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No Police Work in This Botched Action

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, September 14, 2008; C01

It's sad, of course, that Cheye Calvo's dogs were blown away, left for hours in two pools of blood on the floors of his living and dining rooms. It's unfortunate, to be sure, that Calvo's front door had to be burst open, that it was necessary to plant his mother-in-law on the floor, arms bound, a high-caliber weapon pointed at her head, or that his house had to be trashed, every drawer flipped over, his belongings strewn about. Tragic, really.

But no apology is necessary, you see. Even though Calvo and his wife were exonerated of any criminal act almost instantly after their house was raided in July, even though the officers had done next to zero investigative work before smashing into the Calvo house, "The guys did what they were supposed to do," Prince George's County Sheriff Michael Jackson says. "They had a legitimate court order to be there."

Never mind that the dozen or so officers from the county police and sheriff's SWAT team didn't have a warrant with them when they stormed Calvo's house in Berwyn Heights. Never mind that the authorities seem unaware that a 2005 Maryland law spells out exactly when "no-knock" raids are permitted.

No, an internal review concluded by the sheriff's office last week has -- surprise, surprise -- cleared the officers of any wrongdoing, even though no investigator had spoken with Calvo, his wife or his mother-in-law. "Unfortunately, we had to engage the animals, but that engagement was justified," Jackson says.

The story of the raid on Calvo's house -- a 32-pound box of marijuana had been FedExed there, part of a drug dealer's scheme to intercept the package before the innocent residents got home -- was appalling enough when it first broke. But as we learn more about what happened, and as the authorities deflect questions, it becomes a much deeper scandal.

Anyone in town, especially the Berwyn Heights police, who were never consulted about the plan to raid the Calvo house, could have told the county authorities that they were raiding the home of the town's mayor, who seems as straight as they come, who works at an education foundation downtown, and whose wife is a Medicaid finance expert.

But this isn't an argument that police ought to back off when important or middle-class people are involved. This is about what they already knew -- and failed to act upon.

That night, more than three hours into his ordeal, after Calvo had begged to be allowed to put on pants or to wipe his tears, he says one officer told him that drug dealers in the area had been drawing package deliverymen into their operations, directing drug shipments to the homes of innocent people, where dealers could intercept the stuff.

"The more I think about that, the angrier I get," Calvo says. "They knew this scheme was going on, yet it never occurred to them from the moment they found out about that package that we were anything but drug dealers."

Once investigators knew that the box of pot was addressed to Calvo's wife, Trinity Tomsic, Calvo says they were obliged to question the couple. But he says there was no legal or tactical cause for a no-knock raid.

Ah, but it's so much easier and so much more fun to barrel into someone's house with big guns and storm trooper uniforms. The proliferation of SWAT deployments in this country is stunning, up from 3,000 a year in the mid-1980s to more than 40,000 now, according to Peter Kraske, who studies the militarization of policing as a criminal justice professor at Eastern Kentucky University.

Kraske's studies detail the spread of SWAT teams even to small towns -- 75 percent of communities with a population under 50,000 have squads, he found. He attributes the growth to federal grants that help outfit the teams, surplus military equipment given to local police by the Pentagon, and seizure laws that let police cash in or keep contraband found during raids.

Maryland lawmakers, recognizing that SWAT teams are overused, have limited no-knock raids to cases in which a suspect is fleeing into a house, is considered to be armed or may be destroying evidence.

"SWAT should be a last resort," Calvo says. "But they did it first -- no investigation, no questions." Calvo says officers told him they didn't even know there was a law specifying when no-knock raids are permitted.

Critics of no-knock raids say they not only result in too many errors, sometimes with tragic results, but undermine efforts at community policing, the building of trust and relationships that is critical to effective crime-fighting, such as Berwyn Heights' requirement that its officers go to every local youth ballgame, get out of the car and walk around chatting with people.

"Telling the people that these officers followed procedure and did nothing wrong sends a chilling message," Calvo says. "And then we wonder why people who live in high-crime areas don't trust the police. They treated us like animals. They were not there to protect and serve, they were there to search and destroy."

Calvo intends to seek stronger county oversight of SWAT deployments, and that would certainly help. But as long as we continue to glamourize the police when they take on the trappings of the military, more people will be shocked out of bed in the middle of the night, more dogs will be shot on sight, and we'll have ever more reason to wonder why the police are treated like enemy occupiers.

E-mail:marcfisher@washpost.com

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