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.