Meet Jason Westcott, your latest, needless, inexcusable drug war casualty

Add another body to the drug war pile. From the Tampa Bay Times, here is the story of the death of Jason Westcott.

A man who had partied at Westcott’s home was plotting to rob him. An itinerant motorcycle mechanic, Westcott didn’t have much — two televisions and a handgun that once belonged to his brother were perhaps the most valuable possessions in his 600-square-foot house in Seminole Heights — but he was terrified by his would-be intruder’s threats to kill him.

Police tracked down the suspect and warned him to stay away. Westcott, those close to him said, was left with a word of advice from the investigating officers: If anyone breaks into this house, grab your gun and shoot to kill.

On the night of May 27, as armed men streamed through his front door, Westcott grabbed his gun. But the 29-year-old didn’t have a chance to shoot before he died in a volley of gunfire. And those who killed him weren’t robbers.

They were police officers from the same agency he had enlisted to protect his home.

In the span of a few months, Westcott had become the target of an intensive drug investigation. On that Tuesday in May — a night when he typically baby­sat his sister’s children at his house, according to his mother — he was fatally shot by a Tampa Police Department SWAT team executing a search warrant for marijuana.

Authorities told news reporters who swarmed to the scene that Westcott was dealing drugs and had sold pot multiple times, armed, to undercover Tampa police officers. During the raid, officials said, he “raised his gun and threatened the officers,” who killed him in self-defense.

A month later, newly disclosed information raises questions about the narcotics investigation that led police to Westcott’s door.

So the same police department who warned Westcott that a dangerous man wanted to kill him then sent an armed team of cops into his home in a nighttime raid. We’re told over and over again by police departments that cops do extensive investigations of suspects before conducting these raids. How, then, could Tampa police not have known that Westcott had reported the threats against him a few months earlier? I guess I’m assuming they didn’t know. If they did know, that’s a hell of a lot worse.

And then there’s this:

Police initially said that the investigation of Westcott’s alleged drug dealing began because of neighbors’ complaints. However, when the Times could find no neighbors who had called police and no records of the complaints, the department revised this assertion, saying the case began with a tip from the same informer who later bought the marijuana.

Revised is a generous word, here. A mistake would be if someone in the department misattributed a statement from one witness to another. Telling the press that a drug investigation that ended with a fatal SWAT raid began because of neighbor complaints when it really began because of a tip from a police informant (who are often paid, or given consideration in their own criminal cases) isn’t a mistake. It’s a lie. It makes the police look as if they were merely obliging a community in need of their protection, not initiating a commando raid based on a tip from a shady source and what looks to have been no corroborating investigation at all.

Ultimately, this violent, volatile raid came after the informant claimed to have bought $200 worth of pot. That’s why Westcott is dead: $200 worth of pot. Friends and neighbors say Westcott and his boyfriend were recreational pot smokers, but hardly major dealers. They were often broke. Their utilities were often disconnected. They just occasionally sold a joint or two to friends. The police found about $2.00 worth of pot the house. There’s no misplaced decimal there. Two dollars.

Tampa police told the paper that there’s nothing wrong with way the agency deals with informants. Chief Jane Castor then added that there was nothing wrong with the use of a tactical team, either.

“Mr. Westcott lost his life because he aimed a loaded firearm at police officers. You can take the entire marijuana issue out of the picture,” Castor said. “If there’s an indication that there is armed trafficking going on — someone selling narcotics while they are armed or have the ability to use a firearm — then the tactical response team will do the initial entry.”

Note the utter disregard for the threats against Westcott. So the police didn’t violate any department policies, and the policies themselves don’t need changing. The only possible conclusion we can draw from this is that the Tampa Bay Police Department believes death is an acceptable outcome for a guy who, at worst, sold $200 worth of pot to an informant.

Police militarization has been all over the news lately, thanks to a recent ACLU report on the topic, and another botched raid in Georgia that badly burned a young boy. Within that coverage, you’ll see plenty of assertions that critics like me are overstating the problem, that we’re just “anti-cop,” and that we exaggerate when we say militarization conditions the police to see citizens — especially low-level drug offenders — not as citizens with rights but as enemies and potential threats. It dehumanizes suspects in the eyes of police. That’s certainly what happened here. The Tampa police gave Westcott’s rights, life, and safety little consideration at all. They sent a SWAT team into his home over $200 worth of pot.

They did this despite the fact that the same agency knew that Westcott had recently been threatened, and would likely respond violently to men breaking into his home. The drug cops and SWAT team either didn’t care, or didn’t bother to take the time to find out — which is just another way of demonstrating that they didn’t care. Drug suspects simply aren’t worth the time it takes for that sort of due diligence.

I’m not being flip here. If the Tampa Police Department thought drug suspects’ lives were worth anything, they either would have actually performed their due diligence in this case, or they would now be disciplining the officers who didn’t. Instead, Chief Castor told the Times that “she has seen no signs that the officers who killed Westcott acted inappropriately.”

This is what happens when cops approach everyday policing with the same tactics, weapons, and mentality that soldiers take to  war. They begin to see suspects as little more than potential threats, not as citizens with rights.

The awful reality here is not that Jason Westcott died due to a horrible mistake. That would at least be comprehendible. The awful reality is that his death was the predictable result of a series of deliberate policies. In the minds of the Tampa police, Jason Westcott was expendable. Now that he’s dead, he’s just another piece of drug war collateral damage. Just like Eurie Stamps. Or Kathryn Johnston. Or Jonathan Ayers. Or Gonzalo Guizan. Or Isaac Singletary, Tarika Williams, Alberto Sepulveda, Pedro Navarro, Jose Guerena, Trevon Cole, Humbert Henkel, or Ramarley Graham, among others.  There’s no need to reexamine the policies that led to these people dying, because these people simply aren’t that important.

There have been dozens of Jason Westcotts before this one. And there will be more.

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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