Militarization of Police

Prosecutor's Office Clears Maryland SWAT Officers in Fatal Shooting of Duncan Lemp

A report cites his "anti-government," "anti-police" ideology as an impetus for the fatal no-knock raid.

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A nine-month investigation by the Montgomery County State's Attorney's Office released last Thursday concluded that the March 12, 2020 police killing of Maryland resident Duncan Lemp during an early morning SWAT raid was justified.

According to the report, which differs significantly from the original police narrative of the killing, a SWAT officer standing outside of Lemp's bedroom window shot the 21-year-old Lemp five times after he grabbed a rifle and ignored commands to drop it. The report says police recovered three rifles, two "ghost" guns, numerous magazines and boxes of ammunition, an illegal silencer, a bulletproof vest, and a shotgun shell rigged as a booby trap on Lemp's bedroom door.

The Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD) obtained a no-knock search warrant to raid Lemp's house on suspicion that he owned several guns despite being "red-flagged" and prohibited from possessing any due to a juvenile offense, the details of which have not been made public. Lemp's family, through their attorney, dispute both the justification for the raid and the police narrative surrounding the shooting. Lemp's family said the search warrant was based on flimsy evidence and that Lemp was shot while asleep in bed. The case has been clouded by the conflicting accounts and the lack of video evidence.

Since Lemp's death, his name has been frequently invoked by "boogaloo boys," a loose, heavily armed, and very online anti-government movement. ("Boogaloo" refers to a second civil war or armed conflict between citizens and the government.) The report also cites Lemp's ideology and connections to the militia movement as the impetus for the violent nighttime raid.

"The reasons for the 'no-knock' provision was due to Lemp being 'anti-government,' 'anti-police,' currently in possession of body armor, and an active member of the Three Percenters," the report says. "Additionally, police had viewed several videos showing Lemp handling and shooting firearms. The police felt that knocking and announcing their presence would put the officers in serious danger if Lemp decided to resist his arrest."

The report cited text messages obtained from Lemp's phone, including one where he wrote, "I really do feel the boog though. I might not survive to see it but I'm confident my brothers will."

It also included a text chain with his mother where he talked about wanting to reinforce his bedroom door. "Do you know what a no-knock warrant is?" Lemp wrote to his mother on November 19, 2019. "A red flag law? We're one angry phone call away from a swat teams only warning being the first battering ram hit."

"You are going overboard with this stuff love and I'm honestly worried about you and us," his mother wrote on December 11. "You're behaving in a manic way. One or 2 things might be understandable but you keep buying more and more things you will never use. If you were to ever use, would be the destruction of you and everyone around you."

At about 4:30 a.m on March 12, MCPD SWAT officers approached Lemp's bedroom window, broke it out, and pulled the shades aside. According to the report:

The [shooting officer] stated that after moving his weapon and flashlight inside the window he immediately began yelling "police, show me your hands. Police, show me your hands" repeatedly. At this point, the SO observed [Lemp's girlfriend] get up from the bed and put her hands up as she was screaming. The female did not appear to be a threat and the SO then put eyes on the suspect, Duncan Lemp. As Lemp was getting up and out of the bed, the SO was yelling "police, show me your hands." According to the SO, Lemp never raised his hands and was not obeying the officer's commands in any way. As Lemp got out of the bed he was facing the officer. Lemp then bent down and picked up a rifle. As the SO saw this, he believed he started saying, "don't do it. Don't do it" to Lemp but couldn't be entirely sure. After this, Lemp continued to raise the rifle up and at this time the SO recognized it as the illegal tan rifle from the pre-raid briefings. The SO believes he may have still been saying "don't do it. Don't do it" as Lemp raised the rifle to a point where the muzzle was directly pointed at the officer himself. At this point, the SO thought that Lemp was going to kill him and so he made the decision to shoot Lemp.

The report also says Lemp's girlfriend testified that "she recalled Lemp having the rifle up on his shoulder when he pointed it towards the window where the officer was located." Attorneys for Lemp's family and his girlfriend say the report cherry-picked evidence. They are demanding the release of all evidence presented to a grand jury in the case.

As The American Conservative's James Bovard noted, the report's account of the shooting is significantly different from the MCSO's original narrative of the shooting. The MCSO claimed in a March 17, 2020 press release that:

The officers entering the residence announced themselves as police and that they were serving a search warrant. Officers gave commands for individuals inside the residence to show their hands and to get on the ground. Upon making contact with Lemp, officers identified themselves as the police and gave him multiple orders to show his hands and comply with the officer's commands to get on the ground. Lemp refused to comply with the officer's commands and proceeded towards the interior bedroom door where other officers were located. Upon entrance by officers into Lemp's bedroom, Lemp was found to be in possession of a rifle and was located directly in front of the interior bedroom entrance door. 

The MCPD has not been a model of transparency in the months following the fatal shooting. It steadfastly refused to release body camera footage of the raid or even say whether it existed. It simply ignored several public records requests filed by Reason for footage and other records related to Lemp's shootings, contrary to Maryland public record law. It also illegally failed to acknowledge a follow-up records request for its responses to other requests seeking the same materials.

The Washington Post reports that there is no footage of the raid because "Montgomery County has a policy of not equipping front-line SWAT officers with body cameras, according to department records." The Post reported that MCPD Chief Marcus Jones said his department will expand its use of body cameras to SWAT officers.

What apparently won't be addressed, though, is the use of no-knock SWAT raids like the kind that resulted in Lemp's death and the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor last year.

The Post noted that Jones testified before the Maryland legislature last summer that in 40 years of performing no-knock warrants, the MCPD SWAT team had been involved in only three shootings, and the Lemp raid was the first to result in a death.

Maryland has a long history of controversial SWAT raids. In 2008, a Prince George's County Police Department SWAT team executed a botched narcotics raid on the house of the mayor of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, and shot his two black labrador retrievers.

Public outrage over the debacle led the state legislature to pass a law in 2009 requiring police departments to collect and report data on SWAT team deployments. That data showed Maryland law enforcement conducted more than 8,000 SWAT team raids between 2010 and 2014, resulting in nine deaths. But the law expired in 2014, and legislators have yet to renew it.

Rene Sandler, the Lemp family's attorney, told The American Conservative that police "would have seen him taking Kasey to a doctor's appointment or going to a store. They could have detained him during a traffic stop while [other police] secured the home. That would be a much safer tactic than to accost an entire family and to raid blindly at 4:30 in the morning in the dark."  

Instead, the MCPD used the one tactic that Lemp apparently expected and prepared for, with completely predictable results.