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Feature: Police Officer Deaths in US Drug War a Rare Occurrence, Despite Popular Belief

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #632)

Tomorrow is National Law Enforcement Memorial Day, a day to mark the service of those law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty. Fortunately for drug law enforcers, last year did not leave a lot of fallen officers to memorialize. And while it may cut against the grain of countless pop culture depictions about dangerous drug dealers, last year was not unusual.

lioness statue, National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial (courtesy
Doing drug law enforcement is just not that dangerous. According to statistics on police line of duty deaths compiled by the Officer Down Memorial Page, only three law enforcement officers were killed enforcing drug laws last year, and those three were not undercover narcs doing drug buys or SWAT team raiders busting down doors, but DEA agents who died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. (One officer, Michael Crawshaw of the Penn Hills Police Department in Pennsylvania, was killed responding to a drug-trade murder in which one drug trafficker killed another over a drug debt. This officer death was certainly related to the drug war; we rightly or wrongly did not include him in the count because he was responding to a murder, not a drug crime.)

By contrast, according to FBI preliminary figures, 48 law enforcement officers were "feloniously killed in the line of duty"-- none of them doing drug law enforcement. But that was less than half of the 126 line of duty officer deaths last year. Auto accidents killed 34, drunk drivers killed nine, heart attacks killed nine more, seven died after being struck by vehicles, and four died in aircraft accidents (including the three DEA officers). Duty-related illness, 9/11-related illness, and motorcycle accidents accounted for three each, two died after being shot accidentally, and one was beaten to death.

According to historical data provided to the Chronicle by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which also compiles statistics on police line of duty deaths, last year's low death toll among officers enforcing the drug laws is not a fluke. In the decade between 1978 and 1988, an average of 6.5 officers were killed each year; in the following decade, the number was 6.2; and in the last 10 years, an average of 4.3 officers were killed each year enforcing the drug laws. The single bloodiest year for drug law enforcement was 1988, when 12 officers died.

In 2008, the number of police who died maintaining drug prohibition was seven; in 2007, it was four; it 2006, it was five; in 2005, it was four. When placed in the context of the more than 1.5 million drug arrests made in each of those years, it is clear that only one in every several hundred thousand drug arrests leads to an officer's death. During the past 10 years, the odds were less than 1 in 350,000.

But while drug law enforcement is not in itself that dangerous for police, certain police tactics raise the risk -- for both law officers and the recipients of their attention. Of the 20 officers killed enforcing the drug laws since 2005, nine were killed in drug raids and five were killed doing undercover work.

Two of the 2008 officer deaths demonstrate the risks involved in aggressive forced-entry raids. In Virginia, Chesapeake Police Detective Jarrod Brent Shivers, who also doubled as the door-rammer for the SWAT team, was killed by Ryan Frederick, who shot through a door in fear for his life in reaction to the home invasion. Frederick, who had recently been burgled, was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison. The cops were looking for a marijuana grow, but found only Japanese maple trees which the informant apparently mistook for pot.

FBI Agent Samuel Steele Hicks died in another raid gone bad. While serving a forced entry narcotics search warrant in Indiana Township, Pennsylvania, Hicks was shot and killed by the suspect's wife, Christina Korbe, who fired blindly from a bedroom at what she later said she thought were intruders. Although Korbe was not a target in the investigation of an 18-year drug conspiracy, she has since been charged with a string of drug offenses in addition to facing a murder charge.

Aggressive law enforcement tactics, such as dynamic entries (kicking in the door) and SWAT-style assaults have also left dozens of homeowners dead. (See Cato Institute analyst Radley Balko's now famous report, "Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Policing in America and the police militarization archive at his blog, The Agitator for page after page of stomach-turning reports.)

In November 2006, undercover Atlanta narcotics officers doing a forced entry raid shot and killed 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston after the woman fired at the people breaking down her door in a high-crime neighborhood. In this case, at least, the police were held accountable, in part because their conspiracy to cover up their fabrication of evidence for a search warrant quickly unraveled. Three of them went to prison.

  • On January 6, 2008, police in Lima, Ohio, shot and killed a 26-year-old mother of six, Tarika Wilson, during a raid aimed at her boyfriend. The police shooter was eventually found not guilty for killing her.

  • The following day in North Little Rock, Arkansas, a police SWAT team raided the home of Tracy Ingle. Awakened by a ram battering his door and thinking he was under attack by armed robbers, Ingle grabbed a broken pistol to scare them off. Officers fired multiple shots, wounding him five times. He spent a more than a week in intensive care before police removed him, took him to the police station, and questioned him for five hours. He was charged with running a drug enterprise even though no drugs were found.
  • In May, Connecticut police raiding an apartment after being informed that people were smoking crack there, shot and killed Gonzalo Guizan, who was unarmed. Police said he charged at them. All they found was a crack pipe.
  • This year, at least two people, Florida grandmother Brenda Van Zweiten and Memphis resident Malcolm Shaw were killed in separate SWAT-style raids on their homes the same week in March. In both cases, police claimed the victim was armed. Whether Van Zweiten, who was raided over small-scale drug dealing out of her house, or Shaw, who was raided over simple drug possession (!) intended to attack police or were merely trying to defend themselves from intruders breaking into their homes, will never be known because they are dead.

It's not just people. Dogs also seem to be a favorite target of drug-raiding police. That has certainly become an issue in the February SWAT raid in Columbia, Missouri (see related story here), which has resulted in widespread outrage after a video of the raid found its way to YouTube last week. In that incident, police executing a search warrant over alleged marijuana sales killed one dog and wounded another, and terrified the suspect's wife and child, but found only a tiny amount of weed and a pipe.

DEA memorial for agents killed in Afghanistan
Another infamous dog-killing SWAT raid occurred in 2008 in Maryland. Cheye Calvo, the mayor of the Washington, DC, suburb of Berwyn Heights, saw his two dogs shot and killed by a Prince George's County SWAT team that burst into his home after his mother-in-law accepted delivery of a package containing marijuana. Calvo and his family were twice victimized, once by the pot traders who used his address to have their dope sent to, and again by the gung-ho, itchy trigger finger police.

It is unclear how many people were killed by police enforcing the drug laws in general or conducting drug raids in particular. Although in 1999 Congress authorized legislation requiring law enforcement agencies to submit such data, it neglected to fund the program. The incidents mentioned above are only some of the most egregious and well-publicized, but they suggest that even if doing drug raids isn't particularly dangerous for police, it is for their victims.

There is a better way, said a pair of former drug enforcement officers consulted by the Chronicle. It might be succinctly expressed as: "Chill out."

"There is no question that in the bulk of those raids, these are not folks with any history of violence, said former SWAT team member US Special Forces sergeant James Hanson, now communications director for the veterans' group Warrior Legacy Foundation. "That should be the first hurdle: Does he have a propensity for violence? Drug warrants almost never have that level of threat. The fears police claim to have are overstated."

But, he suggested, those fears can come to fruition precisely because of aggressive policing tactics. "If you dig deeper on the two or three that happened in 2008, it was the dynamic entry that triggered the violent incident," said Hanson. "Dynamic entry into a house is the most dangerous thing about it. Just wait for the guy to go to the 7-11, for goodness' sake," he exclaimed. "That way, you're not busting down doors, endangering kids, and escalating the situation."

Cops didn't used to need paramilitary squads to do drug busts, said retired LAPD detective Dave Doddridge, who had long experience enforcing prohibition. "We weren't scared, we'd go knock on doors," he recalled. We didn't need the overkill. When I first joined the department back in 1973, at roll call, they would read off the houses, and we would drive up in a patrol car and knock on the door. We managed," he said.

"I spent several years down in South Central kicking in doors and raiding homes, and probably served 50 search warrants," the former narc added. "We weren't SWAT, just a couple of narcotics detectives with our vests on, and none of us got seriously injured. There was seldom any resistance."

SWAT was originally envisioned as elite squads designed for rare but dangerous situations, such as hostage situations, barricaded suspects, or terrorist attacks. But in a case of mission creep gone mad, they are now used routinely for drug raids -- as noted above, to the tune of 50,000 or so a year.

"In a lot of these cases, because, thanks to funds from Homeland Security, they have a SWAT capability, they have to have a reason for having it," said Hanson. "Using SWAT to serve drug warrants allows them to say it's worthwhile, and overstating the potential for violence is part of that."

"SWAT definitely takes control of the situation, but that's not necessary for a family home," said Doddridge. "Maybe if there's a gang with a big drug house and they're manufacturing you should send in SWAT, but if it's a house, just send in an informant, buy the drugs, and get an arrest warrant. You don't need SWAT for that."

But the SWAT philosophy is well-entrenched in American policing. Changing that mentality, or at least reining in SWAT's overuse and abuses will be a difficult challenge. But it can be done.

In the Columbia SWAT raid case, public outrage led quickly to new restrictions on SWAT team deployments and new rules for their use executing search warrants. Similarly, public outrage in the case of Cheye Calvo, the Maryland mayor, led to the passage of the first state law in the country aimed at reining in SWAT. That law requires every department that has a SWAT team to report regularly on its activities.

"The Maryland law is a perfect example of what needs to be done," said Hanson. "There was no auditing of how many times these teams were used in dynamic entries -- nobody from the civilian side was looking at it. If we're going to ask police to serve drug warrants, we get to decide how they do it. We don't want to put police at risk, but neither do we want to put citizens at risk. There are too many instances of bad warrants, wrong addresses, or lying informants."

Doddridge, who has become a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) since he retired from the force has another idea. "We need a crack team of attorneys who are good at lawsuits to just go around and start suing like crazy," he suggested. "When they have to start worrying about paying money, that'll make them start looking over their shoulders."

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.


Becoming an attorney (not verified)

Isn't this an absolutely criminal breach of our basic civil liberties - without oversight or control??? Ok, so the 'credible' police overstate the potential for the violence after battering their way into a families home at 3am, maybe or maybe not in a bad neighborhood - TO FIND NO EVIDENCE OF THE CRIME THEY WERE ACCUSED OF" - but who is advocating for these VICTIMS??? They are victims of an overzealous police-state justifying their own existence.

Fri, 05/14/2010 - 1:16pm Permalink
Hector Ortega (not verified)

My life is worth 38 cents, the cost of a bullet, what is yours REALLY worth?

"Figures lie, and liars figure"
Old American Idiom

Fri, 05/14/2010 - 2:11pm Permalink
Jean Boyd (not verified)

Some cops are OK, right? How are they going to work everyday in this? And then other cops seem good. If the good ones will just ask for help people will be there for them. I guess they think we are frightened. Well they may be right but rather stand up to evil. It never goes on it's own.

Fri, 05/14/2010 - 2:25pm Permalink
DaveDave (not verified)

Maybe the "criminals" they are chasing are not so violent after all. And that's why cops love the Drug War. An easy job hassling passive citizens.

Sun, 05/16/2010 - 11:34pm Permalink
McD (not verified)

In reply to by DaveDave (not verified)

Can you imagine how much fun it must be for some to dress up in all that fancy gear, look like an outer space soldier hero off to save the galaxy with a big, black gun playing softly-softly quiet zoom-zoom with the other guardians of goodness in the hero transporter up to the Evil Master Lord's lair, sneaking out with just barely enough fellow heroes to win the battle against an Evil One in your Waffen SS style helmet with your big club and your big, black gun and your super safety hero vest and Captain Invincible glasses. 'Police! Search warrant! Open up!" Bang, bang, boom, boom and down comes the door. Bonzai shouting. Bang, bang shooting. Rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat! What a rush!!! What a job! Cowboys and Indians, clearly defined and childishly simple good and bad - a lifetime of fun with virtually no risk of having to answer like an adult for their actions. They love it!

Some people seem to wonder why the police prefer to play SWAT with non-violent 'drug' offenders, who are highly unlikely to mount any resistance. I'm not trying to brag about my intellectual prowess, but it really doesn't seem that difficult to understand to me. Do school yard bullies go after bigger kids? 'Ohh-oh, boys just wanna have fun!'

I should think it takes a certain mentality to be attracted to policing. I wonder if the mentality can be modified, or if experience of playing SWAT is so addictive to some that it becomes quite impossible to resist.

Mon, 05/17/2010 - 4:54pm Permalink
GLKing (not verified)

Man, it sure would be nice to live in a perfect world were people were perfect, everyone cared for everyone else, there was no need for any laws because nobody would think about doing harm to anyone else, there would be no need for Police because we would police ourselves . . .

Unfortunately we do not have that. It is unfortunate that accidents happen. The other day a 7 year old was killed during a police raid. I wasn't there so I don't know what happened. It's easy to arm chair quarterback. However, when these animals have doors wired with explosives, guns taped to walls, razor blades in their hair and the other warfare like tactics they employ the fine men and women who put their lives on the line to clean out this trash from our communities must do the same.

Now, your article fails to look at the other side of the equation: those Officers that come in contact with the aftermath these drug groups leave behind. Mostly the clandestine labs. You should do an article on the hundreds, if not thousands, of lives affected. Utah just created a special taskforce to determine how bad the problem is. We have had several officers die in the last few years from cancers caused by these chemicals. Much like the same way Male officers were getting testicular cancer in the 80's from laying their radar guns in their laps.

Bottom line: don't lump every officer in the nation into the same group as the bad apples. I am for holding Government Officials accountable for their actions, especially Law Enforcement who have gone bad. Even in the Rampart division not ALL of the officers are bad.

Tue, 05/18/2010 - 2:09pm Permalink
Moonrider (not verified)

In reply to by GLKing (not verified)

This response is to the poster of the previous comment to this one ato which I am replying, as well.
Yes, it does take a certain kind of mentality to want to become a member of SWAT and maybe even just an ordinary police officer (the kind of mentality which enjoys exercising "power over" far too much). It is exactly the same kind of mentality as that held by bullies and criminals.

So what we end up with are people with the same tendencies as criminals enforcing our laws (even the bad and unconstitutional laws) in a horrifically bullying manner. Shouldn't we be screening these people better? As I have said, many times: due to the power we allow the police to exercise over the rest of the citizenry, we should absolutely hold them to a much higher standard of civilized behavior than we would expect from anyone in the general populace.

Frankly, I think we voters should hold all politicians to that same higher standard, too (and I am NOT talking about irrelevancies like sexual affairs). I want honesty and sincerity out of those who hold public office, rather than the hypocrisy we see in most politicians. Like Clinton, Bush and Obama, for instance, all having admitted to drug use in their lives, and knowing they've gotten away with it but still openly supporting the war on drugs and imprisonment for others who are indulging in exactly the same kind of use they did (flat out hypocrisy, there). Not one of them deserved the position of president just for that hypocrisy alone (although there are many other reasons, as well, for them to be undeserving of the position), in addition there is the issue of them backing, even increasing, the funding of law enforcement to harass those who are doing just what they did. That makes all 3 of them complete asshats, IMNSHO.

And any police officer who doesn't engage in these awful tactics, him/herself, but also doesn't speak out about those who do, cannot call him/herself a "good" cop. Sorry 2 cents, but its true. Silence is not golden in these kinds of stiuations, silence is approval.

I'm pro-choice on EVERYTHING!

Tue, 05/18/2010 - 7:14pm Permalink
Rural WA (not verified)

In reply to by Moonrider (not verified)

"So what we end up with are people with the same tendencies as criminals enforcing our laws (even the bad and unconstitutional laws) in a horrifically bullying manner. Shouldn't we be screening these people better?"

Unconstitutional and bad laws surely screen out many of the people who would be good police officers and who would tend to discourage wrong behavior by other officers. When being a police officer requires the frequent enforcement of unjust laws, the job becomes increasingly morally unacceptable to the sort of people best suited to police work in a just society and they don't enter that profession. Evil laws tend to create a system composed of evil law enforcers.

IMO it's only going to get worse unless the laws get better. We need to work on using the initiative process to repeal bad laws directly when possible, vote for legislators and executives who support justice and civil liberties when possible and encourage good, genuinely "non-Establishment" people to run for legislative and executive offices so we have candidates worth voting for. Sometimes we even need to become political candidates ourselves when no one better qualified will step up to provide a candidate that is morally acceptable to vote for.

Fri, 05/21/2010 - 3:04am Permalink
harley (not verified)

In reply to by GLKing (not verified)

You might want to read the article before you respond to it. It doesn't say these are bad cops, it says these are bad tactics. It doesn't say to send in LEOs unarmed and unarmored to take down labs with "doors wired with explosives, guns taped to walls, razor blades in their hair and the other warfare like tactics", it clearly says that the swat teams should ONLY be used in those situations. But not in private homes with non-violent people in them.

As far as your point about the aftermath of the drug groups, I'll ask the same question I ask of every LEO I discuss this with. How many of these negative effects are due to the drug use, as opposed to the drug war? In most cases it's the involvement with the drug war (arrest, jail, loss of family and career, etc) that creates the biggest damage. I'm not saying drug abuse can't cause major problems, but they tend to be manageable if the abuser isn't pulled into the legal system, where his life is usually ruined.

Thu, 05/20/2010 - 12:32am Permalink
sicntired (not verified)

[email protected],Vancouver,B.C.CanadaAside from the four RCMP officers killed in the Mayerthorpe massacre there have been no killing of police here in spite of the proliferation of swat style marijuana grow op raids.In spite of the reading off of this tactic by the courts the police still claim that they have to use this tactic to avoid the disposal of evidence.If you've ever seen a grow op you will know how foolish a claim this is.It takes the cops all day to remove the evidence they claim will be magically disposed of if they don't smash the door down.The pointing of automatic weapons in spite of the lack of any evidence this is necessary is the main focal point of the courts concern but the police cling to the myth that they need to be armed to the teeth and enter like omaha beach.The killing of dogs is the one similarity between the US and us.The police seem to feel that a barking dog is an invitation to shoot and recently shot a man's pit bull in it's own yard during a training exercise.The police apologised and said it was a mistake.A bullet is a mistake that is not often repairable.The main lesson that is obvious from all this is that the drug war has turned a large portion of the population against the police and the image of the police has been tarnished to where it will be a long time before the cop is seen as the protector of the people.For a large portion of the population they are the enemy,out to take our freedom and in many cases our homes.

Thu, 05/20/2010 - 3:32am Permalink
rita (not verified)

for a thoughtful, honest expose'. I've been trying for several months to convince LEAP speakers to stop promoting the myth of brave police officers putting their lives on the line enforcing drug laws. There are many compelling reasons for ending prohibition; LEAP prefers to focus on the financial cost. But as long as the general public believes that drugs and drug users and drug dealers are dangerous, they will continue to support, at any cost, the war against America.

As for the good cop/bad cop argument, every cop who stands aside in silence while fellow officers break the law and endanger the public is a bad cop. Every cop who does nothing while civilians are terrorized and killed, private property invaded and destroyed, is an accomplice to the crimes. "Just doing my job" is no excuse, even if it were true, which it isn't. These bottom-feeders are NOT doing their jobs. A police officer's job is protecting the public and upholding the law. "Protecting" implies "not killing" and you can't uphold anything by holding yourself above it.

Fri, 05/21/2010 - 1:32pm Permalink
rita (not verified)

The "war" mentality -- The violence used against unarmed civilians every day in drug raids would be unacceptable from American soldiers anywhere else in the world. American drugwar soldiers, however, don't see us as civilians; they see us as the enemy. They'll know they've won when there no one is left to pay their wages.

Fri, 05/21/2010 - 1:41pm Permalink

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