Habersham County, Georgia, will pay nearly $1 million to settle a lawsuit by the parents of Bounkham "Bou Bou" Phonesavanh, the toddler who was gravely injured in a botched drug raid last May. The Northeast Georgian reports that Alecia and Bounkham Phonesavanh will receive $964,000 in compensation for the early-morning raid, during which Bou Bou was burned and mutilated by a flashbang grenade tossed into the portable playpen in which he was sleeping. The county also will pay $23,000 to Bounkham Phonesavanh's sister, who owns the house in Cornelia where the couple were staying with Bou Bou and his three sisters after a fire destroyed their home in Wisconsin.
The SWAT team that raided the house in Cornelia, based on a $50 meth purchase by a police informant, found no drugs or weapons. They were looking for the Phonesavanhs' nephew, Wanis Thonetheva, an alleged meth dealer who no longer lived there. Police arrested Thonetheva later that day at a different location without incident, despite the fear of armed resistance that supposedly justified the paramilitary assault that sent Bou Bou to the hospital. Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell, whose officers participated in the raid along with cops from Cornelia, initially promised to pay the Phonesavanhs' medical expenses, which reportedly total more than $1 million, but the Habersham County Board of Commissioners reneged on that commitment.
Yesterday Andrea Harper, the board's chairwoman, sought to paper over that decision. "The events of May 28, 2014, were undoubtedly tragic, affecting the lives of many people in our community," she said. "Over the last few months the board of county commissioners has sought a way to bring some measure of closure to this matter while doing what is right, both for the Phonesavanh family and the law enforcement officers involved." Harper said the settlement includes "protection of our officers and our county," which presumably means none of the cops can be held personally liable for damages. Instead taxpayers, as usual, will pick up the tab for police violence.
A Habersham County grand jury concluded that nothing police did before or during the raid amounted to a crime but faulted them for a "hurried" and "sloppy" investigation that needlessly put lives at risk. Although Terrell said police never would have used a flashbang if they had realized children were present in the home, even the most cursory surveillance would have revealed that fact. "The zeal to hold [drug dealers] accountable must not override cautious and patient judgment," the grand jury said. "This tragedy can be attributed to well intentioned people getting in too big a hurry, and not slowing down and taking enough time to consider the possible consequences of their actions….While no person surely intended any harm to a young child, quite simply put there should be no such thing as an 'emergency' in drug investigations….The hard work and effort brought to apprehend suspects and seize evidence must always be tempered by the realization that no amount of drugs is worth a member of the public being harmed, even if unintentionally, or a law enforcement officer being harmed."
The Phonesavanhs filed their lawsuit in February. The swiftness of the settlement is not surprising given the facts of the case, which combine police recklessness with a highly sympathetic victim. But given the magnitude of the expenses associated with Bou Bou's ongoing medical treatment, the amount seems low, especially since it is not hard to imagine a multimillion-dollar award by a jury. Perhaps the Phonesavanhs worried that the government would try to blame them for their son's injuries by arguing that they knowingly put him in a dangerous environment. The grand jury report said "there is evidence that [the Phonesavanhs] were aware of criminal activity and drug sales on the part of persons at the residence, and specifically Wanis Thonetheva."
Even if that's true, it is hard to argue that Bou Bou's parents therefore should have foreseen that a grenade might one day explode in their son's face, let alone that the horrifying attack would be carried out by armed agents of the state in the name of protecting public safety. After the raid, Terrell tried to blame Thonetheva for his little cousin's injuries. But it was the police, not Thonetheva, who introduced violence into this situation, based on a morally obscene calculus that sacrifices innocents like Bou Bou to stop people from getting high in unsanctioned ways.