, six other officers perished fighting the drug war. In February, Clay County (Florida) Sheriff's Detective David White was killed in a shootout at a meth lab that also left the suspect dead. In April, Greenland, New Hampshire, Police Chief Michael Maloney was shot in killed in a drug raid that also left four officers wounded. In that case, the shooter and a woman companion were later found dead inside the burnt out home.

In June, Puerto Rican narcotics officer Victor Soto Velez was shot and killed in an ambush as he sat in his car. Less than two months later, Puerto Rican police officer Wilfredo Ramos Nieves was shot and killed as he participated in a drug raid. The shooter was wounded and arrested, and faces murder charges.

Interdicting drugs at the border also proved hazardous. In October, Border Patrol Agent Nicholas Ivie was shot and killed in a friendly fire incident as he and other Border Patrol agents rushed to investigate a tripped sensor near the line. And early last month, Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III was killed when a Mexican marijuana smuggling boat rammed his off the Southern California coast. Charges are pending against the smugglers.

Civilian Deaths

Civilian deaths came in three categories: accidental, suicide, and shot by police. Of the 55 civilians who died during drug law enforcement operations, 43 were shot by police. One man committed suicide in a police car, one man committed suicide in his bedroom as police approached, and a man and a woman died in the aftermath of the Greenland, New Hampshire, drug raid mentioned above, either in a mutual suicide pact or as a murder-suicide.

Five people died in police custody after ingesting packages of drugs. They either choked to death or died of drug overdoses. One man died after falling from a balcony while fleeing from police. One man died in an auto accident fleeing police. One Louisville woman, Stephanie Melson, died when the vehicle she was driving was hit by a drug suspect fleeing police in a high-speed chase on city streets.

The Drug War and the Second Amendment

Americans love their guns, and people involved with drugs are no different. Of the 43 people shot and killed by police, 21 were in possession of firearms, and in two cases, it was not clear if they were armed or not. Of those 21, 17 brandished a weapon, or displayed it in a threatening manner. But only 10 people killed by police actually fired their weapon. Merely having a firearm increased the perceived danger to police and the danger of being killed by them.

In a handful of cases, police shot and killed people they thought were going for guns. Jacksonville, Florida, police shot and killed Davinian Williams after he made a "furtive movement" with his hands after being pulled over for driving in a "high drug activity area." A month later, police in Miami shot and killed Sergio Javier Azcuy after stopping the vehicle in which he was a passenger during a cocaine rip-off sting. They saw "a dark shiny object" in his hand. It was a cell phone. There are more examples in the list.

Several people were shot and killed as they confronted police with weapons in their own homes. Some may have been dangerous felons, some may have been homeowners who grabbed a gun when they heard someone breaking into their homes. The most likely case of the latter is that of an unnamed 66-year-old Georgia woman shot and killed by a local drug task doing a "no knock" drug raid at her home. In another case from Georgia, David John Thomas Hammett, 60, was shot and killed when police encountered him in a darkened hallway in his home holding "a black shiny object." It was a can of pepper spray. Neither victim appears to have been the target of police, but they're still dead.

Police have reason to be wary of guns. Of the eight law enforcement officers killed enforcing the drug laws last year, seven were killed by gunfire. But at least 22 unarmed civilians were shot and killed by police, and at least four more were killed despite not having brandished their weapons.

It's Not Just Guns; It's Cars, Too

In at least seven cases, police shot and killed people after their vehicles rammed police cars or as they dragged police officers down the street. It is difficult to believe that all of these people wanted to injure or kill police officers. Many if not most were probably just trying to escape. But police don't seem inclined to guess (which might be understandable if you're being dragged by a moving car.)

Race and Gender

Getting killed in the drug war is mostly a guy thing. Of the 63 people killed, only six were women, including one police officer. One was the Georgia homeowner, another was the Louisville woman driver hit by a fleeing suspect, a third was the unnamed woman who died in the Greenland, New Hampshire raid. Other than the Memphis police officer, only two women were killed because of their drug-related activities.

Getting killed in the drug war is mostly a minority thing too. Of the 55 dead civilians, we do not have a racial identification on eight. Of the remaining 47, 23 were black, 14 were Hispanic, nine were white, and one was Asian. Roughly three out four drug war deaths were of minority members, a figure grossly disproportionate to their share of the population.

Bringing Police to Justice

Many drug war deaths go unnoticed and un-mourned. Others draw protests from friends and family members. Few stir up public outrage, and fewer yet end up with action being taken against police shooters. Of the 55 civilians who died during drug law enforcement activities, charges have been filed against the police shooters in only two particularly egregious cases. Both cases have generated significant public protest.

One is the case of Ramarley Graham, an 18-year-old black teenager from the Bronx. Graham was chased into his own apartment by undercover NYPD officers conducting drug busts on the street nearby. He ran into his bathroom, where he was apparently trying to flush drugs down the toilet, and was shot and killed by the police officer who followed him there. Graham was unarmed, police have conceded. A small amount of pot was found floating in the toilet bowl. Now, NYPD Officer Richard Haste, the shooter, has been indicted on first- and second-degree manslaughter charges, with trial set for this coming spring.

The other case is that of Wendell Allen, 20, a black New Orleans resident. Allen was shot and killed when he appeared on the staircase of a home that was being raided for marijuana sales by New Orleans police. He was unarmed and was not holding anything that could be mistaken for a weapon. Officer Jason Colclough, the shooter, was indicted on manslaughter charges in August after he refused a plea bargain on a negligent homicide charge. When he will go to trial is unclear.

Criminal prosecutions of police shooters, even in egregious cases, is rare. Winning a conviction is even less unlikely. When Lima, Ohio, police officer Joe Chavalia shot and killed unarmed Tanika Wilson, 26, and wounded the baby she was holding in her arms during a SWAT drug raid in 2008, he was the rare police officer to be indicted. But he walked at trial

It doesn't usually work out that way when the tables are turned. Ask Corey Maye, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for killing a police officer who mistakenly entered his duplex during a drug raid even though he argued credibly that he thought police were burglars and he acted in self defense. It took 10 years before Maye was able to first get his death sentence reduced to life, then get his charges reduced to manslaughter, allowing him to leave prison.

Or ask Ryan Frederick, who is currently sitting in prison in Virginia after being convicted of manslaughter in the 2008 death of Chesapeake Det. Jarrod Shivers. Three days after a police informant burglarized Frederick's home, Shivers led a a SWAT team on a no-knock raid. Frederick shot through the door as Shivers attempted to break through it, killing him. He argued that he was acting in self-defense, not knowing what home invaders were on the other side of the door, but in prison he sits.

Both the Graham and the Allen cases came early in the year. Late in 2012, two more cases that would appear to call out for criminal prosecutions of police occurred. No charges have been filed against police so far in either case.

On October 25, undocumented Guatemalan immigrants Marco Antonio Castro and Jose Leonardo Coj Cumar were shot and killed by a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper who shot from a helicopter at the pickup truck carrying them as it fled from an attempted traffic stop. Texas authorities said they thought the truck was carrying drugs, but it wasn't -- it was carrying undocumented Guatemalan immigrants who had just crossed the border. Authorities said they sought to disable the truck because it was "traveling at reckless speeds, endangering the public." But the truck was traveling down a dirt road surrounded by grassy fields in an unpopulated area. The Guatemalan consulate and the ACLU of Texas are among those calling for an investigation, and police use of force experts from around the country pronounced themselves stunned at the Texas policy of shooting at vehicles from helicopters. Stay tuned.

Two weeks later, undercover police in West Valley, Utah, shot and killed Danielle Misha Leonard, 21, in the parking lot of an apartment building. Leonard, a native of Vancouver, Washington, had been addicted to heroin and went to Utah to seek treatment. Perhaps it didn't take. Police have been extremely slow to release details on her killing, but she appears to have been unarmed. An undercover police vehicle had boxed her SUV into a parking spot, and the windshield and both side windows had been shattered by gunfire. Later in November, in their latest sparse information release on the case, police said only that she had been shot twice in the head and that they had been attempting to contact her in a drug investigation. Friends and family have set up a Justice for Danielle Willard Facebook page to press for action.

Now, it's a new year, and nobody has been killed in the drug war so far. But this is only day two.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


txmomsunited (not verified)

Counting people who died of overdose and withdrawal after being thrown in jail, people who died in law enforcement custody, and people shot outright, I'd wager we have at least 63 deaths in Bexar County Texas alone.

Thu, 01/03/2013 - 1:45pm Permalink
Erwin Dale bro… (not verified)

63, is that all? That is not a "WAR" on anything. That is a few sad incident where some people got hurt or killed. I'm sorry, a lot more has to be happening if you want to call it a war. Somebody needs to get to work on all that drug trade if you want to make a war of it. HLS, Boarder Patrol, National Guard and the Army Reserve all working hard to stop drugs....then you can have a war and call it a war.

Thu, 01/03/2013 - 3:47pm Permalink
Uncle Bob (not verified)

In reply to by Erwin Dale bro… (not verified)

What about the THOUSANDS who have died in Mexico, smart guy?  What about the thousands who were arrested in the US?  63 died, but 330,000 people are locked up in prison for no greater crime than choosing the wrong substance to put in their body.  That is a war, it's an attack on hundreds of thousands of people who are denied their freedom, and then in foreign countries like Mexico and Columbia, the drug war is the actual war you are looking for.. with thousands dead, with jets, missiles, bombs, bullets and landmines.

Sat, 01/05/2013 - 1:12pm Permalink
Anonymous6545153 (not verified)

In reply to by Erwin Dale bro… (not verified)


Are these enough agencies for you to call it a war....errr  a JOKE!
Table 2: Federal Drug Control Spending by Agency

FY 2010 – FY 2012

(Budget Authority in Millions)
Department of Agriculture
U.S. Forest Service
15.3 15.3 15.2
Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency for the District
of Columbia
47.0 47.4 48.9
Department of Defense
Drug Interdiction and Counterdrug Activities 1,598.8 1,590.7 1,642.7
Counterdrug OPTEMPO 128.5 142.0 141.1
Total DoD
1,727.4 1,732.7 1,783.9
Department of Education
175.8 217.8 266.9
Federal Judiciary
1,153.5 1,167.9 1,216.0
Department of Health and Human Services
Centers of Medicare & Medicaid Services 5,114.0 5,173.2 5,040.9
Health Resources and Services Administration 15.7 23.8 24.4
Indian Health Service 96.0 96.0 105.6
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism 55.5 55.5 56.4
National Institute on Drug Abuse 1,059.4 1,059.4 1,080.0
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 2,557.4 2,557.4 2,578.5
Total HHS
8,898.0 8,965.4 8,885.9
Department of Homeland Security
Customs and Border Protection 2,184.8 2,206.7 2,386.1
Federal Emergency Management Agency 60.0 60.0 50.0
Federal Law Enforcement Training Center 48.6 48.6 48.5
Immigration and Customs Enforcement 490.7 474.1 493.3
United States Coast Guard 1,162.3 1,162.3 1,197.2
Office of Counternarcotics Enforcement 3.6 3.6 3.8
Total DHS
3,949.9 3,955.2 4,178.9
Department of the Interior
Bureau of Indian Affairs 10.0 10.0 10.0
Bureau of Land Management 5.1 5.1 5.1
National Park Service 3.3 3.3 3.3
Total Interior 18.4 18.4 18.4
NATIONAL DRUG CONTROL STRATEGY: FY 2012 Budget and Performance Summary 21
Department of Justice
Assets Forfeiture Fund 204.9 205.4 215.6
Bureau of Prisons 3,256.6 3,246.3 3,568.8
Criminal Division 13.7 12.5 15.2
Drug Enforcement Administration 2,305.1 2,310.0 2,364.1
Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force Program 549.6 528.6 541.0
Office of Federal Detention Trustee 512.0 512.0 580.0
Office of Justice Programs 288.4 288.4 298.6
National Drug Intelligence Center 44.0 44.0 25.0
U.S. Attorneys 82.1 82.1 84.3
U.S. Marshals Service 256.2 242.1 266.8
Total Justice 7,512.6 7,471.3 7,959.5
Office of National Drug Control Policy
Counterdrug Technology Assessment Center 5.0 5.0 0.0
Cancellation of Unobligated Balances 0.0 0.0 ?11.3
High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas 239.0 239.0 200.0
Other Federal Drug Control Programs 154.4 154.4 143.6
Salaries and Expenses 29.6 29.6 23.4
428.0 428.0 355.7
Small Business Administration
1.0 1.0 0.0
Department of State
Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement
884.0 727.7 506.4
United States Agency for International Development 477.7 368.8 339.5
Total State
1,361.7 1,096.5 845.9
Department of Transportation
Federal Aviation Administration 27.1 27.1 29.5
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 2.8 2.8 2.8
Total Transportation
29.9 29.9 32.3
Department of the Treasury
Internal Revenue Service
60.3 60.3 60.7
Department of Veterans Affairs
Veterans Health Administration
508.3 524.7 541.7

25,887.1 25,731.6 26,209.7

Mon, 01/07/2013 - 9:50am Permalink
Guard1an (not verified)

Would be nice to also perhaps try to cover people who could have been potentially treated by Cannabis, but because of Federal Law were not treated. While it would be statistically incorrect to capture all the number of deaths associated with each disease, it would be interesting to extrapolate, if only it were legal...

Marijuana Cures Cancer

Quick facts regarding cancer: Approximately 500,000 deaths were expected for 2012. 1,638,910 new cancer cases are expected to be diagnosed in 2012. In 2012, cancer is expected to be the second most common cause of death in the US, exceeded only by heart disease, accounting for nearly 1 of 4 deaths.

Quick facts regarding Leukemia: An estimated combined total of 140,310 people in the US are expected to be diagnosed with leukemia, lymphona or myeloma in 2011. Approximately every 10 minutes, someone in the US dies from a blood cancer. This statistic represents nearly 145 people each day or more than six people every hour.

See USPTO patent number 6630507. "The cannabinoids are found to have particular application as neuroprotectants, for example in limiting neurological damage following ischemic insults, such as stroke and trauma, or in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and HIV dimentia."

Quick facts regarding Alzheimer's disease:5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's disease. On in eight older Americans has Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Today, 5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's disease - 5.2 million aged 65 and over, and 200,000 under the age of 65.

Quick facts regarding Stroker: Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the United States. More than 140,000 people die each year from stroke in the United States.  Stroke is the leading cause of serious, long term disability in the United States. Each year, approximately 795,000 people suffer a stroke. About 600,000 of these are first attacks and 185,000 are recurrent attacks Nearly three quarters of all strokes occur in people over the age of 65. The risk of having a stroke more than doubles each decade after the age of 55.  Strokes can and do occur at ANY age.  Nearly on fourth of strokes occur in people under the age of 65. Stroke death rates are higher for African Americans than for whites, even at younger ages. On average, someone in the United States has a stroke every 40 seconds.

Quick facts regarding Parkinson's disease: Each year, approximately 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. That is 1 in 272 people ho have the disease.  This number does not reflect the thousands of cases that go undetected.  However, it is also estimated that 1.10% of the US population, or 1 in 90 people, have the disease and do not know it.

And that is the short list....

Thu, 01/03/2013 - 10:17pm Permalink
Clifford Nelson (not verified)

In reply to by Guard1an (not verified)

The other stupid thing about it is that Cannibus is a good agriculutral plant. It is very useful, and can be used to replace other materials in clothings. It use to be used for ropes on ships because it was so resistant to water and salt. It is also much better for the land than cotton.

Sat, 03/02/2019 - 11:07am Permalink
Paul Pot (not verified)

Are there any figures anywhere for the global drug war death toll? 

There are so many people whose deaths are attributable to the drug war in basically every country in the world. 
Those who suffered in agony and died prematurely without cheap and appropriate medication. 
All those who have OD'd
Overdose should never be a problem in a well managed caring society. 
And count all the suicides of those harassed continually by the police till they end up in prison again and again and with no prospects in life. 
Then there is the use of violence in the community that results from the police using violence against the community. 
Those who use drugs are unable to call on the police for help and therefore have to be their own police. 
More than ten thousand people die every year in gun violence in the US and a great deal of it is attributable to the drug war. 
And this is true right across the world and it is the reason why the worst trouble spots in the world are all centered on drug growing regions and the trade routes for them. 
Those people grew these economic crops for centuries and then the west came and took them by force and then we call them terrorists when they fight back. 
The drug war is the single greatest cause of violence, corruption, poverty and misery in the world. 
It is a crime against humanity and an act of genocide. 
Sun, 01/06/2013 - 12:35am Permalink
Nedmorlef (not verified)

In reply to by Paul Pot (not verified)

 I can't say it the way I see it. I don't have the words. The anger and the adrenaline flow so freely through me that I can't even hit the keys. If I want to induce rage all I have to do is read an article on this site. All I have to do is pick up a newspaper or turn on my computer. The senseless death is everywhere. Watching the police steal from the weak and then kill them is more than my just heart can take. Watching the police strut around like cocks in a farm yard after they kill unarmed and untrained ppl living their one life and minding their own business infuriates me to almost a violent boiling point. It's only the Christ within me that prevents me from lashing out with the same vicious retort.

These are all crucifixions. Murderers all of them ! If God doesn't punish them he'll have to apologize to those that crucified Jesus.

You reap what you sow mr cop. There's coming a time when ppl are going to start shooting as you run up the driveway and across the lawn. There'll be no more waiting for you to come crashing through the door. Every cop that does get shot in any situation is a direct result of the violence you serve cold. What comes around goes around, Karma. The world believes in these. You better believe too.

Sun, 01/06/2013 - 12:20pm Permalink
Nedmorlef (not verified)

Any of these ppl standing in their own home or on their own property are victims of tyranny. ONE IS TOO MANY!!!! Consenting adults should not die at the hands of the police.


It is a war despite the asshole above. This list doesn't count those of us that are habitually harrassed and threatened with death. It doesn't count the dead dogs,the vandalized property,the lost jobs, the financial devastation of losing a job and being accused.


Go read the Constitution of the United States of America and then take another look at this article . Read the teachings of Jefferson and Adams. It will change your perspective or you are a traitor to america.


Jefferson said that and I paraphrase " the bill of rights should be so strong that, even guilty men go free".

Jefferson said one innocent man charged is one too many. We have consenting adults being killed over a field herb.

Sun, 01/06/2013 - 12:05pm Permalink
M Simon (not verified)

One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.


High light the tragedies caused by Drug Nazis.


The link covers deaths from lack of med-pot treatment. As well as raids.

Mon, 03/11/2013 - 7:07am Permalink
jakrug (not verified)

In any one year,

How many people die or are injured by drug use  AND

How many people die or are injured by drug enforcement?


Where can I find this information?

Wed, 01/22/2014 - 10:46pm Permalink

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