Militarization of Police

Burned Babies and the Militarization of American Policing

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Phonesavanh Family

In a Salon essay published today, Alecia Phonesavanh recalls the night her 19-month-old son, Bounkham (a.k.a. Bou Bou), was horribly injured by a flash-bang grenade tossed into his crib during a fruitless drug raid in Habersham County, Georgia. "It's been three weeks since the flashbang exploded next to my sleeping baby," she writes, "and he's still covered in burns. There's still a hole in his chest that exposes his ribs. At least that's what I've been told; I'm afraid to look."

Phonesavanh argues that the SWAT team, which consisted of Harbersham County sheriff's deputies and Cornelia police officers, should have known there were children in the house, where she and her family were staying with relatives after a fire destroyed their home in Wisconsin. "Some of my kids' toys were in the front yard," she says, and on their way into the house, the officers passed a minivan with child seats inside and stickers on the back window representing "a dad, a mom, three young girls, and one baby boy." The family's lawyer likewise has noted that even rudimentary surveillance of the house should have discovered evidence of children. Police, who were looking for the Phonesavanhs' 30-year-old nephew, Wanis Thonetheva, seem to have relied on the assurances of an undercover agent who visited only briefly and did not enter the house. 

So that is one possible lesson to draw from this appalling incident: Before tossing explosive, incendiary devices into the homes they attack in the middle of the night, police should do more to verify that no children are present. But Phonesavanh also suggests that police too readily resort to paramilitary assaults that put innocent people, adults as well as children, at risk:

Flashbang grenades were created for soldiers to use during battle. When they explode, the noise is so loud and the flash is so bright that anyone close by is temporarily blinded and deafened….

My husband's nephew, the one they were looking for, wasn't there. He doesn't even live in that house. After breaking down the door, throwing my husband to the ground, and screaming at my children, the officers—armed with M16s—filed through the house like they were playing war. They searched for drugs and never found any.

As a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) documents, this sort of disproportionate response is common when police serve drug warrants. SWAT teams, originally intended for special situations involving hostages, active shooters, or riots, today are routinely used to execute drug searches. Examining a sample of more than 800 SWAT deployments by 20 law enforcement agencies in 2011 and 2012, the ACLU found that 79 percent involved searches, typically for drugs. Research by Eastern Kentucky University criminologist Peter Kraska has yielded similar numbers.

These operations are inherently dangerous, especially since armed men breaking into a house while the occupants are sleeping can easily be mistaken for burglars, with deadly consequences for cops, occupants, or both. Even when no one dies or suffers serious injuries, SWAT raids feature the destruction of property (starting with broken doors and smashed windows), the manhandling and detention of innocent people, and the more-than-occasional killing of beloved family pets. All things to be avoided, you might think, unless absolutely necessary.

Police typically justify no-knock raids and heavy firepower by claiming the target is apt to be armed. That is what they said about Thonetheva, the Phonesavanhs' nephew, who had no weapons when he was arrested at a different location on the day of the raid that sent Bou Bou to the hospital. (There also were no weapons in his parents' house, where the Phonesavanhs were staying.) In the ACLU's sample that sort of outcome was common: In at least one-third of cases where a weapon was believed to be present, none was found. Police records indicated recovery of a weapon in one out of three such cases. In the rest, the records did not address that point.

The ACLU, like my former Reason colleague Radley Balko, argues that the militarization of American policing has resulted from an excessively literal understanding of the War on Drugs, training that encourages cops to "adopt a 'warrior' mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies," and the Pentagon's promiscuous sharing of equipment with local police departments, which explains why no town is too little or quiet for an armored personnel carrier. The report recommends specific local, state, and federal reforms aimed at reversing this trend, including greater transparency, better record keeping, stricter standards for SWAT deployments, statutes requiring the suppression of evidence gathered in violation of the knock-and-announce rule, and an end to the sharing of military equipment.

The ACLU mentions declining public support for the War on Drugs as one reason to reconsider the ferocity with which it is waged. But while de-escalation would be welcome, it does not address the fundamental immorality of responding to peaceful transactions with guns and handcuffs. Even if reforms like those recommended by the ACLU encourage police to be more judicious in their use of force, unjustifiable violence will always be a defining feature of drug prohibition. 

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  1. …police should do more to verify that no children are present.

    Don’t you understand, Sullum? The SWAT members felt like they got hit “in the gut with a sledgehammer” after they realized what happened to that child. Isn’t that enough for you?

    1. Only if it was because they got gutshot and left to die.

      1. There is a growing segment of the population that care little when a cop stops a bullet. There is another growing segment that actually cheer.

        And the police have no one but themselves to blame.

  2. I heard my baby wailing and asked one of the officers to let me hold him. He screamed at me to sit down and shut up and blocked my view, so I couldn’t see my son. I could see a singed crib. And I could see a pool of blood. The officers yelled at me to calm down and told me my son was fine, that he’d just lost a tooth. It was only hours later when they finally let us drive to the hospital that we found out Bou Bou was in the intensive burn unit and that he’d been placed into a medically induced coma.

    Unbelievable.

  3. You have to wonder who is going to have to be killed, before something is done about this escalating problem.

    We need a celebrity, but one that people don’t necessarily want to see dead. Any suggestions?

    1. Can’t think of one

      1. Taylor Swift in a sundress.

      2. Not even a Kardashian?

        1. ESPECIALLY not a Kardashian.

        2. that would make the cops heros

    2. Oh I know who needs to be killed. Unfortunately it would have the opposite effect.

      1. Only until a threshold number have been killed. The STASI learned the hard way.

    3. Careful, celebrity comes with a price.

      It cost Cory Maye 10 years and they very nearly hung him.

    4. Scarlett Johansson?

  4. “Some of my kids’ toys were in the front yard,” she says, and on their way into the house, the officers passed a minivan with child seats inside and stickers on the back window representing “a dad, a mom, three young girls, and one baby boy.”

    I have all that shit in my yard and driveway just to fool the police.

    If we have to put a human face on the idiocy of a militarized police force, we’re already too far gone to fix.

  5. Before tossing explosive, incendiary devices

    The police shouldn’t even have these devices to begin with.

    1. You see, that’s the sort of extremism which alienates moderates.

      /sarc

  6. The SWAT team was well aware that a child was in the home; they just didn’t give a shit.

    1. Not just child, but children.

    2. Wouldn’t surprise me if they actually aimed for the playpen just because.

  7. When I consider how obvious it was that children were present, it makes me wonder just what kind of parent would use their kids as a human shield to protect a drug dealer.

      1. Check your meter, HM.

        1. Sorry. I’ve become conditioned to the many people who’ve written that earnestly.

          1. I apologize for never mentioning here on HyR that I hate the fucking cops, so I can understand why you wouldn’t think I was being sarcastic.

            1. I hate the fucking cops

              It always bears repeating.

            2. I normally end with a “/s” just to be clear

  8. Drug warriors are the most despicable humans on the planet.

    1. Allow me to once more enter into the record that I desire to motorboat this woman.

      1. Hm. That was supposed to be a comment in the PM links about Emily Ratjakowski. But I’ll motorboat you if you like, Serious.

    2. Drug warriors also tend to overlap a lot with many of the other most despicable groups on the planet.

    3. Why do you call them human?

      1. You right. They may be homo sapiens, but they aren’t human.

  9. Why would the cops ever want to stop these militarized raids? Knocking on the door in daylight, like civilized humans, would raise their risk of dying. Somewhat. Maybe. Conceivably. And it’s not like police sign up to risk death in return for protecting the public or anything.

    1. “Knocking on the door in daylight, like civilized humans, would raise their risk of dying. Somewhat. Maybe. Conceivably.”

      No disrespect, but are you sure about that? It strikes me that most drug dealers aren’t going to risk a conviction for killing a police officer over what they’d likely get convicted for. On the other hand, a bunch of guys storming in in the middle of the night is probably going to give them a reason to believe they’d have to fight.

      1. I’m sure it does raise their disk of death. But they think it doesn’t, which is what matters.

    2. Knocking on the door in daylight, like civilized humans, would raise their risk of dying.

      Not. Half a dozen hopped-up cops with machineguns pointing every which way in a house where the walls won’t stop bullet is extremel dangerous even if there isn’t anyone else there.

  10. You just don’t get it. All that matters is that the police return safely at the end of the day. Sure a few toddlers might be maimed now and again but it’s a small price to pay for a drug free society.

  11. Funny how the names of the police officers have not been released. After all, they are bravely serving the community and they haven’t done anything wrong. How can we be expected to support them if we don’t know who they are?

  12. seem to have relied on the assurances of an undercover agent who visited only briefly and did not enter the house.

    An “undercover agent” is a cop. For some reason I thought this all started with an informer. You know, a rat. A snitch.

    Not a cop. You know, a jackbooted goon. A heavy.

    Could you clarify? Thanks.

    1. Yes, this detail does seem to have changed and it quite unsettling.

      Any additional clarity would be welcome.

    2. It was an informant. And he was coerced into helping the police after he had got caught. That is an indisputable fact, no matter of the media may choose to portray it. The police no longer have the ability (strike that, desire, not ability) to investigate crime. It is much easier to rely on the fear of prosecution of criminals, addicts, etc. to do their job for them.

  13. If he didn’t want to be burned, he wouldn’t have been sleeping in a crib that was in a house where there were people who may or may not have been selling drugs. How hard is that for you people to understand?

  14. Somebody tell me again how working for liberty inside one of the older parties that supports the war on drugs is going to work?

    I’d much rather “waste my time” in the Libertarian Party that squarely rejects the war on (people who use) drugs than work with people who think a maimed baby is acceptable collateral damage.

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  16. Another point about how wrong it is to only be concerned about this just because children, as a musician with some hearing loss, it bothers me how cavalier they are about people’s hearing when tossing these grenades around. Offending police should be required to fire 1000 rounds of 12 guage with no hearing protection.

    1. The basic problem is that the default position of any interaction by the police with the public is to arrest the civilian with all appropriate force. If you get to walk away (or are carried away still alive), you came out ahead. Any collateral damage is acceptable because the civilian didn’t have to go to jail, post bond and spend a fortune on lawyers. And the cop just wasted his time since he didn’t get a collar or a chance to exercise. The mom and baby are just ingrates, since they both got out alive.
      Perhaps we should respectfully request that the police review the set point of expectations. Maybe to something like, if you haven’t done anything illegal, then you don’t have your life disrupted. And rainbow farting unicorns for all just after that happens.

  17. The presence of children is not the salient point here – what is the justification for using this type of device on ANYONE with EXTREME probable cause?

    Obviously, Georgia police haven’t seen “The Long Riders”….

  18. In my purview, the biggest problem surrounding these “no-knock” warrants are the judges that sign off on them. Obtaining a warrant is one thing, but no judge should ever issue a “no-knock” except with an overwhelming preponderance of evidence. Our courts are every bit as complicit in this problem as the police and our military. I would go so far as to say there should be a review by the American Bar Association in cases of “no-knock” in which the judge (as in the case of Habersham County) is disbarred.

    There was another case here in Georgia a year or so ago in which a “no-knock” was executed, and a 90+ year old woman was shot and killed. The problem? The police had the wrong address. And yet we continue to give these inept buffoons badges and guns.

  19. Clearly, there was no fear from the result of being wrong.

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