Saturday, November 25, 2006

Another innocent life lost to botched SWAT drug raid

This one has big news for a few days now but after some confusing initial coverage, the details are beginning to emerge. The bottom line on this story is a 93 year old grandmother is dead because of a botched drug raid. The woman, living in a high crime section of Atlanta, lived in fear of being assaulted in her home -- not an uncommon occurrence even in the "better" sections of town. According to neighbors, she rarely left her house and kept her doors locked at all times and went to bed early. The SWAT team broke down her door after dark and startled her out of sleep. She had a gun for protection and fired on the officers, not realizing they were cops. They returned fire. She's dead and three officers are wounded.

As Talk Left points out, the tragedy is partly a result of a recent court ruling that essentially eliminated the time requirement between when the cops knock on the door and when they announce they are cops. You can expect to see more of these botched raids, not less as result of that ruling. That this particular raid was the result of sloppy police work is apparent. Even the Instapundit weighs in on the incompetence in this case and notes a simple google search would bring up a link to a photo of the house showing a wheelchair ramp leading to the front door. Not your typical crack house location.

But for the full story and the best analysis, Radley Balko is the go-to guy. Radley has been following these cases for years now and has assembled a White Paper along with an interactive map showing just how prevalent these murderous raids have become.

The latest information indicates a drug buy did take place at the woman's home on the same afternoon as the raid -- which happened at about 7pm. As Radley notes, "Which means that at most just a few hours transpired between the drug buy and the bust. How much investigation do you think the police did in that three hours to determine if the seller actually lived in the house where the buy took place, or if there might be other, innocent people inside?"

Judging from personal experience, my guess is that they didn't do any. I lived in Atlanta about ten years ago. I was assaulted at gunpoint at 10:00pm in a parking lot in the very center of Little Five Points. A man jumped out from behind a dumpster, grabbed me in a headlock, held a gun to my head -- right behind my left ear -- and said, "You know you're a fucking bitch?" It's a long story for another post but I obviously got away and walked into the Star Bar, where I was going to see my friend's band play. I collapsed into their arms and said, "Give me a double whiskey and call the cops." The police showed up an hour and half later and weren't at all interested in my account. They assumed it was a robbery attempt even though the guy never asked for money and several women had been raped in the neighborhood over the preceding weeks. No investigation was ever conducted.

That's not to say I'm glad, as has been expressed in many comment threads, that the cops got shot. I appreciate the police have a tough job and I don't wish ill on anyone. But with that being said, I think we can trace the root cause of this escalating problem on the forfeiture laws. By their design, they encourage bad police work. Time was that the cops wouldn't bother with sending SWAT teams to serve warrants for penny ante drug dealers but now every podunk town in America has all this cool SWAT team gear and of course they are going to want to use it. Boys and their toys and all that.

The reason they have all this gear, and the big cities make enough on forfeiture to buy farookin tanks and other heavy military equipment, is because they get to keep the money and property they seize in drug busts but they can only use it to purchase equipment, not to fund more officers on the street. And as an added bonus, they don't even have to prove a crime has been commited. They can seize on mere suspicion of a crime and then it's up to the property to prove itself innocent. Often the owners don't pursue the return of their goods because the cost of the legal fees outweighs the value of the property itself. But it adds up and thus do the police have an undue incentive to pursue petty busts, that pre-forfeiture simply wouldn't have been worth their time. Certainly not worth sending in a team of officers in black hoods and flack jackets instead of sending a couple of uniforms over on a Sunday afternoon to take the perps into custody.

And the police face no reprecussions for botching these raids. Again, see Radley. Just start at the top and keep scrolling. He puts it into good context here.
When police make mistakes, however, they're nearly always forgiven. Because we're supposed to understand how an officer in such a volatile situation might misjudge an everyday object for a gun, or shoot a completely innocent, unarmed man -- all perfectly understandable, given the volatile, confrontational circumstances surrounding SWAT raids. Such deaths -- while tragic -- are mere collateral damage. We have to keep fighting the war on drugs. And we have to protect our police officers by allowing them to break down doors while people are sleeping. The deaths of a few innocent people are the price we pay for the privilege of having the government tell us what we are and aren't allowed to put into our bodies.
Hell, some of these guys get commendations after the fact, for killing innocent people, while innocent people go to jail for protecting themselves against unknown armed intruders.

There's no reason this raid needed to be conducted in that manner, particularly on the say-so of a confidential informant. If the cops had used some common sense instead of a SWAT team, this woman would have likely died peacefully of old age and three cops wouldn't have been shot. If drugs were legalized this wouldn't have happened at all. So if you want to end the war on some drugs -- I'd urge any potential reformers to harass your Congresscreatures until they rescind forfeiture laws or at the very least have the seized property go to anyone except the police who are conducting the raids. I'm willing to bet money that if we took the financial incentive out of petty busts, they wouldn't happen anymore.


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