Dynamic Mistakes

 (18 June 2007)  Cory Maye.  Kathryn Johnston.  Salvador and Carlota Celaya.  Those are just a few of the lives ended or wrecked in botched police raids that combined military tactics, bad intelligence, poor judgment, and an appalling lack of judicial and civil oversight. 

We’ve written about Cory Maye in this space before; he is the Prentiss, Mississippi man who fired on officers as they rushed into his bedroom where he had taken up a defensive position with his 18-month-old daughter.  Whether the police knocked or announced themselves is a fact that remains contested.  Tragically, Officer Ron Jones was struck just below his body armor by one of Maye’s rounds and died from the wound.  Maye was originally sentenced to death, but has since had his sentence commuted to life in prison and a motion for a new trial was dismissed.

Kathryn Johnston was the 92-year-old woman who fired a shot in the direction of plainclothes narcotics officers as they kicked down her front door serving a fraudulently obtained “no-knock” warrant for drugs.  The police returned Ms. Johnston’s fire with 39 shots of their own, hitting her five or six times (and wounding three of their colleagues in the process).  Officers immediately handcuffed the seriously injured woman and, thinking quickly, dropped a small quantity of marijuana at the scene to support a cover story.  Ms. Johnston bled to death on the floor.  Two officers pleaded guilty to manslaughter, conspiracy, and other charges while a third awaits trial for felony murder. 

In Gilbert Arizona, a police spokesman was quoted in The Arizona Republic saying a fire started when a SWAT team threw a flash-bang grenade through the window of an elderly couple’s home, was a “regrettable” result of the homeowner’s decision to arm himself.

Police staged the late night assault in search of a suspected carjacker and thief named Erasmo Ruiz Villareal, who turned out to be unknown to homeowners Salvador and Carlota Celaya.  The fire burned the Celaya’s uninsured home of 40 years to the ground, killing their small dog. 

The most common reasons given for a no-knock warrant are that evidence might be destroyed, or that the occupants might be armed and dangerous.  Finding cases where those justifications would withstand close scrutiny is difficult, yet estimates suggest such raids are conducted some 40,000 times each year.

As for armed and dangerous occupants; being armed is not generally a crime in itself.  When officers enter a private dwelling with a warrant, there can be a legal overlap where both the officers and the resident have a legal right to employ deadly force.  Once a resident realizes that the intruders are police officers acting within the law, the right to repel intruders evaporates.  Until that realization though, a home can become a legal “free fire zone” usually to the detriment of all involved.

None of this is new. 

The horror stories stretch back decades.  The infamous Kenyon Ballew case happened in 1971.  Treasury agents from the unit that would soon become the BATF broke down Ballew’s door moments after he had exited his shower.  Hearing the noise the naked Ballew grabbed an unloaded, antique cap and ball revolver and rushed to confront the intruders.  Ballew’s actions are understandable; Charles Manson’s trial following the Tate and LaBianca home invasion murders had just wrapped up.  The agents, several of them bearded and dressed in jeans and T-shirts, opened fire seeing Ballew holding a weapon.  Ballew survived the shooting, but was paralyzed for life with severe brain damage. 

The Weaver and Branch Davidian cases of the last decade prompted a flurry of investigations and hearings and calls for reforms.  While there have been no more catastrophes on a scale to compare to either of those, law enforcement – from the FBI and ATF to local police – has continued to militarize their equipment and tactics.  The trend toward more “no-knock” warrants and more “dynamic entries” has continued unabated.  The inevitable unintended consequence has been more deadly mistakes. 

How necessary those forced entries really are is questionable at best.

As a political issue, the militarization of police crosses traditional political boundaries.  It unites organizations like ACLU and NAACP with the Cato Institute, religious leaders, and Second Amendment activists.  It should be a politicians dream.  The only player missing from the mix is the police organizations themselves.  Police unions need to wake up to the fact that military tactics needlessly endanger their members.  If the police unions step up, politicians may finally address the problem.

There may be times when the only way to serve justice is to kick a door in rather than knock on it.  But those cases should be so rare as to be news all by themselves.


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©Copyright 2006 Neal Knox Associates