Baby Bou-Bou and the War on Drugs


Last week, a horrifying incident occurred in Habersham county. Cops on a drug raid tossed a flash-bang grenade into a house they were raiding when they found something blocking the door. That thing was a crib and inside the crib was 19-month-old Bounkham Phonesavanh. He’s now in critical condition after suffering severe chest and face wounds and burns when his crib caught fire. Doctors give him only a 50 percent chance of survival. One lung has failed. By the time I post these words, he may be dead. He has three older sisters who love him to pieces and have been basically crying non-stop for the last week.

In the immediate aftermath, the cops claimed that everything they did was justified. They said there was a dangerous meth dealer in the house, that they’d seen men armed with assault rifles, that an informant had tipped them off and they’d made an undercover buy. They blamed the family for putting the toddler in harm’s way by dealing drugs.

Almost all of that is now known to have been a lie:

Police surveillance should have revealed that children had been playing in front of the the house for two months and that a van with four car-child seats was parked in the driveway that officers crept by the night of the raid, said Mawuli Mel Davis.

The warrant contended that an undercover agent had purchased methamphetamine at the house the day before and officials justified the no-knock warrant on the grounds that the drug dealer was dangerous and possessed firearms.

Raiders found no drugs, gun or cash — nor the suspected drug dealer — at the house but did find the Phonesavanh family who was visiting from Wisconsin after their house had burned.
The suspected drug dealer, 30-year-old Wanis Thonetheva, was arrested later and was in possession of about an ounce of methamphetamine, Terrell said.

Now some people will try to tell you this is an isolated unfortunate incident. I don’t think you can write off the possibly fatal charring of a toddler that way. But they are also lying. Radley Balko has a rundown of incident after incident where flash-bangs have been deployed in these kind of situations. These are instruments of war. People’s houses have been burned down, people have been killed, other children have been scorched.

Nor is this an isolated incident in Habersham County. A few years ago, the same jurisdiction (different task force) gunned down pastor Jonathan Ayers. They thought he had bought drugs and came roaring up in an SUV, brandishing guns. The officers were in plain clothes and had little badges dangling from their necks. Not realizing they were cops, he tried to drive away and was shot and killed. The investigation exonerated the cops and concluded Ayers might have been paying for sex. His wife, however, found out that the cop who killed Ayers hadn’t been trained in the use of lethal force and the task force and investigators were hip-deep in nepotism. The county settled the case for $2 million. They clearly didn’t learn anything, however.

The lack of drugs and guns makes this more horrifying, but it’s kind of a side point. Even if the Phonesavanh family had been dealing meth — which they fucking weren’t — this raid would not have been justified. Launching a no-knock violent raid without even a basic assessment of the situation is something we wouldn’t do in Afghanistan, let alone Habersham County. Launching a no-knock violent raid of any kind in the United States against American citizens is something that should be used only in extreme situations, not routinely. That’s true even if they are dealing drugs. When you routinely launch drug raids in the middle of the night with military gear and officers trained to throw flash-bangs into homes, something like this is inevitable. We’re lucky there haven’t been more babies burned by this callous bullshit. And all for the glorious end of keeping Americans from getting high.

The War on Drugs is not a metaphor; it is literally a war on our own people. Baby Bou-Bou just became the latest horrific casualty. We’ve ended the War in Iraq. We’re ending the War in Afghanistan. When are we going to end this one? How many burned children, traumatized families and dead bodies is it going to take before we say, “enough!” I’m not even talking about decriminalizing drugs, here. You can keep drugs illegal. But isn’t it about time we stopped treating our own country like a battlefield?

Update: Let’s count the ways this could have been prevented.

  • They could have surveilled the house for more than about ten seconds.
  • They could have talked to a neighbor.
  • They could have used more than one informant.
  • They could have arrested the drug dealer in broad daylight when he came out of the house (he was kicked out of the house that day).
  • They could have noticed that the van in the driveway had kiddy seats in it instead of using it as cover.
  • Finding one door blocked, they could have entered from a different door.
  • They could have been trained to not toss a flash-bang grenade into an uncertain situation.
  • None of those steps involve legalizing drugs or letting criminals run free. They involve not immediately escalating a situation to a violent confrontation. Patterico makes this point:

    Don’t treat this like the cops intended this. They didn’t. When the story says deputies are distraught over this, I believe it. Cops don’t go into law enforcement to hurt small children.

    But look: if you use stun grenades in the service of a no-knock warrant like this, tragedies like this are going to happen. The question that police (and members of the public who pay the police) have to ask themselves is this: is it worth this kind of risk to arrest people for the crime in question? If the crime is murder, you might have one answer. If the crime is selling drugs, you might have another.

    And if the answer to that question (should we use this tactic knowing the risk?) is “no” . . . then don’t do it.

    There’s no question in my mind what the answer is.

    Comments are closed.

    1. FPrefect89

      I’ve been reading Balko’s book and this even comes down to his simple thesis in it, “Us vs. Them”. As long as it is done in performance of the War on (Insert noun here), the police are justified.

      I just got past the part where there was some raids on poker games and how one person who was running a charity game was shot in the back. There has been many times I just want to stop reading it because the more I read it the more pissed off I get. The whole mentality of the police needs to change, starting with getting rid of the “War on (insert noun)”.

      Thumb up 3

    2. Seattle Outcast

      We need to start disarming the police of all their military hardware and eliminating SWAT units across the country.

      Hot! Thumb up 8

    3. FPrefect89

      I read the review a while ago, but just got some free time to read something other than a school book. Here is a bit more information on the task force that did that raid, Apparently, this is not the first time they have done something this asinine. This one they tried to cover it up and blame the victim.

      Thumb up 1

    4. hist_ed

      “Even if the Phonesavanh family had been dealing meth — which they fucking weren’t — this raid would not have been justified.”

      Absolutely. This has to stop. The ethos seems to be that anything that reduces the risk to cops, even imaginary risks, is ok.

      Thumb up 5

    5. Ed Kline

      This isn’t solely about police, it’s also about judges. Police go to judges for warrants, ergo the judges are the line of defense the citizenry that is failing the citizenry. I’m not saying that the police don’t have horrible policies in place wherein they are quite ready to endanger the public in the name of officer safety, but changing those polices is pretty much impossible. Too many unrelated jurisdictions with no available top down policy making outside of the judiciary. When a cop wrongly kills a homeowner in Peoria Illinois, the fallout of that does not affect the policies of the police in El Cajon California, Houston Texas, and Wilmington Delaware etc…
      The federal government’s hands are rightly tied in this regard, so they really cannot effect policy much throughout the 50 states, and even if they could, by maybe tying policy to funding, that almost always has bad unintended consequences anyway. Nope, it’s the judges, and the only possible long term fix for that throughout a country of 50 states is getting to them while they are still in law school, which doesn’t seem likely. In fact, this is going to get much worse before it ever gets better.
      If this happened to my child, that judge who signed that warrant wouldn’t live long. 2nd amendment remedies are actually a viable answer sometimes.

      Thumb up 3

    6. Seattle Outcast

      Where’s CM to tell us to all buckle down, obey our masters, and STFU with all this whining?

      After all, he knows what’s best for America, and a police state to enforce the will of the federal government is part of that….

      Thumb up 0