Two years ago the Chesapeake, Virginia, police made some decisions that led to an officer's death, then tried to convict a scapegoat of capital murder. In April, following an outcry, the police department announced a change in how it will conduct drug raids. But it wasn't the change you might have expected.
In January 2008 Chesapeake cops raided the home of 28-year-old Ryan Frederick. Days earlier, an informant had broken into Frederick's house. He spotted several marijuana plants and stole some of them, giving police the probable cause they needed to obtain a search warrant. During the raid, police put a battering ram through part of Frederick's door. Frederick says he awoke, saw someone breaking into his home, remembered the burglary of several days earlier, panicked, and fired his gun through the broken door. His bullet struck and killed one of the police officers, Det. Jarrod Shivers.
Police and prosecutors claimed that the cops announced themselves and that Frederick killed Shivers intentionally. The state sought to convict him of capital murder. A year later, Frederick was convicted of manslaughter instead and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The case spurred a flurry of discussion in the Chesapeake-Hampton Roads area about the use of informants and of SWAT-like forced-entry tactics to serve marijuana warrants. Readers' comments on a local newspaper's website, initially pro-police, soured against the department as details about the shoddy investigation came to light. The police, for example, had done almost no investigation to corroborate their informant's tip.
So what did the Chesapeake Police Department announce in April? It won't be reconsidering its policy of sending cops on volatile, forced-entry raids into the homes of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Nor will it change the way its narcotics officers deal with drug informants. Instead, the department announced, Chesapeake narcotics officers will be using a new and improved battering ram.
Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.