Civil Liberties

Lessons from the Death of Aiyana Stanley-Jones

How aggressive SWAT tactics contributed to the death of a 7-year-old Detroit girl.


On the morning of May 16, a Detroit police officer fatally shot 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones in the throat during a police raid on her home. The police were looking for a homicide suspect. They found him in the apartment above the one where Stanley-Jones was shot, where he surrendered without violence. In response, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing cautioned last week not to put the blame squarely on police.

Bing is right. We should also put a good deal of the blame on him. Or, to be fair, on his predecessor, since Bing only recently took office. We should also blame the Detroit city council and the city's police chief. It is the politicians who set the policies that guide the actions of police officers, and it is they who are responsible for overseeing those officers. Even allowing for the fact that the police and the Stanley-Jones family disagree about what happened that morning, there were a number of bad policies that may have directly contributed to the little girl's death. Among them:

The use of the SWAT team.

According to the Detroit Free Press, the police say they had information that their suspect, 34-year-old Chauncey Owens, was armed. He was a suspect in a homicide. If Owens were on a killing spree, knowingly fleeing police, or holed up in the house with hostages, it may have justified using a SWAT team to apprehend him. But it doesn't appear that Owens presented that sort of imminent threat. Police had spotted him earlier in the day outside of the house. It's difficult to understand why the police didn't confront him then or the next time he left. Instead, they waited until the middle of the night to conduct a volatile raid on a duplex, putting everyone inside the property in jeopardy. Geoffrey Feiger, the attorney for the Stanley-Jones family, alleges the police weren't even aware the building was a duplex, and only obtained a warrant for the upper apartment after the raid.

The Stanley-Jones family says the police should have known there were four children in the building. They say there were toys strewn about the yard, and that a cousin warned the police shortly before the raid after seeing police approach the house. I'm not sure it matters if the police knew or not. If they didn't, they should have. And if they did, they shouldn't have used the aggressive tactics. SWAT teams are at their best when they're defusing already violent situations, not when they're creating new ones.

There may also be a history here of Detroit turning to SWAT and its heavy-handed tactics as the first option, rather than the last. The same SWAT team is currently facing several lawsuits. One of them deals with a case where the police were looking for evidence against an armed robbery suspect. They battered their way into a home and fired several rounds at two dogs. According to the lawsuit, the rounds were fired near an infant. The suspect wasn't there.

In the raid that killed Stanley-Jones, the suspect was in the upstairs apartment. The police secured the lower apartment first. If Owens had been heavily armed and predisposed to kill, he'd have had plenty of warning to prepare. So the use of SWAT and early-morning "dynamic" entry escalated the volatility and risk associated with this arrest.

The facts also don't add up. The Detroit police first claimed that Stanley-Jones' grandmother had an "altercation" with Officer Joseph Weekley, who then accidentally discharged the bullet that struck the girl. The police then claimed Weekley had incidental contact with the grandmother. Attorney Geoffrey Feiger now says video footage of the raid shows the bullet was fired from outside the home, though a state police investigation apparently has turned up no support for that allegation.

I'm not sure it matters exactly what happened. Whether Weekley fired out of panic or accidentally discharged his weapon, whether he tripped over Stanley-Jones' grandmother or Stanley-Jones' grandmother thought he was a criminal intruder and confronted him, the panic and confusion reveal just how little margin for error exists during these raids. And the result—Stanley-Jones' death—shows why they should only be used as a last resort.

The use of "flashbang grenades."

Though touted as "non-lethal," flashbang grenades have caused a number of deaths and serious injuries. The devices set off a wave of intense light and sound designed to stun everyone inside of a building long enough for police to enter and secure the premises. They're indiscriminate. Their intended effect is to cause injury to everyone near them. That means they're effectively a form of punishment on people who have yet to be convicted of any crime. And that includes innocent bystanders as well as suspects. And they are explosives, which means there is a very real risk of injury and destruction. Flashbangs have caused second- and third-degree burns, and ignited fires that have consumed houses.

The night of Aiyana Stanley-Jones' death, police shot a flashbang grenade through the window of her home. Her family says it landed on the couch where she was sleeping, ignited the blanket laying over her, and set off flames that began to burn the girl just before she was shot. (The autopsy hasn't yet been released.)

According to the Detroit Free Press, another Detroit-area police department is facing a lawsuit from the elderly couple Leonid and Arlene Marmelshtein, who say police battered into their home and detonated two of the devices during a 2004 marijuana raid. (Police found a small amount of the drug in an adult son's sock drawer.) According to the Free Press, a police spokesman in that case called the use of the devices "entirely appropriate." In allowing the lawsuit to go forward, U.S. District Judge Julian Cook disagreed, writing, "No reasonable law enforcement officer would have considered a confused elderly couple to be capable of producing the kind of tense and rapidly evolving uncertain situation which would require 10 police officers to make split-second decisions, including the use of two flash-bang devices."

The presence of TV cameras.

It's generally a good thing to record SWAT raids on video. Video footage can clear up any confusion or disagreement about what really happened. Video also tends to nudge police into employing best practices—we're all on our best behavior when we know we're being watched. But the raid on Stanley-Jones' home was being documented by cameras from A&E's First 48, a show themed around the axiom that most homicide cases are solved within 48 hours of the killing or they aren't solved at all. There are now legitimate questions about whether the presence of the show's cameras and producers may have pushed the police into conducting a TV-friendly raid without first doing an appropriate investigation of the home they were raiding.

First 48 is one of dozens of bread-and-circus reality cop shows across cable and network TV. Despite police assertions that SWAT raids are reserved for the most violent of criminal suspects who require precise, direct, and overwhelming force, there seem to be a large and growing number of police departments who have no problem bringing TV crews along for the ride. Or celebrities. In one infamous mistaken raid in Denver that claimed the life of immigrant and father-of-eight Ismael Mena, the police had invited Colorado Rockies second basemen Mike Lansing along for the raid. In a mistaken 2006 child porn raid in Virginia, police brought along NBA star Shaquille O'Neal.

With many of these shows, the police department gets veto power over what footage makes it on the air. So you won't be seeing footage of many mistaken raids. That said, A&E should air the footage of this raid to show that the violent tactics these shows repeatedly glamorize can and do have tragic consequences. If the network has any guts at all, it will make sure the same episode looks at the possibility that the presence of its own cameras contributed to the death of a little girl.

Radley Balko is a senior editor for Reason magazine.