Internal documents show that Utah police did little investigation before fatal drug raid

In January 2011, the Weber-Morgan County Narcotics Strike Force conducted a nighttime drug raid on the Ogden, Utah, home of Matthew David Stewart. An ex-girlfriend had tipped off the police that Stewart was growing pot in his basement. He was; Stewart, a former veteran, suffered from PTSD, and used the pot to self-medicate. The police had no evidence that Stewart was selling any of his pot. Once police took down his door with a battering ram, Stewart, who was sleeping, grabbed a handgun. A gunfight ensued. Five officers were wounded. Another, Jared Francom, was killed. Stewart was shot twice.

Stewart was later charged with capital murder — the intentional killing of a police officer. He had no prior criminal record. When he recovered in the hospital, Stewart said he had no idea that the men breaking into his home were police. Months before the Stewart raid, the same task force shot and killed a man named Todd Blair during a meth raid. Blair was not the suspect they were looking for. They were investigating his roommate. But when Blair responded to the sounds of men breaking into his home at night by running out of his bedroom with a golf club, they gunned him down. (Warning: Graphic video)

Once Stewart was charged, law enforcement officials started to malign him in the press. They claimed to have found child pornography on his computer, an accusation they quietly retracted after his death. They said he once boasted that he’d kill any cops who came into his home, a statement they apparently got from the bitter ex-girlfriend. They also leaked that they had found a photo of him dressed in jihadi gear. It was a photo from Halloween in which Stewart had dressed up as Osama bin Laden.

In May of last year, Stewart lost a critical hearing when a judge ruled that the warrant for the raid on his home was legal. About a week later, he hung himself in his jail cell. All of the officers involved in the raid were cleared of any wrongdoing. In a series for Huffington Post last year, I wrote about how the Stewart raid sparked fascinating movement in Utah for police reform, a movement that has already claimed a couple victories.

A bus ad for the Weber and Morgan County Narcotics Strike Force. Courtesy of Jeremy Beckham.
A bus ad for the Weber and Morgan County Narcotics Strike Force. Courtesy of Jeremy Beckham.

Now the Salt Lake Tribune has obtained documents related to the internal investigation that cleared those officers. Most critically, the report notes that the police were supposed to have done a “pre-surveillance” of Stewart’s home about an hour before the raid. That was never done. According to the report, the police broke into the house believing that no one lived there — that it was merely a grow house. They based this on two “knock-and-talks,” in which an officer came to the home, but no one answered the door. (Stewart worked the night shift at a local Walmart, so he kept unusual hours.) Because they thought the house was vacant, the report concludes, the police raid the place in street clothes, not in their full SWAT attire. The report was also critical of some officers for not carrying enough bullets.

Notably, nearly all the recommended changes in the report are geared toward protecting the safety of police officers. There’s no consideration of the safety or civil rights of the people these raids are targeting. This quote from Ogden police chief Mike Ashment to the Tribune really says it all:

“This is a guy who is considered a low-level marijuana guy,” the Ogden chief said. “And we let our guard down. … We didn’t go there prepared for a gunbattle.”

One might suggest that the fact that Stewart was a “low-level marijuana guy” would be a good reason to leave the battering ram at the police station. Had they done a little more investigating, they might have learned that Stewart worked at Walmart. Perhaps they could have sent a couple uniformed cops to arrest him at his job. Better yet, a little more investigation might have revealed the fact that Stewart wasn’t selling or distributing his pot to anyone — that it was for his own personal use — and concluded that it would be best to just leave him alone. God forbid.

That isn’t how Ashment sees it.

Even though the agents didn’t know much about the home or who was inside it, Ashment said he believes the raid — which resulted in the seizure of 16 marijuana plants — should have gone forward.

“They had enough probable cause for a judge to issue a warrant,” Ashment said. “You don’t always have the benefit of every piece of information. But it’s not uncommon in this profession for us to have to take risk. And in this case, that was the information they had and that’s what they acted on.”

Weber County District Attorney Dee Smith, who sometimes trains with the SWAT team, agreed.

“What people need to understand is that these are all defensive items . . . The shields — that’s defensive, that’s not offensive. That’s to protect the officer in case another Matthew Stewart starts firing.”

So Ashment and Smith believe that the cops should continue with the pot raids, no matter how low-level the suspect, no matter how petty his suspected crime. The lesson from the Matthew David Stewart tragedy isn’t that they should consider less aggressive tactics. It’s that they should conduct these raids in full body armor, and with enough bullets to be sure they can kill the suspect several times over.

As I noted earlier, the Stewart raid did spark an interesting reform movement in Utah. And that movement has had some success. But Ashment and Smith’s comments suggest there’s still a long way to go.

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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