Militarization of Police

Washington Post on Cheye Calvo

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For its cover story this week, the Washington Post Sunday Magazine ran a terrific feature on the case of Cheye Calvo, the Berwyn Heights, Maryland mayor whose home was raided and two black labs were slaughtered by Prince George's County police during a botched drug raid last summer. Calvo and his wife unknowingly received a package of marijuana as part of a drug smuggling scheme. The SWAT team pounced shortly after Calvo's mother-in-law brought the package in the house.

Calvo and his family have since been cleared of any wrongdoing, and Prince George's County officials have at least apologized for wrongly raiding their home, but the county and the police still adamantly insist they did nothing wrong, have refused to apologize for killing Calvo's dogs, and have said they'd do nothing differently if they had the whole thing to do again.

The Post piece tugs at the heartstrings—more than a few people who sent it to me said it had them in tears. It also reads as strong critique of the drug war, or at least of this particular highly-militarized method of fighting it. The piece devotes quite a bit of copy to Overkill, the 2006 paper I wrote for the Cato Institute on the rise in the use of SWAT teams and paramilitary police tactics, and even inspired a stirring editorial in defense of the Fourth Amendment by the magazine's editor, Tom Shroder.

The piece also uncovered some previously unreported information about the case.

This passage, for example, picks up shortly after the police had "secured" the house, and Calvo's peering out his window.

At one point, Cheye recalled, he noticed a familiar uniform in the growing crowd on lawn. Berwyn Heights police officer Pvt. Amir Johnson had been patrolling the neighborhood when he passed the mayor's house and saw officers dressed in tactical uniforms coming out the front door. He stopped. (Berwyn Heights and Prince George's police have overlapping jurisdictions within town limits.)

"The guy in there is crazy," Johnson remembered a Prince George's County officer telling him when he arrived. "He says he is the mayor of Berwyn Heights."

"That is the mayor of Berwyn Heights," Johnson replied.

The detective looked very surprised, Johnson later recalled: "He had that 'Oh, crap' look on his face."

In this passage, when the Berwyn Heights police chief (who wasn't notified of the raid) calls the cops at the scene to find out what happened, Prince George's narcotics detective David Martini flat-out lies to him:

At home in St. Mary's, Murphy dialed the cellphone of his second-in-command, now standing on the mayor's front lawn. Murphy's officer handed the phone to a Prince George's narcotics investigator, Det. Sgt. David Martini.

This is how Murphy later recalled their conversation:

"Martini tells me that when the SWAT team came to the door, the mayor met them at the door, opened it partially, saw who it was, and then tried to slam the door on them," Murphy recalled. "And that at that point, Martini claimed, they had to force entry, the dogs took aggressive stances, and they were shot."

"I later learned," Murphy said in an interview, "that none of that is true."

Finally, this passage is so infuriating it's almost comical:

It was about 7:45 p.m. when Trinity turned her 1997 Suburu Outback with the kayak rack on top onto Edmonston. The road was so jammed with police vehicles that she couldn't reach her driveway. Assuming that the house had been robbed, Trinity abandoned her car and searched frantically for any sign of an ambulance.

"Is my husband okay?" she asked when Ken Antolik met her near her front gate. "Is my mom okay?

"Yes," he told her. "They are in the house.

Then it struck her. It was too quiet. She didn't hear dogs barking. She knew, even before she asked: "Payton and Chase?"

"I'm sorry," he said.

Trinity collapsed against his chest. A female officer eventually came and led her gently around to the back door. Trinity started in to find her husband and mother, then saw blood. There was so much blood. There was blood pooled near the door. Officers were tracking her dead dogs' blood all over the house. She backed outside.

"I remember sitting on the steps thinking, 'I'm never going to be able to live here again,' " Trinity recalled.

"I found something," Georgia heard a detective yell excitedly. The woman held a white envelope filled with cash. Inside, was $68. Across the front of the envelope were written two words: "yard sale."

The detective seemed crestfallen, Georgia said. Georgia, who had been moved, still bound, into the downstairs bedroom, says she overheard the woman saying something like: "It's my first raid, and we got the mayor's house."

Calvo and the article's author, April Witt, just completed a live chat at the Washington Post's website.

You download a free copy of Overkill here. My work on police militarization for reason here, and on cops killing dogs here. Prior post on the Calvo raid here.