Washington Post Magazine: Deadly Force

Acting on a mistaken drug trafficking suspicion, a SWAT team broke down their door, shot beloved pets and shattered a happy home. Was it an extreme reaction, or business as usual in America's war on drugs?
Cheye Calvo and April Witt
Berwyn Heights Mayor; Magazine Staff Writer
Monday, February 2, 2009; 12:00 PM

When a SWAT team raided the Prince George's County home of Cheye Calvo and Trinity Tomsic on a mistaken drug trafficking suspicion, the couple's two dogs weren't the only ones whose lives were shattered.

Cheye Calvo, mayor of Berwyn Heights, Maryland and Washington Post Magazine staff writer April Witt were online Monday, February 2 at 12 noon ET to discuss Witt's cover story, "Deadly Force."

A transcript follows.


April Witt: Good afternoon. Welcome to Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo and all the readers who are joining us today. I know there is enormous interest in what happened to Cheye and his family. Obviously, one of the most frightening aspects of this sad tale is that it could happen to any one of us. I have been inundated with emails from readers since this story was posted on www.washingtonpost.com over the weekend. I've answered more than 100 of your emails so far. So, if you haven't heard back from me personally yet, please be patient. You will. Let's get started.


Cheye Calvo: Thank you for joining today's chat. The incident discussed in April Witt's article was a tragedy that has altered our lives in ways that we still do not fully understand, but it hasn't been all bad. Trinity and I also have seen extraordinary good in so many people. The outpouring of support that we received from our neighbors, family, friends, and literally thousands of complete strangers astonished and sustained us through the worst of it. We continue to hope that, by telling the story, additional good can come from it.

I can be reached by email at ccalvo@town.berwyn-heights.md.us and a "Friends of Cheye Calvo" group has been established on Facebook for people who want to stay informed and learn about ways that they can help. I look forward to your questions.


Bethesda, Md.: What a terrifying story! I understand that law enforcement targeted the mayor's family because they happened to be the -recipient- of the package of drugs. But were the -senders- of the package similarly targeted? Was anyone ever charged/sentenced, either in connection with the raid and/or all that marijuana?

Cheye Calvo: This is one of the remarkable things about the story. They announced the arrest of the FedEx driver and other man back in August, but they still have not released their names. They leaked our names immediately after the raid, and media started calling first thing the next morning, but they are either lying about the arrests or protecting the names of the actual drug dealers.

They also refuse to release any information about the raid itself. It is more than six months later, and they still refuse to give us so much as a police report. We have filed a public information act request, but they refused and said that they will object to sharing anything that is being or HAS EVER BEEN investigated.


Arlington, Va.: I read the article with a lot of pain -- so sorry the family has to go through this. Payton and Chase have prompted me to do more reading. There are other cases of police errors using firearms and tasers all across the country. Most disturbing is that responsible officials often seem in denial about the problem. Boards of review often find police acting in accordance with departmental policies and procedures-prompting me to think that policies need revision. I think most citizens recognize the great value of responsible policing in achieving safe, law-abiding communities and fighting crime, but available evidence suggests at least some police departments, going their own ways with cultures separate from the communities they serve. To me, Payton and Chase hint at deeper problems with the way we fund, oversee, train, and guide police departments. There is especially a concern about a rising (and perhaps excessive) militarization of the police. I'm hoping Payton and Chase will be catalysts for a new public interest in appropriate policing and a basis for correcting problems in the existing system.

April Witt: Thanks so much for your thoughtful note. You make some fine points. If readers are interested in getting a quick sense of the range of tragedies that result from paramilitary police raids gone wrong, the Cato Institute maintains an interactive map on its site tracking them. Innocent people have died in many instances. One elderly woman, for example, suffered a heart attack after a S.W.A.T. team broke down her door by mistake. You can find the map at http://www.cato.org/raidmap/index.php?type=1


Downtown, D.C.: Did you ever get any indication that the police had checked to see if there were small children in the home before conducting their brazen raid?

Cheye Calvo: It is fairly clear that they did not do any basic investigatory work prior to the incident. They basically got the box, matched the name on it to my wife's vehicle, and started calling around for SWAT teams (because the PGPD SWAT team was busy). They saw my 100 pound mother-in-law picking tomatoes in the front garden and me wave to them, but never paused. I suspect that they were in full military mode after a day of sitting in the truck in the hot sun.

Payton was five feet from Georgia when they put four bullets in him. One went through him and we found it in the kitchen radiator, which means that it could not have missed Georgia by more than a couple feet.


St. Leonard, Maryland: Have you experienced any type of harassment from the PG Police Department because of your speaking out? I am thankful that you have shared your story with the public.

April Witt: I have not received any harrassment from the police as a result of writing this article, nor do I expect to. Most individual police officers I've dealt with in my career were good people doing a tough job. I suspect tragedies like this one are the result of bad policies and procedures, not bad people in uniform. I regret that the police declined to discuss their actions and decision-making process regarding the raid. But the law enforcement agencies, and some of the individual officers involved, know that I tried very diligently to try to get them to give their side of events.


Washington, D.C.: Of the many things about this story that really struck me, perhaps the thing that jumped out the most was the valor and honesty of Officer Johnson. We really need more policemen like him.

April Witt: I, too, was impressed with Berwyn Heights Pvt. Johnson when I interviewed him. He struck me as a highly intelligent and compassionate person who tried to do the right thing in what must have felt like an impossible position for him. From what I've seen, the Berwyn Heights Police Department really views itself as partners with its community, and that attitude comes from the top: Chief Murphy.


Dowell, Md.: Was it a federal law or a state of Maryland law that permitted the sheriff's office to do this horrific thing to your family?

Cheye Calvo: They have tried to justify it, but 1) their story keeps changing, 2) many aspects contradict physical evidence, and 3) they are offering a somewhat radical interpretation of the Fourth Amendment.

Major Mark Magaw, who heads the county's anti-narcotics unit, admitted that they didn't have a 'no-knock warrant' in my case, but then said that there really is no such thing as a no-knock warrant in the state of Maryland. Well, yes there is: we passed out the 2005 law (HB 577) at my press conference in August. Yet, this is the official position of the PGPD to this day! It makes you wonder what other statutory protections and civil rights are BELIEVED not to exist in Prince George's County.


Ashburn, Va.: Have any of these perpetrators come forward personally to apologize or offer remorse or anything? Do you know if they are undergoing counseling for what they did to you and your beloved pets? I hope they can't sleep at night (I hope for a lot worse for them but I'd like for this to be posted).

Cheye Calvo: We really expected, after they arrested the FedEx driver, that they would apologize. But they didn't and they haven't. Sheriff Michael Jackson said that "the guys did what they were supposed to do" and expressed outrage that his agency was the subject of a federal civil rights probe. Even worse, County Executive Jack Johnson said that "sometimes we realize people are victimized" before offering "a pat on the back for everybody involved."

It really speaks to a complete failure of leadership and systemic problems. I mean, telling the officers that they did nothing wrong sends a chilling message that it is okay to treat people this way. It disavows any sense of oversight and ensures that more innocent people and families will fall victim to irresponsible law enforcement.


Accokeek, Md.: It never stops hurting, does it? PG County Sheriffs mistakenly raided my home Nov 2007, killing our dog even AFTER they KNEW they had the wrong address. Someone needs to do something to stop this cruelty. The officer claimed he feared for his life. Sure. She just wanted to see who was in her yard. I'm happy to see this public forum, hopefully something good will come of it. Take care.

April Witt: I've read about your case. If I recall, your late pet was a boxer, not exactly a breed known for its ferocity. I am very sorry for your loss. You know all too well that these kinds of mistakes are not isolated.


Arlington: Ms. Witt, this was an excellent, heart-breaking article. I can't help but think that a lot of the readers were wondering how in God's name a heavily armed SWAT cop could chase a dog down a hallway and shoot it in the back. I'm pretty sure that that individual might have had pet dogs at some time, and knew a scared dog when he saw one. Even though I'm sure you tried unsuccessfully, an interview with that individual to determine what was going through their mind would have at least offered some kind of insight into such unbelievable cruelty.

April Witt: Thanks for your comments. Yes, I very much wanted to hear from the officers involved how this could have happened. Unfortunately, they were not permitted to speak with me. I would imagine that some of the individual officers involved in this, especially dog lovers, personally feel just terrible about what happened, even if they believe their actions were somehow justified. Critics of paramilitary raids make some cogent arguments that indiscriminate use of paramilitary police raids actually creates and escalates violence in situations where they could have peacefully knocked on someone's door, presented a warrant and searched the house uneventfully.


Washington, D.C.: Mayor Calvo, thank you for courageously speaking up and telling the world about the tragedy perpetrated on your family. I know you have forcefully called for some incremental reforms on the state level, but don't you agree that we will continue to see innocent lives lost in raids gone wrong, billions of dollars wasted on arrests and incarceration, and empowering of violent criminal enterprises as long as drugs are illegal? Isn't the real solution to put drugs into a legal and regulated framework like we did when we legalized alcohol 75 years ago?

Cheye Calvo: Let me say first that I have never done drugs and have a fairly deep personal opposition to them. That said, I also have a serious problem with public policy by metaphor -- and the 'war' allusion is especially dangerous. Clearly, the current policy is a failure, and there needs to be a genuine public discussion here. A federalist at heart, I think that states should have greater leeway to try new approaches. There has to be a middle ground between outright legalization and a military state.


Arlington, Va.: My heart goes out to your family. I know several police officers in other counties, and while they have very unpredictable andtherefore stressful jobs -- statistically they are not so dangerous that they warrant the proliferation of the SWAT materials and mentality.

And in particular, with so many different stories of alleged and proven individual and organizational PG police misconduct is it going to take before someone comes in and reforms that agency from top to bottom?

I wouldn't shop, eat or drive in PG County -- never mind live there -- because of the repeated stories you hear about their cops.

Cheye Calvo: In looking into the issue, there is strong anecdotal evidence that police departments are relying increasingly on SWAT teams to perform duties once handled by regular police officers. And let's face it: SWAT operations are not police work. Police keep the peace and protect and serve through standard rules of due process. SWAT teams are paramilitary units designed to seek out, overpower, and destroy an enemy.

I certainly can see times when SWAT operations are necessary and appropriate, but I understand that Prince George's County deployed its SWAT team 600-700 times a year. That's twice a day! And they now do so pretty much for even the most routine drug warrant. This has significant potential to escalate the violence. It also is an incredibly inefficient use of resource -- especially if they deploy before doing basic investigatory work.


Darnestown, Md.: Didn't Prince George's County send anyone to your house to help clean up the mess that the trigger-happy police created?

Cheye Calvo: Not at all. Actually, the nice woman officer told us that they would help us secure the door, but Scarlata overruled her and said that they don't do that. Then he left. We just stood there with no idea where to start. Everything was turned upside down. The blood was everywhere, and they had tracked it throughout the house. My immediate goal was getting it cleaned up so that Trinity and Georgia didn't have to deal with it. We got the worst of it up that night, but it took days and days. We got the door replaced, replaced the rugs, patched the bullet holes. It cost of thousands of dollars. I heard through the grapevine that the Sheriff's senior leadership team suggested that they send a crew to replace the door. He refused. I don't know if this is true.


Alexandria, Va.: What options are available to the family to "punish" the officers and the department for their mistake? Has the PG police department exonerated the officers (all or some of them) for this incident? Thank for writing an interesting article.

April Witt: I'm glad the article interested you. The law enforcement agencies involved have generally said in public that their officers acted appropriately. They have thus far refused to disclose the results of their internal reports on the raid. Personally, I'm not sure "punishing" the officers involved is the key aim. I think Cheye and Trinity would tell you that they are most interested in changing police practices and policies that allow these kinds of things to happen. For example, is it more important to punish the deputies who shot and killed Payton and Chase? Or, is it better public policy to make sure that no heavily armed deputy is sent into a house before police investigators do basic due diligence to find out who lives there, whether they are violent criminals, whether they are likely to be armed and dangerous?


Arlington, Va.: Your story made me cry. It also brought back bad memories of our experiences with the Arlington County Sheriff's office. We were the victims of an illegal search put into action by an unethical lawyer to serve us/inventory our possessions.

The Deputy woke us up at 5:00 AM pounding on the door with their night sticks. He threatened us, told us our possessions would be seized and sold at auction to pay a debt (that we didn't owe), and forced us to walk around our house telling him the value of all our worldly goods while in our bathrobes.

When it all came out later on that they were 100% wrong, there was no recourse. The Deputy lied about his behavior and all his excessive actions. All we got was an apology and written retractions in the records. The sense of betrayal is intense.

We had no dogs at the time. I shudder to think what would have happened to my energetic jumpy dog with that Deputy rampaging through my house.

I hope your lawsuit will effect change. It is unbelievable what has happened in our country to law abiding people.

April Witt: Thanks for telling your story. I wish I could tell you that your experience was unusual.


Saint Leonard, Md: Does anyone know why they immediately killed the dogs? Is that some sort of SWAT procedure?

Cheye Calvo: I really think that this is just what they do. I won't go into the details, but I can prove that Payton and Chase did not engage the officers (and, yes, Chase ran). They knew that there were dogs, and I suspect that an order was given to execute them. Three separate deputies discharged their firearms. It disgusts me that they could have prepared some pepper spray or some other non-lethal force. Payton would have met them, if he was given the chance. I know Chase, and he was running to hide under the dining room table. After his brother was killed, I am sure that he just was beside himself.


Herndon, Va. (formerly Berwyn Heights): I'm a little confused as to the white box delivered to your house. Was it addressed to your wife, and intercepted by police, and therefore possibly a part of this scheme involved packages sent to innocent victims? Or did the police just create and deliver the package on their suspicion?

April Witt: It's the former, not the latter. The police did not create and plant the evidence. A criminal mailed the box of pot. Trinity was a innocent victim of identity theft. Someone mailed the box addressed to her, apparently in hopes that a co-conspirator could retrieve it before Cheye and Trinity came home and took the box inside. It's an odd scheme to me. But drug dealers don't want to put one of their comrades' names on the package in case a drug-sniffing dog detects the contraband en route.


Washington D.C.: This is a horrible story. I understand that a formal report cleared the Sheriff's department, but that's totally unbelievable. Since these events, have you heard similar stories about police abuses, especially in this region?

Cheye Calvo: I have had so many phone calls, emails, and conversations with people in Prince George's, around the state, and around the country they have experienced similar injustices. I can't stress enough that this happens, but typically to people that don't have the support and the voice.

And it does not just affect the people in the home. It affects whole communities. Most of the people who live in high-crime areas are not criminals, but the police too often treat them as such. To paraphase Radley Balko, if you give officers military equipment, military training, tell them they are fighting a war, and authorize them to kick in doors with virtually no civilian oversight, you shouldn't be surprised when people and animals get hurt or killed.


Bryn Mawr, Pa.: Have they cleared you of all charges?

Cheye Calvo: Yes. They buried the story at 4:30 pm on the opening night of the Olympics, but were were completely and absolutely cleared of any wrongdoing. They steadfastly refuse to admit that they did ANYTHING wrong.


Rockville: What a horrible tragedy. What could make you feel whole again?

Cheye Calvo: We will never be the same. We will be okay in time. First, April's article really captured the way that Trinity, Georgia, and I loved Payton and Chase. They were an integral part of our lives and full members of our family.

We adopted Payton from the county animal shelter. He was the sweetest dog, and I talked Trinity into naming him after Walter Payton when I told her that the Chicago Bears great (my childhood hero) was nicknamed 'Sweetness." He was the most wonderful, loyal, loving dog anyone could ever want - with his big head and a tongue that could hold a gallon of water. He also was the center of Chase's universe. Chase (named after Md. founding father Samuel Chase) would copy whatever his brother did. Payton was smarter, but Chase was the talented one. He could run like the wind and catch a ball over the shoulder at thirty-yards - and would do it over and over again until your arm fell off.

Second, it takes away your sense of personal privacy and security. Berwyn Heights set a record low crime rate in 2007, but it is of little consolation.

To answer your question, time -- and knowing that something good can come from this tragedy -- whether it be someone adopting a pet that needs a home or policy changes that restore our civil liberties and promote responsible law enforcement.


Laurel, Maryland: Following these events, are you aware of any efforts being made by local law enforcement agencies to better educate their officers on handling situations where pets are involved? Payton and Chase died for no other reason than they were dogs on the scene. Its outrageous that 2 animals who were not engaging or threatening, but rather were equally terrified were murdered in cold blood. If the officers had been better equipped to handle encountering dogs things might have gone differently.

April Witt: The Prince George's Police spokesman told me that they have recently changed some of their procedures for getting a warrant. For example, they now require an officer of a higher to sign off internally on their warrant applications. The spokesman declined to give me further details of their reforms, but you have to imagine they are looking at their procedures vis a vis dogs given the public outcry in this case. By the way, the police aren't the only public entities that might need to reform their policies and procedures. Our founding fathers envisioned that the judiciary would stand protectively between police seeking entry into citizens homes to search. A P.G. judge signed this search warrant. You can read the warrant on-line with my story. There is very scanty information in it. Judges need to fulfill their mandates faithfully and make police do at least some basic investigative work before they sign off on warrants.


Inside the Beltway: A similar situation occurred to my family in late November. In our case, our house was surrounded in the middle of the night by 6-8 officers banging on doors, shining flashlights in our windows, and yelling at us to open the doors. We thought it was a robbery.

In our case, they didn't have a no-knock warrant (911 advised that we not open the door or respond). Eventually, the several SUVs drove off, but no officer ever came to our house to reassure us, no one called - I had to make the calls myself to ensure that we weren't being targeted. The raid went to the wrong address.

And I shudder to think what might have happened (to my husband or me, our pets) if we had opened the door.

This family has my sympathies. I remember seeing the headlines in late summer, and now I completely understand the panic and fear they felt, as well as their disappointment and rage that this could happen by the people employed to protect us.

April Witt: As stressful as that sounds you are lucky they didn't break down your door.


Berwyn Heights, Maryland: Can I be set up like Trinity Tomsic and Cheye Calvo by the Prince Georges County Police? I receive packages with books, apparel and gardening tools. My significant brings these packages in for me. Are we at risk? We have a dog (coincidentally a black lab.) We are law abiding citizens.

Cheye Calvo: This was completely random. I assume that the FedEx driver had delivered something to our home in the past and thought that it was a good drop for the drug trafficking operation. This could happen to anyone.


Arlington, Va.: I would assume they shot the dogs because many real drug dealers use vicious pit bulls to guard their money and stash. I would gather that part of their training is to take out dogs.

I don't say this to excuse the police here--far from it. It's just another example of how absurd this whole operation was from the very conception.

April Witt: You make good points. Good and honest police officers trying to do their jobs faithfully are routinely menaced by dogs trained to be dangerous. So it would be absurd to bar officers from protecting themselves against all dogs. On the other hand, loyal and loving dogs who would never bite anyone are instinctively going to bark at masked men who break into their homes. The solution to me is twofold: 1) Better train police on how to respond to situations involved in dogs. 2) Limit the use of SWAT responsibly so that good officers and good dogs are not routinely pitted against each other. If judges refused to give police warrants until they'd covered their basic investigative bases, then we'd have a lot fewer raids with tragic consequences.


Legal recourse?: Do you have any legal recourse after your requests for a police report were denied? I don't know how that could possibly be legal for the police to refuse to show you a report.

Cheye Calvo: It's not legal. They are wrong. They have to be wrong. I believe too much in this country to even seriously consider the possibility that they will get away with this. We will pursue this to the end, and I am confident that the truth will come out, and we will win. I do not want to think about what it will mean for our country and our freedoms if this is deemed okay. It will take time, but we will not let this go.


Berwyn Heights, Md.: I moved to Berwyn Heights just over 3 years ago from New Mexico. I spent about seven months looking for a perfect place for my fur kids. My dogs are the most important aspect of my life. My home is my sanctuary. Needless to say, this incident has turned my world upside down. There hasn't been a day that has passed since this happened to you and your family that I haven't thought about how everything has now changed. What can we do now?

Cheye Calvo: Thank you for your message. Berwyn Heights is a special place -- a diverse, modern community where neighbors know each other, good schools, low crime, a strong sense of community, and with a municipal government that adds value to our quality of life. I grew up here, and we love our home.

Our challenge is a county government that is troubled, deeply troubled. For all of the law enforcement problems of 2008, the County Council has not had a single oversight hearing. The leadership at the county level is poor, if not non-existent. I look forward to 2010 and hope that the winds of change will blow to Upper Marlboro.


Washington, D.C.: Looking at this objectively, the SWAT team was unquestionably in the wrong, but do you think this story would have gotten the same attention if it hadn't involved a suburban mayor? Or if the dogs weren't killed?

Yes, this was an absolutely horrible situation, but these raids happen every day, to people who aren't high-profile, are poor, and don't happen to have pets... where's the outrage for all of them?

April Witt: I agree with you entirely, and I'm pretty sure Cheye does as well. Raids like this happen daily in cities across the nation. Innocent people have been terrorized, even killed. Often those deaths get scant news coverage compared to the story of the mayor's family. From my reporting, it seems pretty clear that most victims are likely to be poor, minority and live in high-crime neighborhoods. They are no in a good position to advocate for themselves. I'm glad Cheye and Trinity have been so vocal because they are helping shed light on the losses of those who haven't been able to speak for themselves.


Brentwood, Md.: April, thank you for a wonderful article.

Cheye, two questions:

How is Georgia now? One of the heart-breaking things in the article was the description of Georgia worrying that it was all her fault.

Secondly, has this changed the way you think about Iraq and Iraqis at all? What happened to you sounds not dissimilar to what has happened to a lot of Iraqi families.

Cheye Calvo: This incident has been difficult on my family. We are doing the best we can and dealing with it each in our own way. Your prayers are welcome and appreciated.

I certainly read and watch stories about people living in war zones differently now. There is nothing like being bound and forced to kneel on your living floor at gunpoint to give you a new perspective on the world.


Burke, Va.: What can we, as citizens, do to help? Who can we write to, call, anything ...

Cheye Calvo: As April mentioned in the article, I have been working with a number of state lawmakers on legislation in Maryland that would require law enforcement agencies to report to civilian authorities and to the public on SWAT team deployments - the number, locations, the purpose, authorization, and results. It is a measured yet meaningful step that will inform the larger discussion about when SWAT teams should be deployed.

We are planning a media event to announce the legislation later this week, and I am hopeful that Maryland leaders will see fit to pass the bill into law. I would welcome support, and welcome people to join the 'Friends of Cheye Calvo' Facebook page to stay informed. If nothing else, call your elected officials and tell them to pay attention to this. We really do listen when the phones ring.


But, Legal recourse takes time and money: I am so glad that you will see this to the end. Please, don't take on the full financial burden yourself. I think many people like me who are short on time, but have money to help would like to. Is there a fund?

Cheye Calvo: I appreciate the offer, and there have been others. I think that there should be a fund to help push these efforts forward. I would like to set something up, but need a few more hours in the day to figure out the details. I welcome volunteers to join in this effort. Join the Facebook page and, collectively, maybe we can figure something out.


Falls Church, Va.: Ms. Witt,

It's interesting how your story shies away from trying to hold any county authorities accountable other than the police department itself. If PG County were run by Republicans, do you think you would have been a bit more aggressive about pursuing a response from county administration?

April Witt: Didn't you get the memo? This is supposed to be a new era of post-partisan America. Seriously, I think your comment is a strange twisting of the facts. I think the police brass and some elected county executives have been woefully inadequate if not outright insulting at times in their responses to the mayor and his family. It doesn't matter what party those officials belong to. They haven't stepped up to the plate and done the right thing. Any member of the public who has been following this story in news reports could see that, I would imagine. Jack Johnson essentially said Cheye and Trinity should consider it a pat on the back that they were cleared, as if they should be grateful. I tried to devote the space I had to telling the less obvious and previously untold human story behind the news event.


Not A PG Voter, But Curious: Mr. Calvo, have you considered running for county office? From over here on the other side of the Potomac River, it surely looks like the Prince George's government could use someone like you.

Cheye Calvo: Honestly, being mayor is the greatest job in the world. It is a great way to engage my community. Although I will not be the candidate, I can assure that I will be an active force working with every ounce of my being to elected a county executive in 2010 that will make Prince George's proud.


Rockville, Md.: Just read the warrant.

Wow! Looks like the judge just rubber stamped it. April, do you know if judges anywhere have procedures in place to guide their due diligence regarding warrant approval?

washingtonpost.com: PDF of Police Warrant

Cheye Calvo: The warrant is remarkable and chilling. It talks about all the stuff a drug trafficker should have in his or her home and then says something like, "Although we know that the police have no evidence of these things, they can be INFERRED from the very nature of charge." It is circular reasoning that says because we are suspicious of you, there must be evidence of your guilt.

They never considered that we were not drug traffickers, and treated us as such. Their certainty blinded them to clear red flags that could have (and should have) made this go very differently.


Re: No-Knock Warrant: How likely was it that the amount of marijuana in the package could have been disposed of if the police had knocked at the door?

Was this a real threat (assuming the person recieving the package was actually involved in the crime) or simply a generic assertion made in drug cases that is rarely (or never) questioned by the judges issuing the warrant and the police executing it?

Cheye Calvo: Impossible.


Lexington, Ky.: Since packages were being delivered to random homes, it seems that the authorities should have issued some public statement warning homeowners to beware of packages that they had not ordered and to contact the police if they received one.

Using current tactics, there is also the chance of a gunfight erupting in the neighborhood if the homeowner is armed and thinks he is being attacked.

April Witt: You raise a fine point. Some homeowners who legally have permitted firearms have picked them up to defend themselves when masked, armed men broke into their homes. Some of those innocent people - who had no idea the intruders were police - were then shot and killed because police saw something they thought was a criminal brandishing a gun. I hope everyone is beginning to get the picture: heavily armed officers routinely breaking down people's doors begats violence. The public needs to insists on policies and procedures that protect both officers and the citizenry.


Dupont Circle, D.C.: April, Please don't identify a breed as "vicious." Classic pit bull temperament is "gregarious and affectionate with people, including strangers."

In my neighborhood the police shot and killed a toy poodle. There is no excuse for it. Chief Lanier has promised re-training with the ASPCA, but I'll believe it when I see a difference.

April Witt: Point taken. I have rescued a few stray dogs in my time. One of the sweetest dogs I ever aided was a pit bull.


Washington, D.C.: Shouldn't the Federal government be looking at the question of whether the proliferation of SWAT teams ia appropriate? It seems that practically every county and municipality of any size has a SWAT team, many of which are misused, poorly trained and overequipped for mosst police work. I assume that many such teams have received their funding from Federal grants -- I just think that so many SWAT teams leads to the type of civil liberties issues you wrote about and to a misuse of police resources that law enforcement could probably use more effectively.

April Witt: Federal policies and grants are helping to create this situation. Several of the people who have emailed me in response to the story have pointed out that the federal government is about to increase the grants that support proliferation of SWAT teams.


Laurel, Maryland: As a dog lover, particularly of Labs, my heart goes out to you. Dogs need to be protected too. Is there a formal police policy on how officers are supposed to handle dogs on the scene? Has any move been made to educate the officers to a better way of handling non-aggressive dogs like Payton and Chase?

Cheye Calvo: Just to tell the story, we adopted Payton from the county animal shelter. He was the sweetest dog, and I talked Trinity into naming him after Walter Payton when I told her that the Chicago Bears great (my childhood hero) was nicknamed 'Sweetness." He was the most wonderful, loyal, loving dog anyone could ever want - with his big head and a tongue that could hold a gallon of water. He also was the center of Chase's universe. Chase (named after Md. founding father Samuel Chase) would copy whatever his brother did. Payton was smarter, but Chase was the talented one. He could run like the wind and catch a ball over the shoulder at thirty-yards - and would do it over and over again until your arm fell off.

They had wonderful, happy lives. We miss them terribly - and probably always will.


police killing dogs: My brother is a police officer in another state. He said that killing any dogs in the house is general policy in a raid.

Cheye Calvo: Sadly, it is not how they are trained, but it is the common practice. It is why civilian authorities need to perform oversight. Pets are innocent, even if their owners are bad guys. There are non-lethal ways to handle them, and local governments should mandate pet-friendly practices.


Arlington, Va.: So basically, any of us could have our front porches used as drug drops by delivery vehicles if we aren't home during the day to take the delivered packages in.

April Witt: Right. The odds are against it happening to you obviously. But Cheye and his family are proof that it could happen to anyone.


Washington, DC: I follow the activities of the Cato Institute, and was heartened to hear of their involvement in your case. This seems to be an issue that transcends typical right vs. left politics. Have have these civil liberties organizations assisted you?

Cheye Calvo: I agree that this is not a right-left issue. This is a constitutional liberties issue. I worry that our constitutional protections too often give way to modern convenience. I am one of those people that does not favor one constitutional protection over the others. I like them all -- the 1st amendment, 2nd, 4th, 10th, 14th. I even like the 16th (direct election of Senators, which seems to have taken a beating in recent months).


Herndon, Va.: Mayor Calvo,

I find it inconceivable that the police refuse to admit they did anything wrong. Don't the police realize they put themselves in danger too and put the Berwyn Heights police in danger? I own a firearm and if masked men break down my front door without identifying themselves I am going to shoot first and ask questions later.

April Witt: I think I'll blame the lawyers for that one. As litigation proliferates, lawyers often tell their clients not to apologize or in any way admit wrongdoing. Their thinking apparently is that those statements could hurt them in a subsequent civil lawsuit. I think the lawyers could be wrong on that. There was a very good study a few years ago on medical mistakes and lawsuits. I think the study found that doctors and other medical workers were considerably LESS likely to be sued if they immediately owned up to their errors, expressed convincing regret, and offered swiftly to do whatever they could to help right the situations. Listening to Cheye and Trinity tell their story, I know that the failure of police officials and the county executive to apologize quickly and try to limit the damage to their reputations was a factor in their considering filing a lawsuit.


Catonsville, Md.: I strongly disagree that punishment for participants in the raid is not important. It is terrifically important. Police officers need to be a little afraid, when they participate in something as unauthorized and violent and destructive as this raid, that serious mistakes will ruin their lives as certainly and completely as this raid has ruined the lives of the Calvo family. I as a citizen would demand not only property restitution but the badges of everyone involved. We should also get involved in helping someone else get elected sheriff in PG, if it is an elected position in that county.

Cheye Calvo: We honestly don't know enough about what happened to reach conclusions about the individual officers, other than a couple. Clearly, Scarlata failed to do basic investigatory work and called in the SWAT team. Martini told my Chief and another officer a lie about the entry, which we don't know if he made up or if he was told. Other than them, we don't know who they were, what they were told, what their training was, and procedures they did or did not follow. What we do know is that the county leadership failed and has since chosen to lie and cover up the truth. I believe that this is a systemic problem -- and one that is not unique to Prince George's County.

The PGPD does have a new police chief, Roberto Hylton. He is saying the right thing and keeps talking about how it became a different department on September 1. I hope so. However, he also needs to know that he's being watched and that accountability must travel through the ranks.

Once we get the details of the individual actors, they need to be judged according the facts. As the mayor, I have had to deal with diciplining police for inappropriate action and some officers, even some really good people, no longer work in Berwyn Heights because they did not meet the basic standards that we demand. It is difficult work, but essential! It comes with the job, and I accept it -- as does my Chief.


Arlington, Va.: Again from Arlington. The CATO work (and other research) suggests this is the "nose of the camel" of a lot of buried issues dealing with how the police and judiciary interface with communities. I'm pleased to hear about the Maryland legislation, but think this is also a national issue. I'm surprised that so few elected officials have given voice to the concerns. I've already written to Senator Mark Warner in Virginia and encourage Virginians to get the message to Senator Webb and other representatives.

April Witt: Thanks for weighing in. It's clear to me that this topic is one that hasn't been a big issue for the public previously. Most citizens assume, understandably but incorrectly, that this only happens to criminals. Frankly, most of the victims are probably not as photogenic and sympathetic as the mayor and his family. Nobody deserves to have their rights violated. As a society, we shouldn't save our outrage for only the victims we find sympathetic. Otherwise, the next door broken down by mistake... might be ours or our neighbors.


Alexandria, Va.: Wait a second - where was the "emergency" to begin with? The warrant was based on the origination of informant information on July 23. The warrant continues a factual recitation continuing through the day of the "raid." That is chronologically impossible, given the fact that even an immediate warrant application must still involve a non-record appearance before a District or Circuit Judge, and the warrant then must be recorded - period. Have your lawyers check carefully - the warrant relied on was not properly issued before the raid. It was dummied up. Yes, that happens.

Cheye Calvo: We have checked and understand that it was signed after I brought the box in the house. However, you raise a good point, and I think that it is not unreasonable to track who writes warrants, who signs them, and connect them back to the results of the action. Experience will show those officers whose warrants should are sound and whose are riddled with problems; it also will show if certain judges and assistant state's attorneys are not asking the right questions.

When you give people badges, guns, and the right to arrest -- much less call in SWAT teams -- you need to give them oversight. We regulate everything in this country, but somehow this area has been missed.


Gaithersburg, Md.: How typical is it that police would execute a warrant without having the paper in hand? I can't imagine they would do that if they didn't fully intend to bust down the door and thus wouldn't be needing to show it to anyone to enter the house.

April Witt: You make a point that has bothered me from the start. It seems obvious to me that the police in this instance probably had no intention of knocking on the door to serve a warrant that they didn't have with them. How can you knock and announce yourself to serve a warrant that you can't even show to the person who answers the door. It defies logic. It's my understanding that police are supposed to have the warrant with them when they come to the door, but they don't always do that and there are no apparent consequences legally for that failure.


Kensington, Md.: The ridiculous hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials finally came to an end when someone made the mistake of accusing the Governor's wife of witchcraft. Given that the "war on drugs" makes even less sense, is infinitely more expensive and is less constitutionally sound than what happened in Salem, is there any chance that it finally taking a Mayor as casualty could lead us into a more modern era? Could you be a catalyst for modernizing our approach to drugs? I hope so, because this 18th-century approach is a huge burden to our country.

April Witt: Thanks for weighing in on this interesting topic.


Berwyn Heights, Md.: Mayor Calvo, as a fellow Berwyn Heights resident, I am so glad you and your wife have decided to remain. PG County police have a history of this type of behavior. Do you think you can get them to change? Good luck.

Cheye Calvo: Prince George's County requires active citizenship. I will do what I can, but we have to do it together.


Fairfax, Va.: First, I just wanted to offer my deepest sympathy as a fellow dog parent to Cheye and Trinity and to Georgia.

Secondly, I think this incident really underscores how important it is to protect our civil liberties. The argument that you have nothing to worry about if you are not a criminal is a complete fallacy and this case proves it. By all accounts, these were decent, hardworking people and their lives were almost destroyed.

April Witt: You are right. Thanks for joining in.


Richmond, Va.: As far as police being able to seize assets and keep them, regardless of whether a conviction is issued -- does this mean that SWAT can essentially steal things from a suspect's house and never return them? That seems unconscionable.

Cheye Calvo: To some degree, yes. Federal seizure laws do not require a conviction. I am not saying that I entirely disagree with the idea that criminals should have assets seized. However, we have to understand that it creates a perverse incentive that needs to countered by checks and balances. I would begin with transparency. The county is spending $2.5 million in drug seizures this year. Where did that money come from? Is anyone asking?


Alexandria, Va.: Hello April Witt and Cheye and the Calvo Family. First let me say that upon reading the article "Deadly Force" it touched me so deeply tht I was crying. This was such a horrible crime put on this family and it was a crime that the SWAT team did those horrible killings and put a gun to Georgia's head. I really think it was a set-up because Mayor Cheye Calvo and others were going to sign Cheye's letter regarding the developer who had fouled Indian Creek that same evening the SWAT team did this crime.

Cheye Calvo: For the record, the letter was signed that night -- well, by everyone except for me. I still am hoping that Md. Dept. of the Environment fines Konterra for the ecological disaster that they caused in our local Anacostia tributary.


Gambrills, Maryland: Ms. Witt, Will there be continuing coverage of this in the Post ?

April Witt: Yes. I'm not sure what else I'll write on the topic, but I am sure the beat reporters will continue their excellent coverage. I'd direct anyone who hasn't read it, to search www.washingtonpost.com for R. Castaneda's superb story documenting how some poor people who may be every bit as innocent as Cheye and Trinity have been convicted of crimes after receiving boxes of drugs addressed to them.


Chantilly, Va.: My heart breaks at this horrible situation. What is the time frame for the suit? April, will you continue to cover this so we can hopefully all share in a positive outcome to such a horrific event? My sincere and heartfelt sympathy to the family and hope your new Lab helps make your hearts lighter and brings you joy!

Cheye Calvo: Marshall (named after Supreme Court Justices John and Thurgood Marshall) is an absolute joy. He's 19 months old, and runs like the wind. He has a wonderful personality and gets along great with other dogs and children. He also has taken over Payton's responsibility of guarding the yard from squirels.


washingtonpost.com: Lawyers Find Fault With Pr. George's Drug Arrests by Ruben Castaneda (Washington Post, Oct. 14, 2008)


Herndon, Va.: Cheye -- You said that none of the officers have apologized to you. Do you think that they feel no remorse, or do you think that they were forbidden to contact you by their superiors because that could appear as if they are admitting fault?

Cheye Calvo: I actually think that they do. I bet every SWAT team member owns a dog. As I sat there, I started telling Payton and Chase stories. One of the SWAT team members asked to leave the room because he did not feel well. I am sure that they know what happened, and it has affected their sleep.


Cheye Calvo: Thank you for your interest in our story and for your questions. The support and encouragement means more than we can express.


South Riding, Va.: The irony is that it's really easy for any of us to Google Detective Shawn Scarlata and find out where he lives and what he does in his moonlighting career (flips real estate and invests in apartment buildings). Have you asked him point blank why he didn't conduct even the most rudimentary research into you before the raid?

April Witt: The detective was not free to answer any of my questions about the raid or his investigation. You make a fine point about google. As a reporter with access to electronic public records, it takes me about five minutes to get a pretty comprehensive list of everyone who lives, or has recently lived, at a particular address. Using other available public records, and beloved Google, it would take me another few minutes to find out if an elected official who is frequently quoted in news reports lived at that address. Obviously, elected officials are capable of committing crimes. (Unforunately, we've seen ample evidence of this.) But the fact that police didn't even realize they were raiding the mayor's home indicates they didn't do basic due diligence.


Los Angeles, California: I am a 36 year law enforcement veteran and retired chief of police. I have commanded 3 police departments. During that time, I was an executive level command officer for 22 years and Chief or Commissioner level officer for 18 years. I spent 12 years as an officer, supervisor and ultimately commander of a SWAT (out here, the acronym means Special Weapons And Tactics) team. I also spent 2 years as the lieutenant in charge of a Narcotics division in addition to working 2 years undercover as a narcotics operator.

The negligence of the narcotics investigator in failing to do basic investigation before obtaining the warrant and the commander of the SWAT team in not vetting the mission his team accepted is dangerous (for the officers and the home's residents) and appalling.

First, if for no other reason than officer safety, an investigative background on the house and the owner of record for the property should have been done. You would check the computer aided dispatch records to see if officers had been called to the residence before. Has the home been the site of gun or other violence? Are there children or disabled persons known to reside in the property?

Additionally, out on the west coast, we have regional narcotics investigative databases that are consulted to make sure that 1) we are not getting crossed up with other undercover narcotics investigations in progress or 2) to obtain relevant information that other agencies have on the location or principals associated with the location or 3) that we are not getting crossed up with an currently active undercover operation or warrant service. Finally, this due diligence would likely have allowed them to give greater consideration to the possibility that the shipment was shipped to the home as a ruse to innocent persons.

The most basic investigative protocol would be to contact the police department of geographical jurisdiction. The information received will likely impact the approach to the warrant service and help frame the mindset of the responding officers as to risk assessment (scaling it down or escalating it based upon relevant information discovered). To fail to contact the local agency for any information about the residence and its occupants for intelligence or relevant information is so negligent as to be unbelievable.

My harshest critique though is for the Prince George's Police Chief High and Sheriff Jackson. How can a rushed internal review that omits the statements/observations of the residents of the home be deemed credible? Did Sheriff Jackson think that officers who made such a series of bad decisions would be unbiased, candid and complete in their retrospective assessment of the operation? On the surface, this appears to have been nothing more than a solicitation of damage control justifications from those that have every reason to cover their oh so exposed behinds.

The decision of these two men and Jack Johnson to publicly justify a series of poor judgments, mistakes and apparent malice in the "engagement" of the dogs and forcing the homeowners to lie flex cuffed for hours while a search was conducted makes it apparent that responsible adults are not in charge in Prince George's County. It would have been more prudent to say only that the incident was under investigation. They are now married to their statements of defense.

In every search warrant service that I have supervised, once the entry was stabilized, the residents were allowed to sit on a couch or chair (that had been searched for weapons), received proper clothing to cover themselves and flex cuffs exchanged for standard cuffs if necessary.

A note about Flex Cuffs. Flex cuffs are made of hardened nylon and are applied by pulling them tight through a one way ratchet type mechanism with teeth inside it. Once tightened, they cannot be loosened and can be removed only by cutting the band. By nature of their design, to restrain, they must be pulled tight enough to bite into the skin of the person restrained, and depending upon the position the person is placed to circulation curtailment in the short or medium term of restraint. To leave anyone, let alone a 50 year old woman in flex cuff for hours is unconscionable.

As a former police chief, let me tell you, Chief High, Sheriff Jackson, and perhaps Jack Johnson know very well that this operation to quote a military phrase was completely "FUBAR" and have decided for liability reasons and public image to reflexively support the unsupportable, and defend the indefensible. I would imagine right now that there are discussions in the County as to what the settlement figure will be, because they cannot afford to go to trial on this one. The exposure of their practices will lead to other litigation. I applaud the Washington Post on the exposure given to this "High Risk" narcotics warrant service. But in reality, this behavior occurs every day throughout this country, however, the people it happens to do not have the racial, social, economic or political demographics of the Mayor and his family. Therefore, they seldom receive the attention, justice and ultimately the compensation these poor victims of police malpractice will get.

April Witt: Thanks for your very informed input.


April Witt: Thanks to everyone for joining us today. Your questions and responses were terrific. Thanks, too, to Cheye for sharing his experiences with us. Bye.


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