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.
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.