Americans have long trusted law enforcement to keep the public safe in dangerous situations. Sadly, one unnecessary drug raid in Georgia recently, leaving a 19-month-old toddler injured, erodes confidence in local governments’ use of force.
On May 28, 19-month-old Bounkham Phonesavanh suffered severe burns when a Habersham County SWAT team threw a flash-bang grenade into his playpen while executing a 3 a.m. “no-knock” raid, tearing the infant’s chest open. Police were acting on an informant tip that they had received not even 24 hours prior to the raid.
IN THEIR HASTE, they failed to notice both a minivan parked in the driveway and children’s’ toys scattered across the front yard. When investigators concluded their search, they found nothing more than a small amount of drug residue.
Had police spent more time investigating the case and surveying the house, they undoubtedly would have been aware that children were residing in the home, and the toddler’s injuries could have been prevented. Unfortunately, this lapse in good judgment and lack of careful investigation is all too common in the inordinately militarized police force of the United States.
Since 2001, the Department of Homeland Security has spent $34 billion funding law enforcement agencies with what some would characterize as weapons of war – assault rifles, explosive devices, machine guns and other tactical equipment.
While police continue to stockpile such paramilitary armament, they also are increasingly deploying SWAT team forces nationwide. Since 1981, the number of SWAT team deployments has risen 1,400 percent to an average of 50,000
annually. More troubling is the fact that the majority of these deployments were for drug raids, many of which were conducted without police announcing their presence.
As police have been granted more power to conduct unannounced no-knock drug raids, they have taken a more cursory, and even deadly, approach to drug investigations. While just one unnecessary injury should be reason enough for a widespread re-evaluation of the procedure, no-knock raids continue to be conducted recklessly.
IN MAY 2011, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department in Arizona killed a 26-year-old former Marine and father of two after executing a no-knock raid on his Tucson home. When police plowed through the door of José Guerena’s home, they saw him holding a legally-owned rifle and fired 71 bullets, claiming that the Iraq War veteran had discharged his weapon. Later investigation revealed that Guerena’s gun was never fired, and that the safety feature had been engaged.
Nothing illegal was ever found in his home. Though Guerena’s family later received a settlement from the four police departments involved in the shooting, law enforcement officials never admitted any wrongdoing.
Unfortunately, it’s not just innocent bystanders who are harmed by drug raids. Impetuous conduct has turned noxious for the police officers who burst into homes in the middle of the night, as frightened homeowners find it difficult to distinguish between burglars and law enforcement officers.
This past May, one police officer was killed and another injured after a 5:30 a.m. no-knock raid in Killeen, Texas, went awry. Police were slinking outside the home of suspected cocaine dealer Marvin Louis Guy when he opened fire on the intruders. The 12-hour search that ensued returned nothing more than a glass pipe. Still, Guy was charged with three counts of attempted capital murder.
As the number of drug raid casualties continues to escalate, law enforcement must dutifully examine current protocol and logically prioritize what crimes truly warrant maximum attention. While law enforcement agents arrest 1.5 million Americans on drug charges each year, an estimated 100,000 untested rape kits remain in police storage nationwide because of lack of resources. Perhaps police should shift their focus to more exigent cases such as murders, robberies and sex offenses.
Above all, however, police must be held more accountable for their actions and handle future raids with more care, intelligence and responsibility. Speculative informant claims must be carefully investigated, and the residences of criminal suspects must be meticulously monitored prior to executing raids. If an investigation returns enough concrete evidence to warrant a search, then law enforcement should do so in daylight hours once they have determined that a suspect’s home is empty. This practice would obviate any confusion from homeowners over whether those marauding their homes are law enforcement officers or armed burglars. It also would ensure that sought-after evidence is not destroyed upon the arrival of police.
REGARDLESS OF HOW drug raid policy is amended, government and law enforcement must ensure that innocent Americans remain safe. How many more casualties must the drug war claim before public officials finally agree that enough is enough?
(The writer is an advocate for Young Voices, an organization that disseminates the concerns and viewpoints of students and young professionals worldwide.)