Drug Policy

Another Isolated Incident

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While the red-blue chatter soaks up the ink and airwaves this week, the one that issue that the puts the two parties in lockstep, unanimous agreement—the drug war—continues to kill people.  And no one seems to care.  Today's Florida Times-Union details the latest outrage, which took place last December.

Seems a SWAT team in Florida broke down Cheryl Ann Stillwell's door after an unnamed informant claimed to have bought an undisclosed amount OxyContin from an unnamed resident inside.  It now appears that the amount was miniscule, and it may not have even been a sale, but a desperate informant playing on Stillwell's sympathy to manufacture a lead for the police.  Once the raid commenced, the woman, who grew protective of her home after witnessing drug activity in the neighborhood, thought the raiding cops were criminal intruders, and met them with a loaded shotgun.  They shot her dead.

"It was two pills she gave to somebody," said J. Doyle Wright, Stillwell's brother. "Somebody told her that they couldn't get their prescription filled for a couple of days and, when they did, they'd give the pills back to her."

[…]

"They knew she was protective and they knew she had a gun, but someone in the Sheriff's Office said, 'OK, send in the SWAT team and shoot to kill.' … You give me a gun and tell me to kick somebody's door in and I'm going to be ready to shoot," he said. "Whoever it was that said, 'This is the way you do this'—that's who I want to talk to."

[…]


Sheriff Tommy Seagraves said Stillwell's death was a tragic consequence in a dangerous line of work: drug policing. Her house was among several in an unrelated number of searches that morning.

"I didn't want to see this happen, but I didn't want to see my officers get shot, either. That lady pointed a loaded gun at them," Seagraves said. "I'm a human being. I don't want anybody to lose their life, but at the same time, we had a job to do."

A search warrant inventory states officers found pill bottles and blister packs but did not specify whether actual drugs were found. Seagraves said drugs were found but the family believes anything seized was not illegal.

"It's legal for her to have Oxycontin, but it's illegal for her to sell it," Seagraves said.

Police initially said Stillwell fired her weapon first.  They changed their story when ballistics and crime scene investigators determined that Stillwell's gun went off after she was shot.  The firing officer then stated he shot when he saw Stillwell's finger twitch on the trigger.  That account has also been questioned, given that the home was dark when the SWAT team raided, and that the officer shot from a position that would have made it nearly impossible to have seen Stillwell's hands.

An investigation from the local U.S. attorney's office found no criminal wrongdoing on the part of police,  but did question the use of a tactical team given the suspect.  The report was also  critical of local authorities for not doing more background investigation on Stillwell, who clearly wasn't a drug dealer.

Nevertheless, the local sheriff insists that no disciplinary action will be taken against any of the officers involved, and the department has no plans to change any of its tactics or policies in response to the shooting. 

Which means this will inevitably happen again.

Sadly, this is typical.  In the 1,000 or so raids I studied for my recent paper on the overuse of SWAT teams, in a case where a clearly nonviolent, nonthreatening person was killed, local law enforcement authorities will inevitably express initial sympathy for the victim.  That's followed by a knee-jerk defense of the police, then a clamming-up when they realize a lawsuit is likely (as is the case,here).  Subsequent investigations then clear the trigger officer of any wrongdoing (which is the right conclusion, most of the time). 

But that's usually the end of it.  There's no reevaluation of policy.  There's no reconsideration of the wisdom of sending what amounts to an urban warfare unit barreling into someone's home while they're sleeping.  Instead, we hear that the end result is "tragic" or "unfortunate" but that, in so many words, we're going to have to accept some collateral damage to "rid our streets of drugs."  Sheriff Seagraves comments above are almost boilerplate.  They translate to, "Better her than one of us."

Sad that it has to be said, but—um—nonviolent suspects, bystanders, and innocent people shouldn't be shot to death over marijuana, or a couple of OxyContin pills. 

That simply isn't an acceptable outcome.  But until the public starts demanding some real changes in policy, it will continue to be a common one.

NEXT: What the Smart Set Will Be Wearing To the Polls Tomorrow

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  1. That simply isn’t an acceptable outcome. But until the public starts demanding some real changes in policy, it will continue to be a common one.

    The public never will. Especially since the front page coverage of cases like this one generally portray the victim as a “major drug dealer who was trying to kill heroic police”. The actual facts of the case never get the kind of press that would change public opinion or stir up outrage.

  2. “…nonviolent suspects, bystanders, and innocent people shouldn’t be shot to death over marijuana, or a couple of OxyContin pills.”

    Good to see we’re still “erring on the side of life.” Without SWAT teams killing people for legally prescribed drugs, how could we maintain the culture of life?

  3. I was poised to paste the same paragraph as David and then say pretty much the same thing (late by 10 mins or so). Suffice it to say that I agree 100%.

    As long as it’s “keeping us safe”, it’ll be difficult to find enough people to support a more cerbral, less emotional response.

  4. “Culture of Life” Freaking hypocrites!

  5. She would have been safer without a gun.

  6. She would have been safer without a gun.

    Right, because there’s no precedent of police gunning people with knives, baseball bats, wallets, or nothing in their hands.

  7. She would have been safer without a gun

    Way to completely miss the point.

  8. “She would have been safer without a gun.”

    Though if it was dark and the cops really couldn’t see much, this conclusion is somewhat dubious.

  9. Here’s what I don’t get: From the standpoint of the cops, isn’t it safer to surround her when she leaves her house in broad daylight? If they enter a dark structure where the suspect knows the layout and they don’t, that seems pretty risky. Not to mention that if the suspect is inside she can run for her gun, but if she’s outside and surrounded, unless she’s already armed there’s no way she’ll be able to go for a gun.

    In a similar thread, somebody argued that outside there’s more risk of a bullet hitting a civilian if shots have to be fired, but bullets can go through walls, and inside you’ll have no idea who might be on the other side of the walls. Besides, if somebody is surrounded outside I’d think it would be more likely that they could do the arrest without even drawing a firearm.

    What am I missing here? I just don’t see how this is the safest scenario for the cops. I don’t find any fault with the cop who shoots at a suspect holding a firearm, but I wonder why somebody would send the cops into what seems like the more dangerous alternative.

  10. Thoreau,
    I think the cops were using night-vision mustaches and infra-red egos.

  11. Dammit, I used to be able to go to reason when I wanted the regular news and theagitator only for depressing stuff that gets my blood boiling. Now with Radley working over here I can’t avoid it.

  12. thoreau raises some good points. Partially, I guess, it is considered easier to just go in rather than wait for them to come out. That way you have the element of surprise. After all, dangerous drug dealers could have a “listening post” across the street and see the cops approaching, giving you time to flush the drugs. Also, if the search warrant is legally dubious, busting in and perhaps catching the homeowner red-handed may be considered worth the risk.

    One should also not discount the possibility that having spent so much money on SWAT teams, police forces might feel it is necessary to justify that expenditure by using them even if it is not strictly necessary to do so.

    Plus, you get such a rush kicking in someone’s door, submachine gun in hand, ready to shoot some SOB drug dealer, knowing you could get killed despite your body armor. It wouldn’t surprise me if adrenaline junkies didn’t get into SWAT for just such a reason.

  13. She would have been safer without a gun

    She would have been safer if they’d have announced themselves. She would have been safer if they’d have done their jobs, and by “they” I mean the officers there and their bosses all the way up the hierarchy.

    While I’m not one of the “Officer Jones deserved it” types, she’d have been safer if she’d have shot first and taken cover. At least, they wouldn’t have been able to get off a clean unencumbered center-of-mass shot at her. Though she would have ended up in a cell, it is arguably better than a coffin. I’d have to ask Mr. Maye about that comparison.

    [Excellent troll-bait there, Sam!!! Thanks.]

  14. NeonCat-

    Why not do the raid while nobody is home, and send somebody to arrest her at work or some other routine activity that takes her out of the house? It would seem safer for everybody involved.

    I know that the reason offered for going in with SWAT teams is to keep the officers safe, but I wonder if they wouldn’t be safer using the indirect approach.

  15. I would like to see statistics on how many police and suspects were killed/injured serving conventional search warrants to justify using SWAT teams. I can’t seem to remember a rash of police being killed before SWAT deployment became common.

  16. I would like to see a comparison of LEO safety in a serch warrant for drugs situation versus a domestic disturbance call situation. At least here in Canada, domestic disturbance calls seem to be the ones where the cop gets it sometimes.

  17. “What am I missing here? I just don’t see how this is the safest scenario for the cops.”

    i don’t think you’re missing anything. i think the whole point about officer safety is a joke. the reason they go in at night is because it’s cooler to go all black-op with face paint and everything. they’re not concerned about safety because they know, short of some heat-style scenario with drug lords, that they massively outgun the suspect which they already know to be non-violent.

    their risk is minimal whenever they do the operation, and they are bored.

  18. Describing the SWAT team military style assault on an innocent homeowner:

    “Sadly, this is typical.”

    If you want the public to get their back up, maybe you could use some stronger language, such as:

    “Outrageously, this is typical.”

    It is outrageous, isn’t it?

    Sheriff Seagraves is an evil man, and an essential part of his evil nature is that he thinks he’s doing good. No one of any consequence, in his value system, tells him otherwise, or even gives him cause to think about his actions.

    To stop this kind of thing requires street demonstrations, followed by political action – what the Founders might have called ‘peaceful assembly and petition for redress of grievances’. To instigate such action requires more than feeling sad, it requires righteous anger, which in turn is built up by forcedfully documenting repeated offenses in a free press.

    From an ancient document, now mostly forgotten:

    “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

    “He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

    “He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

    “He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution,… :
    For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
    For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

    “For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

    “He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.”

    So please, don’t hold back the strong adjectives, especially if they’re appropriate and necessary.

  19. Subsequent investigations then clear the trigger officer of any wrongdoing (which is the right conclusion, most of the time).

    I don’t see how this can be the correct conclusion. The trigger officer fucking murdered a civilian, the end. Shot. For no reason. A civilian. “Oh she had a gun”, yeah, you know you’re supposed to tell her to drop it and announce you’re police, asshole. You murdered a lady under the guise of the law, and the sickest part is that the idiot who shot her won’t ever even feel bad about it. He’ll go home to his family and talk about what a tough day he had killing a “suspected drug dealer” and his wife will cuddle him and tell him he’s a hero for “doing his duty”. Fuck that guy, I hope he gets a horrible, whithering illness and dies a painful death.

  20. Hey, drugs kill

  21. And Limbaugh thought he was treated unfairly.

  22. “”””She would have been safer without a gun.”””

    She would have been safer if the cops were without guns.

  23. I can’t think of a single civilized thing to say about this horrible story.

  24. We had to kill her to save her.

  25. thoreau – I was the guy who argued that. From a tactical standpoint, you are always better doing a broad daylight takedown in the open.

    The only scenario I can think of for deploying a SWAT team is in a hostage situation when negotiation has failed and the hostage-takers are executing the hostages. In other words, a very high-risk scenario with fatalities already a foregone conclusion.

  26. I doesn’t matter whether you have a gun or not to protect yourself and familily when these idiots smash opens your doors at 1 a.m. in the morning, throw flash-bang concussion grenades into your house (setting it on fire). Trust me. They then just start lobbing automatic weapons fire through your closed, solid wood bedroom doors until they hit you. How do I know? They did it two me and I am lucky tobe alive although maimed. Then they slander and libel you in the press to try and cover up their incompetence and do things to intimidate you so as to keep you from suing them. Guess what? Not a chance ….. fry little pigies, fry.

  27. The only way this is going to stop is for people like Ms. Stillwell to get a shot in. I really hate the people at the Sheriffs’ department who did this and am sorry this woman dind’t have a machine gun and killed them all. I would have given her a medal. There is no excuse for busting someone’s door down on a shred of evidence. When cops pull this crap, they are nothing but home invaders. If you breakin to an innocent person’s house you deserve to get shot and die, having a badge doesn’t change that fact.

  28. Timothy:

    Yeah, I basically agree with you. “Just following orders” is not an acceptable defense in this case or in any of the other SWAT cases similar to this one. The cop who shot her is a murderer, plain and simple.

  29. It’s not about “just following orders.” It’s about self-defense in the situation that he’s in.

    The problem is that somebody made a decision to put everybody involved in a situation where the cop had no choice but to engage in lethal self-defense.

  30. Nick:

    Wow…glad the JBTs failed to kill you. Would you mind giving some more details?

  31. “The problem is that somebody made a decision to put everybody involved in a situation where the cop had no choice but to engage in lethal self-defense.”

    Which is why the police higherups asses should be on a platter over this. If I ordered my officers to drive 150 mph down residential streets, I would probably be criminally negligent for doing so. The people who ordered the cops into this woman’s house on such flimsey evidence, up to and including the judge who authorized the warrent should be doing hard time right now.

  32. I’m not gonna mince words this time: This is a fucked-up policy, pure and simple.

  33. thoreau: I disagree, the cop had a choice and he made the wrong one. He hadn’t been fired upon, the lady may or may not have known he was a cop, he just saw her finger “twitch” or some other such nonsense. The policy should be that cops don’t fire until fired upon. Cop shot first, in the middle of the night, at somebody who was protecting her home. That he shot first is a big issue for me.

  34. Since I am one of the “Officer Jones deserved it” types, let me ask those of you who are not:

    Where, for you, then, is the line? Exactly what would the officer(s) in question have to do, under what circumstances, and over what allegations, before you would conclude that Officer Jones did, indeed, deserve it? I mean, would shooting everyone (pets included) within a three block radius qualify? How about over an overdue library book? Seriously, though, when is enough enough?

    I suspect pinning this line is going to become of enhanced importance over time, as the political class’s claims of ownership over the populace at large become increasingly complete (and taken for granted).

    JMJ

  35. I can’t remember a single case of the cops killing someone in their home and admitting that they did something wrong. They think they have the right to kick down your door and shoot you. If you meet them empty handed and they shoot you anyway, they just say they THOUGHT you were going for a weapon, then they still get away with it.

  36. The officer not only “deserved it”, he still deserves it. But that is up to the family of the deceased and then the legal system.

  37. I do not fault a person staring at the barrel of a shotgun for firing at the person holding the shotgun.

    The question is why the arrest was done in that manner. Unless there’s something I’m missing here, the best decision would have been to arrest the person in broad daylight, in the open.

    You don’t fault the person staring down the barrel of a shotgun. You fault the person who put him there.

  38. >That simply isn’t an acceptable outcome.

    Weak words.

    The cops committed murder.

    A crime was committed and everyone is covering it up. The DA should be fired.

    Americans have the Right to protect themselves, even from cops. Odd that cops are allowed to kill people who are protecting their home.

    Just who are the bad guys; Cops and crooks.

  39. If this situation wasn’t just that unbelievably sad, I would swear this is out of an episode of South Park.

  40. Thoreau: I can see where you’re coming from, and in the case of two civilians I certainly wouldn’t disagree, but police officers have a special state monopoly on force and as such I think it’s reasonable to hold them to a slightly higher standard. Having a gun pointed at you is supposed to be run-of-the-mill SWAT stuff. As such I think the police have an affirmative duty to restrain themselves from shooting until they’ve been fired upon.

    If you point a gun at me and I’m armed, yeah, I’m gonna get jumpy and probably shoot you. But if we’re going to allow police to use deadly force at all, we need to give them reasons to be extremely judicious about firing. Don’t get me wrong, though, I think everybody from the judge who issued the warrant to the guy who pulled the trigger is culpable.

  41. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G63FEamhpA0

    Attorney Elizabeth Ritter was shot by the police twice with rubber bullets — once in the head — at a protest.

    They are later shown on a video laughing about it.

    Welcome to the Police State.

  42. I can’t seem to remember a rash of police being killed before SWAT deployment became common.

    As I remember the kick-down-the-door policy came about because suspects were flushing drugs. There was never a rash of officers killed.

    SWAT is a great idea for hostage situations. In any other situation there are much better alternatives.

  43. the issue of officer safety is also moot, in my opinion. they are supposedly trained and paid to assume the risks that they then use to justify their use of excessive force. they used that in the diallo case in nyc, see, the neighborhood is dangerous and the cops were farid, so they shot the guy 42 times when he grabbed his wallet.
    they are paid to deal with being scared without having to gun us all down.

  44. So, when are we going to get Russ to come in saying that the SWAT officers need training in actual situations, and that training justifies this shooting? Come on, Russ, you know you want to.

  45. Bryan Noble | November 6, 2006, 8:08pm

    they used that in the diallo case in nyc, see, the neighborhood is dangerous and the cops were farid, so they shot the guy 42 times when he grabbed his wallet.

    Aren’t you aware that “It was Amadou Diallo who set the stage for tragedy.”

  46. Protests and sit in’s will not stop this type of police behavior. Dozens of body bags full of home invading cops will. Arm up and take head shots.

  47. Bobster,

    You need to also make sure that you get fingered by some low-life snitch informant as having drugs in your house.

  48. The only thing that will really stop this is if a couple of cities [or maybe even a state government] get successfully sued for enough money to put them in bankruptcy.

    Shooting the SWAT teams (as a few have argued here) will only make them come in with heavier armament the next time.

    Meanwhile, let’s indulge in a little fantasy:

    911: What is the nature of your emergency.

    Caller: Some guy named Rush – an oxycontin perp – is paying a visit to a friend of his named George this afternoon.

    911 [now excited]: You think they are making a deal?

    Caller: Definitely, Rush said he was going to deliver the goods.

    911: Do they have any weapons?

    Caller: Well, George has some guns at his place in Texas. And I think there’s a bunch of guys – they call themselves “The Secret Service” – who are really heavily armed who guard George 24 hours a day.

    911: Where did you say this deal was taking place.

    Caller: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

  49. thoreau, just following orders? Its unfortunate that police, most of whom become cops to help people (I hope/ASSume), are put in this situation. But IMO that argument has limitations. If your employer asks you to do things that a reasonable person would recognize as wrong or questionable, you have a duty to your fellow man to say “no”, or at the very least use up a sick day.

  50. Waco writ small…

  51. The only thing that will really stop this is if a couple of cities [or maybe even a state government] get successfully sued for enough money to put them in bankruptcy.

    Or states could simply enact a cap on lawsuits against municipalities.

  52. So basically, the consensus here is that there should be a moratorium on “no-knock” / “dynamic entry” Delta Force, SEAL Team 6, FBI HRT-style takedowns unless there’s a hostage situation going bad.

    Makes perfect sense, so now I gotta ask one question: “Why wasn’t this lesson learned after Waco?”

    I mean, didn’t the current crop of Republicans ride the whole “Jack Booted Thugs Must Be Stopped” wave to power after the Janet Reno era?

    While I know it’s probably too late in this thread to get an answer, I figure that – sadly – in a couple of weeks (months at most) there will probably be another similar thread…

  53. Makes perfect sense, so now I gotta ask one question: “Why wasn’t this lesson learned after Waco?”
    I mean, didn’t the current crop of Republicans ride the whole “Jack Booted Thugs Must Be Stopped” wave to power after the Janet Reno era?

    The president, and his allies in the media, successfully exploited a terrorist attack to “link” his political enemies with the terrorists.

  54. AC,

    Wow. That not only failed to answer my question, it begs another one – how exactly does fighting a “Global War On Terror” overseas equate to a domestic war on political enemies of the current president? I’m guessing no one really cares, or knows, Cheryl Ann Stillwell’s political leanings.

    Or are you referring to PATRIOT Act? Because that’s not going to float either, since Waco happened on the previous guy’s watch and I’m interested in why the current crew didn’t pull the rug out from under these Barney-Fife-Gone-Berserk goofs.

  55. Within (Seagraves) department, it just depends who you are, and if they want to get rid of you.
    You were correct to say, too bad the victim had a gun to protect herself in her own home.
    Tragic incident for someone with a handicap!

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