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My Letter to a Crime-Beat Reporter

I've been brooding about an article in the Gary (Indiana) Post-Tribune about a drug raid where a police SWAT team badly burned a drug suspect when they tossed a flash-bang grenade into his home. I felt the opening sentence was entirely inappropriate and that the reporter was remiss in merely taking the police version of events and not asking the police some serious questions. Here are the opening paragraphs of the article:
Flash-bang burns drug raid suspect January 24, 2007 By LORI CALDWELL Post-Tribune With a little help from the Gary police S.W.A.T. team, Darrell Newburn had a most appropriate name Monday. Newburn, 31, is hospitalized with a new, serious burn on his back caused by a flash-bang that hit his back before officers stormed his Glen Park home Monday afternoon. "How it happened, I'm not certain," Sgt. John Jelks, drug unit commander said a day later. "It's normal practice for them to throw the distraction device in first." Detectives from the Narcotics-Vice Unit obtained a search warrant for Newburn's home at 4433 Delaware St. after making a series of undercover buys from him there. Police surrounded the house and a member of the S.W.A.T. team, led by Cmdr. Anthony Stanley, tossed in the grenade-like device that explodes with a loud bang and bright light. Newburn was hit in the back and suffered a burn about 12 inches in diameter. He is being held under police guard at Methodist Hospitals Northlake Campus.
A few minutes ago I sent a letter to the reporter. I'll let you know if I get any response. Here's the letter:
Dear Ms. Caldwell: I write to protest the flippancy of your lead sentence in the January 24 story, “Flash-Bang Burns Drug Suspect.” Let me get this straight: A man, who is presumed innocent, is severely burned in an unprovoked assault during a drug raid, and you lead with an unfunny pun on his name? Instead of looking for cheap yuks, a good reporter might be asking the police some questions, such as: Why is it standard procedure to use paramilitary SWAT-style teams on small-time drug raids? Why is it standard procedure to throw military-style explosives into the homes of suspects? SWAT teams were originally designed to be used in hostage and other extremely dangerous situations, but there aren’t really that many of those. Give the police a SWAT team, and they will find a way to use it. But is it really appropriate for police to treat a small-time criminal infraction as if they were raiding an insurgent stronghold in Baghdad? I refer you to a recent report about the massive increase in the use of SWAT-style teams, especially in policing the drug war, by Cato Institute analyst Radley Balko. It’s called “Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Policing in America.” Here’s the link: In it, you will find incident after incident of raids gone bad, innocent people killed, and police endangering themselves and others. It’s worth a look. A good reporter might also want to ask the police just what they have accomplished with 40 years of drug raids, and whether there might be another, more reasonable way to deal with drug use. I don’t mean to attack you, only to suggest that there are stories left undiscovered if you rely merely on police and their press releases and don’t ask them the hard questions. I do hope you’ll keep this letter in mind next time you write one of those drug raid stories. Sincerely, Phillip Smith Editor, Drug War Chronicle P.S. If you have any interest in pursuing this, I can put you in touch with a number of current and former police officers (including former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper) who are harshly critical of this gung-ho, paramilitary-style drug war policing and who challenge the whole notion of drug prohibition altogether.
Gary, IN
United States
Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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