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Feature: Killer Drug Raids --
What's the Alternative? 8/19/05


Regular readers of Drug War Chronicle know we report with depressing regularity on people killed in drug raids -- some completely innocent, some who may have been drug offenders, some who went down shooting at police. In the last month alone, we reported on a Utah man shot and killed by undercover police on a stake-out as they prepared for a drug raid, a Florida man shot dead by police as he fled unarmed from the scene of a drug raid, and another Florida man shot dead by police after he allegedly went for his pistol when police kicked his door down in a pre-dawn raid over a couple of ounces of marijuana.

The toll continues. In yet another Florida killing, a Jupiter police officer last week shot and killed a 40-year-old Toronto man in a marijuana buy sting under unclear circumstances. Donovan "Rasta" Brooks was lured to West Palm Beach to buy $80,000 worth of weed in a sting set up by a snitch seeking to beat his own pot-smuggling rap. When the joint federal-local drug squad met Brooks in a motel parking lot, they ordered him to the ground and shot and killed him. No more is known because the police aren't talking.

And in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a police detective and a former National Honor Student turned marijuana dealer are both dead after police last week tried to raid his home. Detective Terry Melancon, 31, was shot by LSU graduate Garry Devai, 25, as he burst through Devai's door. Two other officers were wounded but managed to shoot and kill Devai. They found a grow-op, bagged marijuana, almost $1,400 in cash, and two weapons. Although police were carrying a "no-knock" warrant, they claimed to have knocked repeatedly before bursting through the door, but a neighbor in the same building said it sounded like Devai was being robbed. "These walls are paper-thin," Mike Brady said. "All I could hear was screaming, yelling, banging and shots being fired," he told the Baton Rouge advocate.

Nobody knows how many people are killed by law enforcement agents prosecuting the war on drugs -- mainly because no one is counting, as we reported nearly five years ago. In preparation for that article, a perusal of newspaper articles compiled by the Media Awareness Project done for DRCNet by the group's Tom O'Connell, pulled up at least 60 drug war-related killings by police in the previous year. While current numbers are hard to come by, what is indisputable is that people continue to die at the hands of police enforcing the drug laws, and those SWAT-style no-knock raids are often the precipitating factor.

In an effort to better understand why police routinely resort to tactics more akin to a military assault than to domestic policing, DRCNet this week spoke with a pair of prominent criminologists and a former police chief. (All the narcs we attempted to contact for this story were on vacation -- seriously.) For the criminologists, while there were critiques of drug policy and the "war on drugs" mentality, the bottom line was that the law must be enforced as long as it's on the books. For the former chief, with years of experience fighting the drug war, it just isn't worth it.

"If you have a reasonable suspicion that there are drugs or drug trafficking, it is appropriate to make those arrests," said Samuel Walker, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and expert on police training and accountability. "The real question is over how that raid is conducted and what kind of controls and supervision there are. The SWAT teams are controversial, but control is the key issue. If you have good policies and tight supervision, you can actually reduce problems. It's better to have a trained SWAT team conduct a raid than just a patrol officer."

For David Klinger, a former police officer who is a criminologist and associate professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, drug prohibition is not a battle worth fighting, but since it is the law, it must be fought anyway. "I think we ought to just legalize the stuff and get it over with, but if we are going to make this stuff illegal, and that is what the polity apparently demands, we have to figure out a way to enforce the law. Those raids are one way, and you want your best-trained guys and gals doing it. That will reduce the violence and make it safer for innocents, suspects, and the good guys, the cops."

There are less confrontational ways of making a drug arrest, Klinger said, though they have their drawbacks. "A lot of agencies are moving away from these 'dynamic entry' raids and toward 'surround and call out,' he explained. "Unless you have a situation where you absolutely cannot stop the individual from destroying the dope, you surround the place and announce yourself and tell him he needs to step outside. That's safer for everybody." The down side is the evidence is likely to get flushed.

"Then there's the knock and talk, when a pair of officers just knock on the door and ask if they can ask him about drug activity or look around. It's a version of an investigation," Klinger continued. "The problem with that is, if the knucklehead doesn't want to cooperate, he might shoot you. This is dangerous work; there is no safe way to do this. My opinion is the risk is not worth it. If people want to be stupid in their own homes, we should legalize it. But it's currently a crime in all 50 states and under federal law. If you're not willing to take some risks to enforce the law, then by definition they're home free."

Former St. Augustine, Florida, Police Chief Jerry Cameron saw no legitimate purpose for drug enforcement no-knock raids. "The only time a no-knock warrant or search or seizure is appropriate is when human life will be in danger if you don't do it, but to seize some drugs? Even the Supreme Court talks about balancing tests. Is the possibility of a police officer or a guy smoking marijuana dying worth it?" he asked not so rhetorically.

"If you're doing a no-knock late night or in the wee hours and waking somebody out of a sound sleep, there is just too much room even on carefully crafted raids for something to go wrong."

For Cameron, the root of the problem is not police tactics but prohibition. "After having spent 17 years in fighting the war on drugs, I don't think the whole drug thing is serving any positive purpose," Cameron said. "When you start raising the risks on something that has already proven to be pretty hopeless, it really begins to make no sense. These no-knock raids are just a manifestation of something gone terribly bad."

The war metaphor is part of the problem, said Walker. "When you define this as the war on drugs you adopt a militaristic mentality, along with all the trappings and equipment. As I and others who study this have written for decades, the war metaphor is simply inappropriate for domestic crime issues. This is domestic crime, not war, and citizens and suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law."

Klinger begged to differ. "There is a bright line distinction between the military and law enforcement. I've heard a few people say you need to behave like a soldier, but they don't last too long. Cops didn't sign on to be soldiers, and while a certain warrior ethos does exist, most of the SWAT guys I know don't buy into it. Cops are fundamentally civil servants, line members of bureaucracies who have a job to do, only a small portion of which deals with force," he said. "I haven't seen the widespread problems we would see if the officers were really buying into that notion."

In an interview with DRCNet last week, former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper pointed to police efforts to achieve total control of a situation. "The rationale for 'high risk warrant service,' such as drug raids, is to take the suspect down in his own home, usually at o'dark thirty, and to hit the house with sudden, unexpected, overwhelming force, both decisions designed to catch the suspect unawares, reduce the chances that he can/will get to a gun or dump the dope, and minimize risks to officers, neighbors, innocent passersby who might be caught in the line of fire if there's any shooting. In other words, the cops are trying to control every aspect, every variable of the operation. Of course, this doesn't explain or excuse the 'wrong house' mistakes, or shots fired unnecessarily. For that, I think you look to judgment and discipline compromised by fear, adrenalin, machismo -- and drug war zealotry."

"This whole drug war is bizarre when you stop to think about it," said Cameron, who serves as a volunteer speaker for the organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "As a law officer, you don't question the war, you just hit the beach, but as you move up the chain of command and are accountable for the expenditure of taxpayer money, then you begin asking questions. You realize that people don't make decisions about what to put in their bodies based on the law. Unless we get so draconian we are publicly executing people, that's not going to change. We lost the war and we've probably done a lot of damage. We've created a symbiotic relationship between drug dealers and the government. The dealers need high prices and the government needs the specter of the dealers to keep expanding funding and the bureaucracy. Neither wants the other to go away."

The drug war may be bizarre, but it's not about to go away, so how to make it less dangerous for drug suspects and police officers alike? "One of things we know," said Klinger, "is that the better trained and more experienced you are, the better you perform. It's when you move away from the larger agencies with full-time SWAT teams or well-trained drug units that you have a problem. The bottom line is some of these agencies are in over their heads, they're simply not qualified to be doing these sorts of things. Just because you have Kevlar vests and helmets and assault rifles doesn't make you a SWAT team. If you look around the country, you won't see the big departments' raid teams shooting grandma; that's coming from the smaller departments."

If better training is one answer, so is an increasing recognition that police need to avoid the cavalier resort to violence or violence-inducing situations, said Walker. There is a fairly good and growing consensus that care has to be taken to avoid reckless use of police powers, whether it's deadly force, drug raids, or highway pursuits," he said. "Any kind of action where a citizen's life is in danger is a critical incident."

While police drug raids certainly deserve high levels of scrutiny and law enforcement needs to be held accountable for recklessness that results in deaths, the police cannot be blamed for enforcing the drug laws. That's their job. It seems clear that the only way we are not going to have cops kicking down doors and pointing guns at the heads of drug users or sellers is to embrace the solution called for by Chief Cameron and criminologist Klinger: Legalize it.


Dr. Schaller neither supports nor opposes the material above. However, he is very concerned that our prisons are bursting with convicted drug users and this "treatment" and "intervention" has failed. Period. He also does not feel police or innocent bystanders or drug users should die over pot. Dr. Schaller is not convinced pot is particularly useful in any context, but does not see the current "prison" solution is worth our massively limited taxpayer dollars. We cannot afford to house more drug users in prisons, and Americans do not want to follow Sinbad's solution from Muslim Saudi Arabia of just killing dealers. Amazingly, drug dealers risk death weekly to be able to have seductive massive money payoffs. So how is this any different than what they are already risking in some locations? We need really new thinking, and not the same old deadhead options. America cannot afford to pay for more drug prisons. Can you?

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