Drug Policy

Why Did Baby-Burning Drug Warriors Think There Were No Children in the Home They Attacked? [UPDATED]



Last week Habersham County, Georgia, Sheriff Joey Terrell, explaining how a SWAT team critically injured 19-month-old Bounkham Phonesavanh by tossing a flash-bang grenade into the toddler's playpen during a 3 a.m. drug raid on Wednesday, said members of the team, which consisted of his deputies and local police officers from Cornelia, never would have used such a "distraction device" if they had realized children were living in the home they were attacking. "If there's children involved in a house, we do not use any kind of distraction devices in those houses," Terrell told AccessNorthGa.com. "We just don't take the chance on it….According to the confidential informant, there were no children. When they made the buy, they didn't see any children or any evidence of children there, so we proceeded with our standard operation."

But according to a lawyer hired by Bounkham's parents, Bounkham and Alecia Phonesavanh, even the most rudimentary surveillance would have revealed the presence of children in the house near Cornelia, which belongs to the couple's relatives. The Phonesavanhs moved there with Bounkham and his three older sisters after their home in Wisconsin burned down. "They had been in this home for about two months," the lawyer, Mawuli Mel Davis, told WSB-TV, the ABC station in Atlanta. "This is a stay-at-home dad who was out in front of the home, playing with the children on a daily basis. Any surveillance that was done would have revealed there was a father with four children who played in that driveway."

Habersham County Sheriff's Office

By Terrell's own account, the SWAT team was relying on the report of a confidential informant who briefly visited the home on Tuesday night, just a few hours before the raid, and bought methamphetamine from Wanis Thonetheva, the Phonesavanhs' nephew. "There was no clothes, no toys, nothing to indicate that there was children present in the home," Cornelia Police Chief Rick Darby claimed. "If there had been, then we'd have done something different." But Alecia Phonesavanh says anyone visiting the home should have noticed signs of children. "They say there were no toys," she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "There is plenty of stuff. Their shoes were laying all over."

Bounkham, who was severely burned when the flash-bang grenade exploded in his face, is undergoing surgery today for the second time. His parents told the Journal-Constitution that doctors say he has a 50 percent chance of surviving. The Phonesavanhs, who have no health insurance, are collecting contributions to cover Bounkham's medical expenses.

Despite an avowed policy of not using flash-bang grenades when children are present, it seems that neither Terrell's office nor the Cornelia Police Department did anything to investigate that possibility aside from asking the informant, who according to Terrell did not even enter the home. Beyond the lack of due diligence on that point, there is the question of whether tossing an exploding, potentially incendiary device into a home that may be full of innocent people in the middle of the night is A-OK as long as you are reasonably sure all those people are 18 or older. And beyond that question, of course, is the issue of whether violence is ever a morally acceptable response to peaceful, consensual transactions between adults.

Terrell continues to blame those transactions for the horrible injuries police inflicted on a sleeping baby. "The information we had from our confidential informant was there was no children in the home," he told WXIA, the NBC station in Atlanta. "We always ask; that determines how we enter the house and the things we do…. Did we go by our training, did we go by the intelligence? Given the same set of circumstances, with the same information dealing with a subject who has known gun charges on him, who is selling meth, they would go through the same procedures…Nothing would change….Had no way of knowing the child was in the house. The little baby [who] was in there didn't deserve this. These drug dealers don't care."

Terrell, by contrast, cares so much about the psychoactive substances his neighbors consume that he is willing to endanger the lives of innocent bystanders in his vain attempt to stop people from getting high. If Terrell cared a little less, Bounkham would be home with his parents instead of clinging to life in a hospital.

Update: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that doctors who wanted to repair the chest wound Bounkham suffered during the raid have delayed the surgery planned for today because of the boy's "worsening health." The family's lawyer says "his fevers have been spiking" and "he is not out of the woods yet." 

Update II: At a prayer vigil for Bounkham today, Marcus Coleman of the National Action Network said "the children [and] the father, on a daily basis, play out in the front yard at this residence." He added that in front of the door through which police entered was a minivan with four child seats and pictures of the children on the dashboard. "The sheriff gave a message saying that the one to blame for this incident is the individual that was selling narcotics," Coleman said. "What we come to tell him today is that the one to blame is you and your police department."