War on Drugs

One Cop Killed, Five More Injured in Utah Drug Raid


There's still a lot we don't know about a January 4 raid which turned deadly for one cop (with five other injured, one apparently in a medically-induced coma), but it certainly reads like another instance of drug war casualties that didn't have to happen.

On Wednesday, at around 9 p.m. in Ogden, Utah, a 12-man "Narcotics Strike Force team" which included local police, Sheriff's officers, and members of the Drug Enforcement Administration knocked on the door of Matthew David Stewart, in possession of a search warrant related to as-yet-unspecified drug charges. Police say there was no answer, so they kicked in the door.

And then, reports The Salt Lake City Tribune:

When they entered, [Stewart] allegedly started shooting. 

Six officers were hit, and [Jared] Francom died early Thursday morning at Ogden Regional Medical Center. Three of the officers were critically wounded, another suffered serious injuries and yet another has been released from the hospital.

Stewart, who was said to have multiple guns, was wounded but is expected to recover.

Details of the raid are scant at the moment — even this account of a neighbor nervously watching from her "incredible view" of the event offers almost no concrete description of what she saw — but Stewart was eventually arrested at about 9:45, after the shed he was hiding in was surrounded by police. (How Stewart ended up outside is another question.)

Stewart's father (who had been estranged from his son) said that Stewart had been "self-medicating" with weed which he grew for himself, and that Stewart suffered from PTSD, anxiety, and depression. (Stewart is described as "a decorated Army veteran" though he did not serve in combat.)

Stewart's dad also says that his son was probably asleep when police entered, which is why he reacted the way that he did. Unlike previous victims of drug raids Ryan Frederick and Cory Maye who both shoot and killed members of SWAT teams who entered their homes, the subject in this raid did not shoot one person and then surrender. That suggests that Stewart was perhaps less sympathetic than other victims like Frederick and Maye, but not necessarily considering that this is still a story of a bunch of men in SWAT gear abruptly entering someone's home because he was maybe growing a plant. Obvious more details of the raid need to come out before Stewart's motivations can be judged.

On his twitter, former Reason Senio Editor Radley Balko linked to the above Tribune story and wrote "Check out the morning-after photo. These are cops, not soldiers." That photo is to the right (credit to Salt Lake City Tribune). Back in 2009, Balko noted the psychological impact and implications of cops wearing camo in urban environments in his report on the Pittsburgh G-20. This is not a new critique for long-time Reason readers, but it needs to be said often.

New reports are full of the grim details that Francom left behind two young children and that Stewart could be facing the death penalty. What they don't mention, but Balko did, and it can be confirmed by googling, is that Officer Francom was present for the horrifying September 2010 drug raid where cops shot and killed alleged meth-dealer Todd Blair (family said he was just an addict. His former roommate was maybe selling). In the video of that raid, below, I count about five seconds between the yells of "police" and the moment Sgt. Troy Burnett fired at Blair, who was holding a golf club. Watch with caution, though it's not "graphic," it's footage of a man being killed.

The shooting was ruled "justified" under Utah law. And though it was technically a no-knock raid, it still doesn't bode well that the team forgot to bring the search warrant. Other details of how sloppy the raid was can be found at the previous links, but the five-seconds in the video just about say it all.

So no, the late Officer Francom wasn't the shooter here, and my posting the above video is not to suggest that Francom "deserved it." The only point is that Francom is now a link between the two biggest tragedies which result from the idiotic policy of busting down doors for drugs: either the suspect dies, or it's one of the officers. And except in the case of the dependable Balko, news media doesn't seem to have noticed that this whole tragedy could easily have been avoided. Perhaps because the fact of the raid itself was not out of the ordinary; notes The Salt Lake City Tribune in respect to the raid: "'There really was not a great deal that was unique, other than the outcome,' said Strike Force Commander Darin Parke."

Even if Stewart intended to inflict violence on men whom he knew to be police, lives did not have to be ruined or lost. These types of tactics escalate situations which were not violent to begin with. The element of surprise it not worth the risk. There's not a single person whose life should be sacrificed upon the alter of preventing a few drugs from being flushed down a toilet; and if cops were truly worried about gun-toting dealers, they should wait until their suspect leaves the house and then arrest them outside.

Reason on the militarization of police.