Tag: Radley Balko

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.

    Book Review: Rise of the Warrior Cop

    I’m kicking off a new feature in my blogging: reviews of books or movies I think are relevant to current issues and events. I’ve made occasional oblique references to books like Three Felonies a Day or Declaration of Independents. But this will be a little more in depth. Not anticipating this will happen often.

    On this blog, I regularly link to the work done by Radley Balko so it won’t surprise anyone that I just read his new book Rise of the Warrior Cop and have a high opinion of it. But I thought it was worth a post to spell out just why I think this is an important book. It’s not for the reasons that you think.

    Balko’s blog has become one-stop-shopping on law enforcement abuses. From the misguided and tragic raid on Corey Maye to the killing of Kathryn Johnston, he’s documented hundreds of wrong-door raids, overamped raids and militaristic excesses that have trashed civil liberties and all too often left the bodies of innocent people and police on the ground.

    But the book is very different from his blog. While the blog tends to focus on specific incidents of abuse, the book takes a step back to break down how we’ve gotten here: how all of our civil liberties have slowly been chipped away by the legislatures and the courts through hysteria over crime, drugs and terrorism. It chronicles how our approach to law enforcement has changed from colonial times (when we didn’t have professional law forces) to today, with a heavy focus on the last forty years.

    The thing about wrong door raids or the shooting of innocent people by police is that focusing on particular horrifying incidents gives one the impression that are isolated or very rare events. Balko shows that they are not that rare. Ray Kelly admitted that at least 10% of the hundreds of raids launched in NYC every month hit innocent people. Others estimate the problem is much larger. Hard numbers are difficult to get because there is very little documentation of what goes on in police raids and legislators and law enforcement have resisted efforts to document it.

    But wrong door raids are only the tip of a much larger and much scarier iceberg. The militarization of law enforcement is deeply problematic even when it doesn’t result in harm to innocent people. Over 50,000 armed raids are launched every year in this country and something like 90+% of armed raids are for consensual non-violent crimes (drugs, principally). The problem isn’t just innocent people getting hurt: it’s about the guilty people too. How did it become reasonable to routinely send armed tactical squads for drug busts? If someone has some pot, why should cops bang on the door at 4 am, wait 15 seconds, crash it down, throw everyone to the floor and point guns at their head while screaming profanities? Before you answer, remember that guns of any kind are only recovered in a tiny fraction of these raids. Before you answer, remember that armed resistance to cops has been rare even when crime reached its awful peak in the early 90’s (assaults on police are at an all-time low). Before you answer, remember that these tactics, with court approval, have been used to bust up small-time gambling “rings”, people selling raw milk, guitar manufacturers using illegal wood and even barbers practicing without a license. Raids have been launched against legal pot shops in California. These are licensed pot dealers — business people — who are treated like murderous meth kingpins. Raids have been launched against practicing physicians that the Feds decide are prescribing too much pain medicine. In many cases, they admit that the tactics are used not because of any danger but to “send a message”.

    A man’s home is his castle, even if he is breaking the law. The Constitution applies to all of use, lawmakers and lawbreakers. Our Founding Fathers rebelled for far less than this. They thought daytime searches were out of line.

    These tactics have only ramped up and expanded as the crime rate has fallen. Supporters like to say that the militarization of police is the reason crime has fallen. But they have a problem: cities that have eschewed such tactics, like San Diego, have seen sharper drops in crime and crime started dropping there before crime began to drop everywhere else. No matter what you might think of these tactics, there’s little evidence that they are actually working to reduce crime.

    Rise of the Warrior Cop is definitively not anti-cop. I would say that at least 60% and probably more of the interviewees are in law enforcement. Some of the most telling passages in the book are from the 1970’s when police officers resisted the militarization of policing precisely because they feared what eventually happened: the creation of groups of armed officers with little connection to the community busting down doors in the process of ordinary law enforcement; communities that see cops as dangerous rather than helpful; the majority of good decent community-oriented cops being eclipsed by gung-ho warriors.

    The problem is not that cops are bad; the problem is that cops are human. And because of panic-mongering over the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, we have given these humans military weapons, enormous discretionary power and little accountability. Cops in the book talk about the adrenaline rush that comes with a no-knock raid, the sense of power that guns, body armor and tanks give them. It’s a testament to the basic goodness of most of our cops that there aren’t more abuses.

    Balko is clear in his closing argument: we do not live in a police state. Only a small minority of Americans are being impacted by this. But I would say that the mechanism of a police state has been slowly worked into our society thanks to the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Think about 2016. In 2016 we will get a new President. Here are just some of the powers that this new President will have:

  • The power to surveil any overseas communication of any type through a secret court and the infrastructure to surveil any electronic communications, period.
  • The power to collect meta-data on all Americans, which includes their location, who they call and where they go.
  • A surveillance state that is governed by secret laws that no citizen can see.
  • The power to kill American citizens overseas based on secret internal evaluations.
  • The power to indefinitely detain terror suspects, including American citizens.
  • A post office that routinely photographs our mail.
  • Armed paramilitary SWAT teams in almost every city with a population of more than 25,000. Some cities of just a few thousand have them. Many now have armored vehicles and military grade weapons. Some even have massive .50 machine guns. That’s in addition to 73 different federal agencies that have tactical squads and employ tens of thousands of armed agents who are authorized for raids.
  • A judiciary that thinks the exclusionary rules is old-fashioned, that warrants should almost always be granted and that police always act “in good faith”. A judiciary that thinks, if you’re arrested for so much as a bogus parking ticket, the police should be to take your DNA and see what else you might have been up to. A judiciary that thinks the smell of pot justifies a warrantless search and that your silence can incriminate you.
  • Maybe you think some of those policies above are reasonable. The problem is that this is not multiple choice. The President and the state now have all of those powers and privileges. And that list will only grow if left unchecked. One of the things we’ve seen is that the powers bequeathed by one President to the next only get extended further. As Alex has said many times, Obama has engaged in War on Terror policies far in excess of what Bush did. What might the next President do? Are you willing to trust anyone with that kind of power?

    This isn’t about party. Republicans have played their role in chipping away at our civil liberties (Nixon especially). But one of the biggest enablers of law enforcement militarization has been Joe Biden, a liberal Democrat. When Obama took office, he massively increased the amount of money going into grants and giveaways to provide military-grade equipment to cops in even the tiniest safest cities. Under Obama, raids on legal pot growers have increased. Surveillance has increased. Civil liberties have decreased. And the only problems the Democrats have had with even the most invasive anti-crime legislation is it not going far enough. This is a bipartisan problem.

    A lot of people talk about the Second Amendment and its critical role in protecting us from tyranny. I agree on the importance of the Second Amendment. But where are these people when the actual pieces are put in place that could, under the right man, enable tyranny? Where are they as the Third, Fourth and Fifth Amendments are effectively gutted? Even the First Amendment is in danger. It is now routine for teams of cops to show up to protests in full riot gear and arrest peaceful protesters who won’t disperse. Medical marijuana activists have been specifically targeted for raids.

    If you really care about liberty, you should not respond to violent raids on non-violent drug dealers with “that’s what they get for dealing drugs.” If you really care about liberty, you shouldn’t dismiss concerns over Waco and Ruby Ridge because those people were crazy. If you really care about liberty, you shouldn’t think that it’s reasonable for cops to respond to peaceful protests with tear gas guns (response to violent protests is different). If you really care about liberty, you shouldn’t dismiss IRS profiling because it only hurt a bunch of Tea Partiers. If you really care about liberty, you shouldn’t cheer the DHS when they call for extra scrutiny of Right Wing groups even as all political terrorism is in decline.

    We see blazing hypocrisy on this issue all the time. Conservatives who rightfully screamed bloody murder over the Elian Gonzalez raid were almost gleeful when cops beat and pepper-sprayed Occupy protesters. Liberals who howled when Occupy protesters were beaten broke out the pompoms when it was the ATF (Rachel Maddow specifically said the nature of the opposition justified the tactics). Liberals who objected to profiling of Muslims thought it was just fine when the DHS did it with Right Wing groups.

    It is precisely that kind of partisanship and division which has enabled this. People looking the other way as the War on Drugs raged out of control because it was only hurting dirty hippies and poor black people. People looking the other way at ATF raids because it was only hurting gun nuts. People biting their tongues on War on Terror excesses because they’re not Muslim. People dismissing IRS abuses because the Tea Party deserved it.

    We have to get this through our heads: civil liberties belong to all of us. If anyone’s civil liberties are under attack, then all of our civil liberties are under attack.

    Balko seems a bit optimistic that we will reach a tipping point on this. I’m not so sure. I thought the Columbia raid, in which video captured the killing of two dogs and the terrorizing of a child over a minor drug bust, would have changed things, but it didn’t. I fear that, if things don’t change soon, it will take something truly horrible to wake the American people up.

    50,000 raids a year may not sounds like a lot in a country of 300 million. The vast majority of Americans will never have to worry about this. But the potential danger lurks out there. Anyone in this country — anyone who isn’t a Congressman at least — is a vague pile of evidence away from having their door knocked down, their house searched and any complaint being dismissed depending on which group our government decides is dangerous. This week, it’s legal pot dealers in California. Next week, its gun owners. After that, it’s IMF protesters. After that, it’s Right Wing “hate” groups.

    Is that they kind of country we want to live in? That’s the question the book asks.

    I’ve only talked about a tiny fraction of what’s in Rise of the Warrior Cop. It’s a quick read but packed with facts that are alternatively enraging, alarming and, on occasion, darkly hilarious. But if you care about this issue — either because you agree with me that this is alarming or because you think I’m a hysterical nut — you should take a look.

    Shut Up, Citizen

    Radley Balko has been running a series of “Raid of the Day” articles over at HuffPo as preparation for the publication of his “Rise of the Warrior Cop” book (which I’ve pre-ordered). Today‘s should turn your stomach:

    On Monday, the Miami Herald posted an article about rising support for legalized medical marijuana in the state of Florida. The article mentioned an pro-pot activist named Cathy Jordan, who uses the drug to mitigate the symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s disease. The article mentioned Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake worth), who is sponsoring a bill to legalize the drug. That bill is named after Jordan.

    The Bradeton Herald now reports that just hours after that article ran, a team of ski-mask-clad deputies from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Department staged a guns-drawn raid on Robert and Cathy Jordan’s home. According to Robert Jordan, the cops seized 23 marijuana plants, including the two mature plants his wife uses to treat her illness. They made no arrests.

    The raid is a stark example of the troubling trend of using paramilitary police tactics to send a political message. Set aside for a moment the sheer cruelty of sending government agents to separate a suffering, terminally ill woman from the medication that gives her some relief. (And yes, that’s a major thing to set aside.) Why ski masks? Why come in with guns drawn? Did the Manatee County Sheriff’s Department really think that wheelchair-bound Cathy Jordan and her 64-year-old husband were a threat?

    No, of course they didn’t. This was about making an example of someone. Cathy Jordan’s name is on a bill to legalize medical pot in Florida. So it was up to Florida law enforcement to bring the boot down upon Cathy Jordan’s neck.

    Medical marijuana is not legal in Florida and Jordan was breaking the law. I’m not going to disagree with that. But as Balko points out, you have to question the priorities here. Even if we say that busting a terminally ill senior citizen was a wise use of limited police resources, why in the blue fuck would you have a violent raid? These raids are usually justified — often flimsily — by the potential for violent resistance. Ignoring, for the moment, that the threat can be mitigated by grabbing people at work or at their cars during the day, were they expecting this sufferer of Lou Gehrig’s disease to whip out a bazooka?

    The cops claim they were tipped off by a real estate agent who saw marijuana plants through the window. I would not be surprised at all if it turns out these plants could not be seen through a window (a common three of the “raids of the day” is bad and bogus tips). I find it difficult to believe that a raid was launched by pure coincidence on the person Florida’s medical marijuana proposal is named after. And given that the cops didn’t arrest anyone and it’s still not clear that they’ll bring charges, I have to think the point was to send a message.

    We need to remember something in the debate over legalizing medical and/or recreational marijuana. There are legions of people whose livelihoods and careers depend on the War on Drugs. Prosecutors who can get convictions; prison unions and private prisons who can jail the convicted; politicians who get to grandstand. And police and their unions, who see a reason for more hires and often directly benefit from asset forfeiture. Check out this article about the fierce police union opposition to even token reform of Georgia’s asset forfeiture laws.

    But returning to the political point — Balko again:

    Here is the point: If we’ve reached the point where we’re okay with — or at best complacent about — the government using violence to make an example of someone because of their political activism, then we’ve lost our grip on the principles that make free societies free. That these excessive, militarized raids on medical marijuana grows, clinics, and activists have been going on since the 1990s is a strong — and sad — indication that we let go of those values a long time ago.

    Exactly. I keep thinking of Siobhan Reynolds, who advocated for people who need large opiate prescriptions to deal with chronic pain. She was relentlessly harassed and intimidated by federal agents and prosecutors. They even used grand jury privacy laws against her to keep their investigations secret (grand jury proceeding are supposed to be confidential to protect the accused. Using them to conceal government actions is an abuse of the process. And federal prosecutors have shown little interest in grand jury confidentiality in high-profile cases like Barry Bonds).

    The Drug Warriors are losing. They are losing the War on Drugs and they are losing the political fight over it. The American people are slowly growing sick of this absurdity and slowly realizing that harm mitigation and treatment are a far better cure for our nation’s drug problem than guns and prisons. But they Drug Warriors will not go down without a fight. And, in this case, the fight is quite literal.