"I could see a singed crib. And I could see a pool of blood": More shocking police overreach and militarized SWAT mistakes

Senior citizen killed at home watching baseball. Infants, pregnant women mistreated. SWAT cops, way out of control

Published July 2, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

A riot police officer          (Reuters/Jim Young)
A riot police officer (Reuters/Jim Young)

Last week, Alecia Phonesavanh penned an essay for Salon called “A SWAT team blew a hole in my 2-year-old son,” describing the nightmare she and her family suffered during a Special Weapons and Tactics raid that left her toddler in critical condition.

“After the SWAT team broke down the door, they threw a flashbang grenade inside,” Phonesavanh writes. “It landed in my son’s crib.”

Three weeks later, Phonesavanh’s son, Bounkham (fondly nicknamed “Bou Bou”), remains hospitalized, still covered in burns and with a hole in his chest that leaves the white of his ribs exposed. His injuries are said to be life-threatening.

The shock of the incident still lingers:

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.

The trauma inflicted on the Phonesavanh household is part of a growing trend taking place in police departments across the country: Law enforcement is increasingly deploying paramilitary forces to raid and terrorize neighborhoods.

According to a recent study conducted by the ACLU, “American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight.”

The use of such tactics, according to the ACLU, drastically increases the risk of needless violence and the unnecessary destruction of property, while completely undermining constitutional protections for individual liberties.

The report outlines more than "800 SWAT deployments conducted by 20 law enforcement agencies during the years 2011-2012." Often times, law enforcement is using SWAT to search people’s homes for drugs. According to data released by law enforcement agencies, 62 percent of deployments were for drug searches. Not surprisingly, many of the casualties of such raids have been suffered by communities of color.

Here are some of the shocking stories contained in the ACLU report.

Take, for instance, a 2011 raid in Framingham, Massachusetts:

Eurie Stamp was in his pajamas, watching a baseball game, when SWAT officers forced a battering ram through his front door and threw a flashbang grenade inside. Stamp, a 68-year-old grandfather of 12, followed the officers’ shouted orders to lie facedown on the floor with his arms above his head. He died in this position, when one of the officers’ guns discharged. Stamp wasn’t the suspect; the officers were looking for his girlfriend’s son on suspicion of selling drugs. The suspect was arrested outside the home minutes before the raid. Even though the actual suspect didn’t live in Stamp’s home and was already in custody, the SWAT team still decided to carry out the raid. Framingham has since disbanded its SWAT team.

In Bay County, Florida, in January 2011, a SWAT team shattered a resident’s windows in search of marijuana:

Officers had no reason to believe that the man they suspected of selling marijuana out of his home was armed. Yet, they still classified their investigation as “high risk” to justify deploying a SWAT team. Instead of knocking and demanding to search the premises, the SWAT team burst into the man’s home, igniting a flashbang grenade, shattering a window, and breaking down the man’s front door. The suspect was not inside the home at the time of the raid, but a different man, a woman, and an infant were, none of whom were suspects in the investigation. The suspect was found in the backyard. No guns or weapons were found.

And Huntington, West Virginia, Oct. 14, 2011:

Knowing there would likely be a pregnant woman inside, a SWAT team still opted to break down the door of a home and throw a flashbang grenade inside in order to execute a search warrant in a drug case. Once inside the home, SWAT officers found one man, one pregnant woman, and a four-year-old child.

Or a 2011 raid in Tuscon, Arizona, where a SWAT team opened fire on a veteran, fatally shooting him 22 times:

Jose Guerena, a 26-year-old Iraq war veteran, returned home and crawled into bed after working the graveyard shift at the Asarco Mission mine. Around 9:30 a.m., his wife became nervous when she heard strange noises and saw the outline of a man standing outside her window. She woke Guerena, who asked his wife to hide in a closet with their four-year-old son. Guerena picked up his rifle, with the safety on, and went to investigate. A SWAT team fired 71 shots at Guerena, 22 of which entered his body and killed him. Guerena died on his kitchen floor, without medical attention. The SWAT officers raided multiple homes in the neighborhood, and in another home they did find a small bag of marijuana. No drugs were found in the Guerenas’ home.

In Gwinnett County, Georgia, in June 2012 SWAT was deployed despite the presence of children and the elderly:

In a search for marijuana, a SWAT team raided a home at 6 in the morning. Despite the fact that the department had previously decided that a SWAT deployment was unnecessary in this case, officers used the fact that one of the people thought to be in the home had been convicted of weapon possession in 2005 in another state as the basis for concluding people inside the residence might be armed. Therefore, the department changed its mind and deemed a full SWAT deployment necessary, despite knowing that there were likely to be children and an elderly woman present in the home when they executed the warrant. There is no indication as to whether any guns or weapons were found after the home was raided. All but one of the people thought to be involved were black.

In Burlington, North Carolina, in November 2012, SWAT officers shot a dog during a no-knock raid:

At 6:00 in the morning, a SWAT officer shot a dog during a no-knock raid and search of a home. The suspect was a single Black male who was suspected of selling marijuana at his home. Solely on the basis of information provided by a confidential informant (which is often unreliable), the SWAT team believed that the man possessed firearms. No information was provided about what kind or how many firearms the man was believed to possess. The team deployed a distraction device and broke down the door, causing damage and surprise. They found two unarmed men inside, along with a dog that bit one of the officers. The officer was carrying a shotgun, against the team’s own policy. Using this shotgun, the officer shot the dog. Seventy percent of the people impacted by the Burlington SWAT deployments the ACLU studied were black.

The ACLU’s investigation also includes a 2008 incident from Lima, Ohio, in which a 26-year-old mother holding her infant son was killed:

Tarika Wilson wasn’t the suspect. She died when SWAT officers broke down her front door and opened fire into her home. Ms. Wilson was holding her 14-month-old son when she was shot. The baby was injured, but survived. The SWAT team had been looking for Ms. Wilson’s boyfriend on suspicion of drug dealing when they raided Ms. Wilson’s rented house on the Southside of Lima, the only city with a significant African-American population in a region of farmland.

Sadly, there exist such accounts of neighborhoods being turned into war zones. As the ACLU notes, "Departments use these wartime weapons in everyday policing."

The question I think worth asking is: Why is this becoming the norm?


By Ian Blair

Ian Blair is a writer living in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @i2theb.