These are the incendiary devices intended to temporarily stun, blind and deafen everyone within range. They have some limited appropriate uses, such as when police are confronting someone who is in the process of committing a violent crime. But they’re used far more often than that, and there’s a long trail of people injured and even killed.
[I]n Little Rock, Ark., the police department is still using flashbangs on nearly every raid, according to ProPublica’s analysis. Police department records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, as part of its nationwide survey of police militarization, showed that between 2011 and 2013, Little Rock police tossed flashbangs into homes on 112 occasions, or 84 percent of raids — nearly all of them in predominantly black neighborhoods.
Little Rock Police Department spokesman Sidney Allen defended the practice, saying, “You may see a large number of flashbang deployments, but what we see is a large service of warrants without gunfire.” But no weapons were found at three-quarters of the homes during this period, according to department records obtained by ProPublica. Most searches yielded drug paraphernalia such as small baggies of marijuana and glass pipes. Others just turned up bottles of beer.
One Sunday afternoon in 2012, Sharon Kay Harris, a diminutive 54-year-old grandmother, was still in her church clothes getting a soda out of the fridge when police officers threw a flashbang into her kitchen. “It was very scary,” Harris said. “It’s real loud, it sounds like a gun going off.” Other officers broke down her front door with a battering ram and threw a flashbang into the living room, igniting a pile of clothing. A few weeks earlier, Harris had sold a plate of food and six cans of beer without a license, a misdemeanor in Arkansas, to an undercover officer. The officer returned on a second occasion to catch Harris in another offense: selling liquor on a Sunday. During their raid on Harris’ house, the police confiscated several cases of beer, which she freely admitted to selling along with hot dogs, nachos and fajitas . . .
Little Rock Police Department spokesman Allen said he does not consider the force used on Harris’ home to be excessive. “If she hadn’t been selling illegal items out of the home, no warrant would have been served,” he said. “What you call extreme, we call safe.”
Even when deployed properly, it’s important to remember that these devices, by design, inflict pain and punishment on people. That’s perhaps a justifiable use of force when it’s necessary to apprehend someone who is putting others at imminent risk of injury or death. But flashbangs today are primarily used in raids to serve warrants on people still merely suspected of nonviolent, consensual drug crimes. Not only are these suspects not putting anyone at imminent risk, but they have yet to even be charged with a crime. Another way to put it: Police are using premeditated violence as an investigative tool. And that’s merely the problem with using these devices against suspects. Let’s not forget the bystanders who may be inside, or the possibility of police mistakenly targeting the wrong house, a not uncommon problem in drug investigations.
Officer safety is important. But the ubiquity of flashbangs shows that in too many police agencies today, officer safety has become a higher priority than the safety of the citizens the officers serve.