The drug war means never having to say you’re sorry

Remember the story about the Georgia toddler whose chest was blown open by a flash grenade during a botched drug raid?

Here’s an update:

Habersham County officials say they do not plan to pay for the medical expenses of a toddler seriously injured during a police raid.

Bounkham Phonesavah, affectionately known as “Baby Boo Boo,” spent weeks in a burn unit after a SWAT team’s flash grenade exploded near his face. The toddler was just 19-months-old and asleep in the early morning hours of May 28. SWAT officers threw the device into his home while executing a search warrant for a drug suspect.

Habersham County officials are defending their decision not to pay, but the child’s family isn’t giving up.

After weeks of recovery at two different hospitals, Channel 2 Action News was there in July as the little boy walked out of a hospital with his family.

He is doing better, but late Friday afternoon, his family’s attorney told said the family’s medical bills are mounting.

“But at this point, the county is refusing to pay,” said attorney Muwali Davis.

Habersham County’s attorney provided the following statement, saying: “The question before the board was whether it is legally permitted to pay these expenses. After consideration of this question following advice of counsel, the board of commissioners has concluded that it would be in violation of the law for it to do so.”

I’ll just state the obvious here. If there’s a law that prevents a local government from reimbursing a family to repair a child nearly killed by the negligence and ineptitude of local law enforcement officers, then that law needs to be changed.

There is also an update to the Jason Westcott case, which I posted about last month. Westcott was killed when he grabbed a gun to defend himself as Tampa police raided his home for drugs. Westcott’s home had previously been broken into by a criminal intruder who had threatened to kill him. Westcott reported the incident to Tampa police. According to Wetscott’s boyfriend, the police advised Westcott to arm himself and to shoot to kill if anyone tried to break into his home. Months later, the same police department sent armed men into the same house to look for pot. They claim that an informant had bought marijuana from Westcott. They found a tiny amount of pot after the raid — about $2 worth. They first claimed they began investigating Westcott after complaints from neighbors about drug dealing. When local reporters could find no evidence of these complaining neighbors, the police revised their story to say that the investigation began after a tip from their informant.

So here’s the update:

A Tampa Police Department internal review has concluded that SWAT team officers acted appropriately when they fatally shot a 29-year-old Seminole Heights man during an unsuccessful drug raid.

The review, documented in a 415-page file provided to the Tampa Bay Times in response to a public records request, found that police Cpl. Eric Wasierski and Officer Edwin Perez “feared for their lives and the safety of others” when they shot Jason Westcott to death in his home on the night of May 27.

“Based on a thorough review of the totality of the circumstances and the evidence present, it is clear that both Wasierski and Perez were in the unfortunate situation of having to utilize deadly force for their protection and the protection of others,” Deputy Chief Brian Dugan wrote in a memo.

The Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office had concluded in June that the police officers were justified in shooting Westcott . . .

On May 27, a BearCat armored car carried SWAT officers to Westcott’s home. As they exited the vehicle and walked toward the front door, Cpl. Bryan Felts, the team leader, loudly announced, “Police, search warrant,” according to multiple officers present.

At the door, Felts knocked and announced the police team at least three more times, team members said. When nobody answered, the officers let themselves in — the door was unlocked.

Westcott’s boyfriend, Israel Reyes, was on a couch in the living room. The first officers inside moved past him to the closed bedroom door.

Wasierski, who was carrying a shotgun, opened the door and immediately saw Westcott on the other side raising a gun.

“I immediately saw … a white arm with the pistol coming toward me,” he later told investigators. “So I’m fearing this guy’s about to shoot me or this — this gun’s gonna fire at me. So I squeeze two off.”

Wasierski then fired a third round. Perez, behind him, fired his handgun twice. Westcott was hit by one bullet from the pistol and two shotgun slugs; his fatal torso wound came from a shotgun slug, according to the autopsy report.

It’s hard to believe that they knocked and announced here, at least loud enough to notify anyone who might have been inside. If Reyes didn’t hear them from the couch, how could Westcott, from behind a closed door? Given that there was no pot in the house to speak of, and that the two had already interacted with police over the intruder, it seems unlikely that they would have neglected to come to the door in order to hide something.

In any case, I’ll go ahead and state the obvious again here. If the police didn’t violate any Tampa Police Department policies or procedures during the investigation, raid and killing of Jason Westcott, then here’s something wrong with the policies and procedures.

One more reminder:

Amount of meth allegedly sold to a police informant before the raid that nearly killed Bounkham Phonesavah: $50 worth.

Amount of pot allegedly sold to a police informant before the raid that did kill Jason Westcott: $160 worth.

Anyone think either of these police actions made it even marginally more difficult to get meth in Habersham County or to score some pot in Tampa?

 

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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Radley Balko · August 18, 2014