Shoot First, Ask Later

Thursday, August 7, 2008

THE DRUG raid by Prince George's County law officers on the home of Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo last week was a Keystone Kops operation from start to finish.

Acting on a tip that a 32-pound package of marijuana had been sent by Federal Express from Arizona to Mr. Calvo's home (addressed to his wife, Trinity Tomsic), Prince George's police swung into action. Which is to say they got on the phone, calling law enforcement agencies to see who might have a SWAT team available to bust the unsuspecting Calvo family. (It seems the police department's own team was tied up.) After being turned down at least once, they finally struck a deal with the Prince George's Sheriff's Office, whose track record with domestic disputes is extensive but whose experience with drug busts is slight. And it showed.

Without bothering to alert Berwyn Heights police, sheriff's deputies moved into position. Posing as a deliveryman, a deputy took the package to the family's door. After Mr. Calvo's mother-in-law initially refused to sign for it, the package was finally taken into the home, where it sat, unopened, on the living room floor. Whereupon the deputies, guns drawn, kicked in the door, stormed the house and shot to death the Calvos' two Labrador retrievers, one of them, apparently, as it attempted to flee. The canine threat thus dispatched, the mayor -- in his briefs -- and his mother-in-law were handcuffed and interrogated in close proximity to the bloodied corpses of their dogs.

Within an hour, it seems, the police concluded that something was seriously wrong and that there was at least a strong possibility that the Calvos -- whose home contained not the slightest evidence of involvement in the drug trade -- were unsuspecting victims. The deputies left without making arrests. And yesterday, county police announced the arrest of a deliveryman and another person suspected in a scheme to smuggle hundreds of pounds of marijuana by shipping packages addressed to unsuspecting recipients such as the Calvos.

The Post's Rosalind S. Helderman has reported that when deputies stormed the Calvo household, they didn't even have a no-knock search warrant, the tool specifically designated under Maryland law to deal with searches that police do not wish to announce because they could be dangerous. They had plain vanilla warrants to enter the house and seize the package. In other words, they should have knocked.

Law enforcement officers are justifiably cautious during drug busts, knowing that traffickers frequently are armed and dangerous. In this case, even a cursory investigation prior to the raid might have given the authorities pause about kicking in the door and entering with guns blazing. The sheriff, Michael Jackson, seems embarrassed by the whole episode. He should be.

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