Georgia toddler critically injured by police’s flash grenade

Here’s a horrible story out of Atlanta, where a toddler is in critical condition after raiding drug cops tossed a flash grenade into his playpen.

Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell now is talking about the high-risk warrant service that resulted in burns to a 2-year-old child early Wednesday.

The child was burned when narcotics agents, assisted by members of the Habersham Special Response Team, used a distraction device as they entered a home at 182 Lakeview Heights Circle outside Cornelia . . .

“According to the confidential informant, there were no children,” Terrell said. “When they made the buy, they didn’t see any children or any evidence of children there, so we proceeded with our standard operation.”

Because of recent history with the individual involved in the alleged drug sales and knowledge of weapons in the residence, the special agent seeking the search warrant requested a “no-knock” warrant, Terrell said.

Mountain Judicial Circuit Narcotics Criminal Investigation and Suppression Team agents obtained a search warrant for the residence, with the no knock entry provision approved by Habersham County Chief Magistrate Judge Jim Butterworth.

Sheriff Terrell says the suspects are dangerous drug dealers who are known to be armed. Hence, the SWAT team, the no-knock raid and the flash grenade. I’ve yet to see any indication that drugs were found, which usually (but not always) means that the police didn’t find any. Frequently in cases where a raid goes wrong, police tend to be quick to point out what they found to justify their actions. (The police did apparently make an arrest.)

Here’s the kicker:

Terrell said both the district attorney and Georgia Bureau of Investigation have said there was no wrongdoing on the SRT’s part.

“I’ve talked to the D.A., I’ve talked to the GBI,” Terrell said. “I’ve given them the whole information and they say there’s nothing else we can do. There’s nothing to investigate, there’s nothing to look at. Given the information given, GBI’s SWAT team would have done the exact same thing – they’d have used the exact same scenario to enter the house.”

Terrell said the lack of knowledge that there were children in the home contributed to the situation.

“It’s an accident that we would have avoided if we’d just had any inclination that there had a been a child in that house,” Terrell said. “We had no idea.”

Here’s the problem: If your drug cops conduct a raid that ends up putting a child in the hospital with critical burns, and they did nothing that violates your department’s policy, then there’s something wrong with your policy.

A flashbang is an explosive device that emits a deafening boom and a blinding flash of light. It’s designed to temporarily stun the occupants of a building so that the armed men who deployed it can “clear” the building. It is an instrument of war. And cops are tossing these things through doors and windows with no idea what’s on the other side. Indeed, that’s the whole point.

In 2009, Wyoming police deployed a flashbang during a drug raid that set a couple’s bed on fire. In the subsequent lawsuit, the police conceded they had no idea where the device would land when they tossed it through an open bedroom window. In their defense, the police officers called an expert witness who trains cops in using flashbangs. He told the jury that after throwing thousands of grenades, “I’m no better today at tossing one than I was tossing the first one.” That was in defense of the cops. According to local coverage of the lawsuit in the Powell Tribune, the expert also testified that “the potential risk to officers justified not looking in the window to see the exact spot where the device would land.”

Got that? In order to protect police officers, we just have to accept that while enforcing the drug laws, we’ll occasionally get burned babies and incinerated homes.

Several years ago, CNN ran a special report about three FBI agents who suffered severe injuries when a defective flashbang prematurely detonated in an SUV.  The article focused on the agents’ injuries and on the company that made the defective device. Missing from the piece, however, was one critical bit of information: The device that caused the injuries to those agents is used by American police against American citizens every day of the year. Worse yet, it’s primarily used during the service of drug warrants. Which means it’s used not only to enforce laws against nonviolent, consensual activity, but it’s used against people who are still merely suspects. When a police forces uses a flashbang in this way, it is intentionally inflicting injury on someone who not only has yet to be convicted of a crime, in most cases the person has yet to even be charged — and of course anyone else who happens to be in the home at the time.

Other law enforcement officials have been killed or injured by flash bangs, too. In February 2011, Fred Thornton, a member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg SWAT team, died after a flashbang grenade detonated while he was organizing his SWAT gear in his garage. The following month, Alice, Texas, SWAT Commander Richard DeLeon was critically injured when a flash grenade went off as he was putting gear into his car. In 2001, an FBI agent in Buffalo, New York was burned on his hands and upper body when a flash grenade went off unexpectedly. Media coverage of the tragic incidents inevitably fails to make the connection that police intentionally and routinely use these same devices against American citizens.

The toddler in Georgia is just the latest in a long list of victims. Here’s a sampling, from the research I conducted for my recent book:

  • In 2011, when police in Greenfield, California approached a home where they believed a shooting suspect named Alejandro Jose Gonzalez was hiding. They would later concede that they learned early on that Gonzalez was not in the house. They had the wrong address. But in checking the address, they learned that a man who did live in the home, 31-year-old Rogelio Serrato, had two outstanding warrants—both for misdemeanors. When Serrato didn’t respond to demands to exit the house, the police forced entry into the home, using a flash grenade. The device sparked a fire that destroyed the house and killed Serrato.
  • In 1989, police in Minneapolis, Minnesota set off a flash grenade during a nighttime raid on the home of 71-year old Lloyd Smalley and 65-year old Lillian Weiss, who were sleeping. The device set a chair on fire, which then spread to the rest of the apartment. The couple died of smoke inhalation. The police had raided the wrong home, based on a bad tip from an informant. Ten years later, a flash grenade used by the same Minneapolis Police Department burned a triplex to the ground. In 2011, Minneapolis paid a $1 million settlement to Rickia Russell, who was sitting on the couch when police threw a flash grenade that rolled under her legs. The blast “burned the flesh off” one of her legs. The police found no drugs or weapons in the house.
  • In April 1997, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, SWAT team raided the home of John Hirko, Jr. after an informant claimed to have purchased drugs from him. The police tossed a flash grenade through Hirko’s window just a few seconds after knocking, then shot Hirko 11 times when he appeared with a gun. A SWAT cop then set off a second flash grenade near Hirko, sparking a fire that destroyed the house and burned Hirko’s body beyond recognition. The district attorney determined Hirko’s death was a justifiable homicide. In the lawsuit Hirko’s family filed against the city, expert witnesses for the estate testified that the disorienting effects of the grenade and its deployment in such close proximity to the alleged announcement, along with the lack of a clear police insignia on the SWAT team’s black, military-style uniforms would have made it difficult for anyone to determine if they were being raided police or invaded by unlawful intruders. In 2004, a federal jury found the SWAT team guilty of violating Hirko’s civil rights. The city of Bethlehem settled with Hirko’s estate for $8 million, nearly a fourth of the city’s annual budget.
  • The family of seven-year-old Aiyana Jones claims that the flash grenade a SWAT officer tossed into her bedroom during a 2010 raid ignited a blanket, which then set the child on fire. She didn’t suffer long. Seconds later, a member of the SWAT team shot her dead. (This case was at least a raid on a suspected murderer, instead of a drug raid.)
  • In 2001, a flashbang deployed during a raid on a house that was home to a small record label ignited the foam rubber put in the walls for soundproofing. The fire destroyed master recordings and $100,000 worth of equipment. Sgt. Gary Robbins said afterward, “It’s unfortunate those guys packed that house with materials that were flammable.”
  • In a 2006 raid in Sugarland, Texas, police deployed a grenade that set a room in the house on fire, causing $5,000 in damage. They also shot the family’s golden retriever. They found two joints.
  • In 1996, a SWAT team in Fitchburg, Massachusetts (population 39,102) burned down an entire apartment complex with a flashbang they used during a drug raid. Six police officers were injured and 24 people were left homeless. Several officers were cited for bravery.
  • In 2009, a drug raid team in San Antonio set off a flash grenade that ignited a mattress, then burned the entire house to the ground.
  • In 1997, Camille Vieira, 18, suffered burns on over half her body after a flash grenade landed on the comforter she was sleeping under and set it ablaze. There were also three children in the home. The police found 20 grams of marijuana.
  • Tomika Smith was severely burned when police in North Carolina tossed a flash grenade into a home she was visiting during a 2002 no-knock raid. The grenade landed on the couch where Smith was sitting and set it aflame. Smith was on a date at the time. She was not a suspect.
  • In 2005, Rhiannon Kephart, 18, was hospitalized in serious condition after a flashbang left her with second- and third-degree burns on her chest and stomach. Police in Niagara Falls, New York, had tossed the grenade through a window. It landed on the bed where Kephart was sleeping, then set the sheets on fire.
  • Nicole White, 29, suffered burns over 11 percent of her body and was permanently disfigured by a flashbang thrown by an Oakland, California, SWAT officer during a 2008 raid on a home she was visiting. The city of Oakland gave her a $1.2 million settlement in 2010.
  • In October 2012, a Montana SWAT team tossed a flashbang through a window into a room where two children were sleeping. A 12-year-old girl suffered first- and second-degree burns. The SWAT team was looking for a home methamphetamine operation, the sorts of do-it-yourself labs that have been known to catch fire and explode. According to the girls’ mother (and a photo she took), the device left a large, rounded dent in the wall and “blew the nails out of the drywall.” The police did not find a meth lab. A police spokesman said the officers did “plenty of homework” before conducting the raid, but still did not know that there were children in the home.
  • When police in St. Paul, Minnesota, raided the home of Larelle Steward in 2010, they demanded that he and his mother drop to the ground. When Steward attempted to explain that his mother had just had surgery, and wasn’t able to lay down, they repeatedly kicked him in the face, breaking his nose. Afterward, they put a pillowcase over his head. They then fired a flash grenade at Steward’s mother, catching her on fire. She suffered third-degree burns on her legs. The police had received a tip that someone was selling cocaine in the house. They found 2.8 grams of marijuana. The city approved a $400,000 settlement in 2012.
  • In 2004, a man lost a foot when a Hempstead, Texas, police officer, tactical team coordinator, and former ATF agent deployed a flash grenade as a prank at a bachelor party. Officers from the same department had earlier set off a grenade for fun in a Denny’s parking lot, causing several people to come out of the restaurant with drawn guns.

(Note: Some of these descriptions are cut and pasted from my book, or from the “Raid of the Day” feature I did for my previous employer, the Huffington Post.)

Another problem with flashbangs is that because they’re designed to stun and confuse, they can sometimes have that effect on police officers themselves. And that can lead to tragic consequences.

  •  In 1996, Oxnard, California, Officer James Jensen was killed when a fellow SWAT cop shot him after becoming disoriented by a flash grenade.
  • In a July 2003 drug raid on a Phoenix Hell’s Angels club, police set off a flashbang six seconds after knocking. Michael Wayne Coffelt, asleep at the time, was awoken by the grenade and quickly armed himself with a pistol. He later said he thought the place was being robbed. As he approached the door Officer Laura Beeler shot and wounded him. Beeler initially claimed Beeler had fired at her first, but a ballistics test showed Coffelt never discharged his gun. Police found no drugs in the club. Though he was the one shot in a raid that produced nothing illegal, Coffelt was nevertheless charged with assaulting a police officer. Maricopa Superior Court Judge Michael Wilkinson dismissed he charge, calling the raid an “attack” that violated the Fourth Amendment. Wilkinson ruled Coffelt’s actions were “reasonable behavior, given the hour and the fact that the house was under attack.” Wilkinson also found that Beeler’s mistaken belief that Coffelt had fired his gun at her was also understandable. Wilkinson and police investigators found that the most likely explanation was that she misinterpreted the flash grenade for a gunshot.
  • In March 1989, police in Gardena, California raided the home of Lorine Harris on suspicion of drug activity. By the occupants’ account of the raid, Officer Davie Mathieson mistook the sound of a flash grenade for hostile gunfire and shot Haris’ 20-year-old son Dexter Herbert in the back, killing him. Herbert was unarmed.
  • In November 1995, Minneapolis police conducted a raid after an informant had allegedly purchased some marijuana from the home of Andre Madison. At around 8 pm, a Minneapolis SWAT team deployed flash grenades at the front of Madison’s house. At the same time, a city housing police team was breaking into Madison’s home from the back. The police claimed gunfire broke out when Madison shot at them. But forensic analysis later showed that Madison’s gun hadn’t been fired that night. Instead, a police chief from a nearby town asked to investigate the raid determined that the team of cops entering from the back mistaken for gunfire the sound of the flash grenades set off by the team at the front. The team at the back of the house then opened fire, which the team at the front mistook for gunfire from someone in the house. So they opened fire, too. In the end, the two police team exchanged hundreds of rounds of gunfire. Madison was hit twice. The raid turned up a small amount of pot.

A few courts have found flashbangs excessive when used in some circumstances. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in 2004 that police violated a suspect’s Fourth Amendment rights when they “blindly” tossed a flash grenade into a house despite having no idea who was inside. But the same court also ruled that even though the officers violated the suspects rights, they were protected by qualified immunity. Don’t look for much help from politicians, either. In my book, I write about how New York Sen. Chuck Schumer — the same guy who wants to protect us from the threat of caffeine and alcohol slushes — once blithely dismissed the threat posed by blindly tossing explosive devices into peoples’ homes.

During congressional hearings on the Branch Davidian raid, Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked Dick DeGuerin, an attorney for David Koresh, if the Branch Davidians had stockpiled grenades. DeGuerin responded that the only grenades he had seen were thrown by BATF agents. Schumer later derisively dismissed the idea that flash grenades were harmful. “Mr. DeGuerin said flashbangers can kill, injure, maim,” Shcumer said. “Anyone who knows anything about these things knows they can’t.” Schumer went on to win a U.S. Senate seat in 1998, meaning that when New York City resident Alberta Spruill died from the effects of a flash grenade in 2003, she was one of Schumer’s constituents.

There are some very limited circumstances where flashbangs may be appropriate in domestic policing, such as when a fugitive has barricaded himself in a building, or during a hostage situation where lives are at immediate risk. Using them for drug raids is reckless, dangerous, and unnecessarily jeopardizes the safety and constitutional rights of citizens in the name of preventing other citizens from getting high.

Of course, that’s also a pretty good description of the drug war in general.

 

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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