Drug Policy

Flashbangs Under Fire

It's time to stop using stun grenades during drug raids.

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The New York Times reported last week that the New York City Police Department has halted the use of "flashbang" stun grenades. The department began phasing out the devices in 2003 after their deployment in a mistaken drug raid caused 52-year-old Alberta Spruill to suffer a fatal heart attack. The prior year, the department had used flash grenades 175 times.

Flashbangs detonate with a blinding flash of light and a deafening explosion. Their function is to temporarily stun people in a targeted building until police or military personnel can get inside. Though the weapons are marketed as non-lethal, there have been a number of incidents in which they've set homes on fire (some resulting in fatalities), caused severe burns, or confused police officers into thinking they were coming under gunfire, causing them to open fire themselves.

But even when used and executed as intended, flashbangs cause injury by design, and when used by law enforcement, that injury is inflicted on people who have yet to even be charged with a crime, much less convicted of one. In most cases, the crimes that precipitated the raid are consensual and nonviolent: They're drug offenses.

Clay Conrad, a criminal defense attorney in Houston, criminal justice specialist, and author of the book Jury Nullification: The Evolution of a Doctrine, has tried to challenge the use of flashbangs in the service of drug warrants. "It's just an assualt," Conrad says. "These things are designed to blind and deafen. They produce a shockwave of 136 DB or more. You're intentionally injuring people."

In 2008, federal prosecutors indicted three executives at the flashbang producer Pyrotechnic Specialties, Inc. (PSI) for fraud, conspiracy, and money laundering. The indictments came after one of the devices detonated prematurely in a SUV driven by three FBI agents in 2004. A subsequent investigation found that the company knew the devices could detonate prematurely, but covered up the problem.

In November 2008, CNN interviewed the agents about their injuries. One said, "To me, it felt like someone just whacked me in the back with a baseball bat as hard as they could." Another said, "I don't sleep. I have tremendous headaches. I have the doctors claim severe hearing loss, but for all practical purposes, I'm deaf in my left ear." Speaking of the company, another added, "If they could experience that, or someone close to them would have to go through that experience, I'm sure it would be a different story and maybe they wouldn't have allowed it to happen."

The CNN story focused on PSI's fraud and negligence, but what's striking about the FBI agents' accounts is that other than the early detonation, the grenades did exactly what they're intended to do. What the agents experienced is experienced by dozens of people every day who find themselves on the receiving end of a drug raid, where grenades are thrown through bedroom windows, rolled into living rooms, or tossed into hallways. They're being punished—intentionally injurred—before they've so much as seen the inside of a police station. That's before we get to the problem of mistaken raids, and innocent bystanders who happen to be in a home when a raid transpires.

New York City officials aren't the only ones taking notice. In 2008, a judge in New Jersey held a hearing on the use of stun grenades, then tossed the drug charges against a suspected meth offender because state police used flashbangs and paramiltary tactics to serve the search warrant on his home. "This was a commando raid-like scenario," Superior Court Judge James J. Morley said, "and my decision was based on the overall way they approached the case—at 5 a.m. with 29 police officers in commando gear and pointing a weapon at a sleeping 17-year-old." The teen wasn't the suspect. An adult living with him was.

Defense lawyer Clay Conrad's challenge on flash grenades was based on a Texas law that prevents evidence from being admitted in trial if the police committed a crime in obtaining it. He argued in a brief that the initial assault and use of flashbangs constitue a criminal assault. Conrad says the prosecution offered a generous plea before that issue could be hashed out in court. "We were prepared to argue that if these things are as harmless as the state claims, we should be able to detonate one in the courtroom. That would have been fun."

Conrad thinks the use of flashbangs and other overly aggressive tactics may be ripe for a federal challenge. "The argument is that it shocks the conscience," he says. "That argument has some validity to it in the right cases, where you're using these volatile tactics against someone who's suspected of nothing more than drug dealing. It's excessive to the point of violating the Fourth Amendment."

There are certainly scenarios in which flashbangs are appropriate, such as anytime you have someone who presents an immediate threat to the safety of others: bank robberies, hostage situations, or similar sorts of stand-offs. In these cases, the weapons can defuse an already violent situation.

But that isn't how flashbangs are primarily used. Supporters of the devices say they're important for the safety of police officers. We should obviously take sensible precautions to protect cops on the job, but those precautions can't violate the basic rights of everyone else. Flashbang grenades subject people suspected of nonviolent crimes and everyone around them to an explosion that's designed to blind and deafen, with the potential to cause severe burns and permanent hearing loss—all before anyone has been charged with a crime. That doesn't seem like a close call.

Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

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  1. If you ever are near one when it goes off, you’ll be amazed at both the sound and physical impact.

  2. Hey, I use flash grenades all the time!

    Ok, in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 . . . but still, they rock!

      1. I always end up flashing my self or throwing the bloody thing just as the guy enters the room to hand me my head on a plate.

        1. This is not going to turn into a MW2 discussion.

          On a side note, this article explains why flashes hurt you in the game.

  3. I suspect that if average person wanted to get a mere TASTE of the power of one of these things, have a buddy light off an M-80 at your feet.

    1. Not. Even. Close.

      1. You’re missing it.

        Point being, Global, that an M-80 at ones feet is pretty fucking loud, to the point of hurting one’s ears, and pretty fucking disturbing. Doubly so if you’re half asleep.

        Now, bump it up to the power of one of these flash bangs. Get it?

        Many folks have experienced M-80’s. Most haven’t had the good luck to be on the receiving end of a flash bang. If Joe and Jane Sheeple Citizen would be traumitized by an M-80 at the feet when they’re wide awake, they would CERTAINLY be, even more so, by a flash bang rolled into their bed room at 4am.

        1. Go one better: Light off the M-80 while sitting in a HoneyBucket.

        2. Not even close to a “mere TASTE”. If you haven’t been flashbombed, you can’t begin to imagine.

  4. Supporters of the devices say they’re important for the safety of police officers.

    Especially during those no-knock raids against the homes of unsuspecting NON offenders and little old ladies armed with peashooters . . . There’s danger in them darn neighborhoods!

  5. Defense lawyer Clay Conrad’s challenge on flash grenades was based on a Texas law that prevents evidence from being admitted in trial if the police committed a crime in obtaining it. He argued in a brief that the initial assault and use of flashbangs constitue a criminal assault.

    That’s an excellent argument. How long before some criminally-minded Superior Court rules that the usage of flash grenades and other instruments of injury does not constitute a “criminal act” if done by “law enforcement” elements?

    1. Hopefully, soon.

  6. Wait a second. I’ve seen TV. The cops throw the flash grenade in, the guilty perp is stunned a little, and they have him at the station answering hard-nosed questions before the next commercial break. And the *bang* it makes isn’t louder than any other loud noise on TV. You make it sound like these flash grenades aren’t in regular use on TV.

    1. Hmmm… a bit more wattage and some decent speakers might do the trick.

  7. “We were prepared to argue that if these things are as harmless as the state claims, we should be able to detonate one in the courtroom. That would have been fun.”

    It’s too bad that didn’t happen, that would have been hilarious.

    1. I give my entire month’s allowance to see that.

  8. Global Goering is exactly right. These things are terrifying. They are nothing but cops terrorizing the public.

  9. They just develop a lower impact flashbang that still achieves its goal of partial deafness and blindness, without the risk of permanent affects.

    That is, if possible, otherwise just use frag grenades.

  10. The New York City Police Department has halted the use of stun or “flashbang” grenades during drug raids, in part as a reaction to the 2003 death of 57-year-old Alberta Spruill,

    Only 7 years after killing an innocent.

    Protect and Serve, bitches!

  11. These are a useful tool in the war on drugs in order to stun the criminals so they don’t know what is going on and are confused and can be attacked easier. Without them, if they announce police the criminals may shoot back.

    1. The risk to citizens, even one accused of a crime, should outweigh any risk to government employees. The “only ones” get the big checks, early retirement, and cushy pensions to take risks. If they don’t like the risk, I am sure they could find gainful employment picking up cans on the side of the road.

    2. If you are being serious, the language you use is quite telling. First, that you immediately assume that everyone who may be affected by the explosion is a “criminal” and second, that the device is helpful because it makes it easier for the police to “attack” people.

    3. he isn’t serious

  12. Why stun when you can send in a vicious dog? Oh right, they get attached to their dogs…

    1. Hee hee!

  13. Well said Steve. I like the way you think. Perhaps you would like to have sex on me.

    1. But I live for your kisses.

    2. Don’t bother, Juanita. “Flash bang” doesn’t just apply to his grenades?

  14. “Without them, if they announce police the criminals may shoot back.”

    That’s right. They may [or may not] shoot back. You can’t pursue the drug war based on what may or may not happen.

    1. “Without them, if they announce police the criminals may shoot back.”

      That’s right. They may [or may not] shoot back. You can’t pursue the drug war based on what may or may not happen.

      Wait, what?

      Based on this reasoning, you quite literally cannot pursue the drug war, as the whole idea is a reaction to harm that might or might not result from drug use.

      Not that I care, mind you…

    2. Wait, if you can’t make half-assed decisions that affect the lives and constitutional rights of innocents in a Drug War, then what’s the point of having a Drug War at all?

  15. “In November 2008, CNN interviewed the agents about their injuries. One said, “To me, it felt like someone just whacked me in the back with a baseball bat as hard as they could.” Another said, “I don’t sleep. I have tremendous headaches. I have the doctors claim severe hearing loss, but for all practical purposes, I’m deaf in my left ear.”

    Here’s the smallest violin in the world, playing just for you.

    1. To the left of you..

      1. LMAO! Yeah I HEAR YA cops. Poor things, got bit by their own pets and didn’t like it. Any of these whiners campaigning against using them on people now or just looking for their payoff from the people that they likely in the end were tossing them at to begin with.

  16. I know it’s been touched on before in Reason articles, but stun grenades and flash bangs are only a symptom. There root problem here is the overzealous actions of the police in the name of fighting drugs. The War on Drugs has given police a blank check to treat even non-suspects as convicted violent offenders. It gives them the authority to invade your home and cause harm, or even death, to you with minimal recourse. All in the name of getting things that should be legal off the streets.

  17. I know it’s been touched on before in Reason articles, but stun grenades and flash bangs are only a symptom. There root problem here is the overzealous actions of the police in the name of fighting drugs. The War on Drugs has given police a blank check to treat even non-suspects as convicted violent offenders. It gives them the authority to invade your home and cause harm, or even death, to you with minimal recourse. All in the name of getting things that should be legal off the streets.

    1. I’m assuming this post is just for the sake of someone who might be reading a Radley Balko article for the first time…

  18. Supporters of the devices say they’re important for the safety of police officers.

    If they’re so worried about the safety of the cops, they should be lobbying for the abolition of no-knock searches.

  19. I happened to witness a private Fourth of July fireworks display that consisted of one flash grenade ganked from the feds. I was actually on the other side of a hedge. Shit was loud as fuck and still pretty bright even not seeing it directly.

  20. Never heard a flash grenade go off. How do these things compare with ground-burst simulators?

    1. X 10 to 20 + you’re inside a room reflecting everything back at you.

      Note that standard cop training requires an officer to be peppersprayed before he can carry pepper spray, and tasered before he can carry a taser. I have yet to see a training program where he has to be flashed before he uses flash grenades.

      1. Then you’re not looking hard enough. These devices are used all the time in training scenarios. They’re not designed to “permanently” injure people, they temporarily disorient. Big difference. If I’m completely fine 30 seconds later, I don’t consider that an injury. Training is the key. Don’t throw them in an area likely to cause ignition, or close enough to cause burn injuries.

        1. I presume the police officers are not going to want to pull the pin, walk calmly into the room, place the grenade safely on some non flammable surface that isn’t too close to anyone and then run for cover before it detonates. Failing that, I cant really see how your suggestion is worth much.

  21. If we get rid of flash bangs the terrorists will win.

  22. I never realized how many of Reason’s readers love drugs and hate police. I now remember why Libertarians have no future. Don’t bother attacking me, I won’t see it.

    1. It’s conservatives that have no future, my friend! The progressives may be bad, but conservatives are worse. Even if it is a shitty solution, at least progressives WANT to solve problems.

      Conservatives, I think Bush II described your position best: Stay the course.

    2. Police ‘officers’ are motherfucking scumbags and should be beaten to death.

  23. Why do police conduct no-knock raids on suspected drug producers/dealers? The answer is to prevent the destruction of evidence. If that weren’t the goal police could simply surround the building to prevent any suspects from escaping then wait them out. Such a scenario poses little risk to the officers and the suspects involved. But such a scenario also increases the likelihood that suspects actually involved with drug production and distribution will make an attempt to destroy evidence.

    Therefore, the suggestion that flashbangs ? a central feature of no-knock drug raids ? are used to reduce the danger to raiding officers is erroneous. Protecting officers’ safety is but a necessary side effect of a policy that places more emphasis on preserving potential evidence than the safety of those involved.

    1. Not to mention that is accepted that Drugs and Guns go together. Not necessarily with the users, but most definitely with the dealers. Gotta protect their stash!

  24. “love drugs and hate police?”
    In case the hit and run artist comes back, I’ll answer. No. We hate prohibition and injustice. Making drugs illegal was a prohibition move in 1917 pushed hard by the Religious Right of the day, the Temperance movement. It hasn’t worked. All it’s done is make criminals out of users, created a dangerous underground economy and bullies out of policemen to the point where innocent people are being needlessly killed and jails needlessly filled.
    And a country that has privatized prisons? One of the most corrupt systems I have ever seen.

    1. Amen!

  25. Don’t you love how law enforcement becomes such pussies when they are the ones suing someone? Oh, you mean the bombs we were carrying to throw at other people? They hurt! sob sob, wipe pussy, take more money from the govt.

  26. Police have a role in our society, but they’re not perfect, make mistakes, and abuse the powers they’ve been granted. Since the police have become more militarized and intrusive, they do need to be reigned in so we remain a free society where our Constitution is followed, especially by the police.

  27. Flashbangs are necessary and a vital tactic in saving officers lives. Have there been mistakes….sure. I heard many of them and have thrown many of them. I have a solution, don’t be a non-working piece of shit doper or thief using hardworking citizens tax dollars to fund their WIC card so they can by groceries for their children(s). But when they walk out to their car, the one with the 26 inch rims and speakers that vibrate the windows, that makes it all better. Let me guess, if it wasn’t for that last flashbang during the search warrant, I wouldn’t have to turn the stereo up so loud huh? Maybe its the weed that makes the flashbang light so distracting and bright!!! Not fun being generalized and grouped with those who have incorrectly used flashbangs or made mistakes? Idiots. Especially you RB!!! Douchebag!

    1. “Flashbangs are necessary and a vital tactic in saving officers lives.”

      No doubt, but when used indiscriminately they injure others with no benefit to the officers other than salving their paranoia, a paranoia others should not pay for. If police want to present themselves as heroes they should realize making “officer safety” paramount, no matter the impact on the citizenry, negates the claim to hero status.

      The rest of your comment was a rather un-American “the Police know who is guilty, they only go after the guilty, so it’s all OK, not to mention I hate people that are different than me so they deserve it”.

      Given the lawsuit by the officers, your assessment of the severity of flashbangs is rather ignorant.

  28. i have an idea. how about getting everyone in this sites names and addresses and we would be able to use more flashbangs and rid the streets of a good number of scumbags. but then they wouldnt be able to vote, meaning less bleading heart liberals. (always thinking of the poor criminal instead of the vast majority of good working citizens)

    1. The problem is, of course, if the police make a mistake, you’re one of those scumbags. And they make the mistake often, given that these devices are used in serving misdemeanor warrants.

  29. I have a question for all of the posters that agree that the evil police should be barred from using flashbangs on innocent criminals. would you prefer those innocent criminals to be permanently deaf or permanently dead?

  30. You ought to know better. I know you understand the phrase “opportunity cost”. It’s not a question of whether or not flashbangs are loud, it’s a question of whether they are less lethal and/or harmful to those who are being arrested than the next means of disabling them.

    Sonic grenades are a valuable tool for temporarily (a few seconds, at most,) disabling the people in a room. They are bright, loud, and scary. They are darn well supposed to be.

    Flashbangs need to be loud enough to disrupt inner-ear balance to work. This is just on the EDGE (not off the edge,) of hearing loss, and it is painful. However, unless it detonates in an extremely confined area where the sound has no chance to escape, like a car, nobody will go deaf from one. Similarly, the head-to-flashbang distance in a car is much lower in a car than in a home. Your example leaves much to be desired, but could probably get you a job with the AGW nuts.

    The fire risk is real, but can be easily managed by any competent police force. Most raid teams carry a fire extinguisher so arrestees can’t burn evidence.

    Finally, what else can cops do? Disabling somebody who is temporarily woozy is a much easier prospect than disabling somebody who is hale and ready to fight with whomever just kicked in his door. If suspects are not disabled when they enter the room, cops are going to have to be ten times as jumpy going through that door. Police will have to move faster (i.e. make more mistakes,) and use more force to track, acquire and restrain suspects. In other words, you are going to increase the risk of the guilty, the innocent and the cops being killed.

    Eliminate the flashbang option, and you eliminate the best way we have to cut-down on death and serious injury in police raids.

    Finally, hate the bad laws, not the cops. laws. Drug raids are exceptionally dangerous. They are trying to arrest somebody who is likely armed, dangerous, and ready to destroy their evidence if given a few seconds warning. In ghettos, they have probably been warned that you are coming. Knocking just gives them an extra second or two to make your life unpleasant. Entering without a flashbang or other distraction device will mean the suspect(s) and their family are all up and running around, quite possibly armed, so you have to move faster than your brain can really process to do your job.

    These laws are on the books, and the cops have no choice but to enforce them. Hamstringing the cops will not make the War on Drugs go away, but it will make life easier for the crooks and harder for the police who are trying to stop them. Go after the laws, not the law enforcers.

    As a final note, since I know somebody will try it: “The Nuremburg Defense” argument does not apply here. The cops are just following orders when they enforce these laws. These laws, unlike laws mandating the capture, imprisonment, rape, torture, and murder of an entire race, are not clearly crimes against humanity. They are stupid, shortsighted, and disruptive, but they are not murder factories.

  31. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no joke.

  32. Stun grenades save lives. Our law enforcement agents never receive the full support of the left. Someday it may be you!

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