Saturday, February 07, 2009

Maybe shooting a politician’s dogs isn’t such a great idea

The excruciating, blood-soaked ordeal suffered last summer by Cheye Calvo, his wife, Trinity Tomsic, and Trinity's mother, Georgia Porter at the hands of out-of-control law-enforcement officers received the in-depth treatment it deserves this past Sunday in the Washington Post. If April Witt's story of an utterly pointless marijuana raid that resulted in the deaths of two dogs doesn't make your blood boil, you're either bloodless, or part of the problem of paramilitary law-enforcement. But will this be the case that finally convinces Americans the problem needs to be addressed before matters get even worse?

Without going into detail -- the Washington Post story does that, and you need to read it -- Calvo was targeted because Prince George's County police had intercepted a box of marijuana addressed to his home. Even though police knew that smugglers often pick addresses at random, intending to divert the shipment before it ever arrives, they used the marijuana -- which would have been a non-violent transgression even if it belonged to Calvo -- as a pretext for a violent raid. Calvo's dogs, Payton and Chase, were killed and his family terrorized before county police -- who never checked with their local counterparts -- conceded that they might have made an error.

Calvo's story isn't unique. People have been terrorized, injured and killed in similar raids across the country. Salvatore Culosi was killed during a SWAT raid over sports gambling, Ryan Frederick is about to discover his fate after fatally shooting a police officer in a panic as people who turned out to be police broke down his door while investigating charges that he was growing marijuana. Ninety-two-year-old Kathryn Johnston was murdered by uniformed raiders who planted drugs in her house after the fact to conceal their error. All too many cases like this were documented in Radley Balko's book, Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America. The Cato Institute maintains an interactive map of similar incidents on the Web.

But Cheye Calvo is the mayor of his town of Berwyn Heights, he's squeaky clean, an extremely able public speaker who is fighting mad over the incident, and the raid occurred almost within spitting distance of the nation's capital, within the orbit of major media. So Cheye Calvo is, for the moment, the poster child for reforming law-enforcement tactics. And reform is needed. Take, for example, this account of the initial moments of the raid from Witt's story.
It was past 7 p.m., but late sun still streamed through the large kitchen window as Georgia stood at the stove stirring her simmering tomato-artichoke sauce. Georgia turned, catching a glimpse of something out the window that sent a jolt of fear through her. Hooded, armed men, dressed in black, were fanning across the back yard. Still more men, crouching low, moved around the side of the house. Georgia's mind raced to make sense of the strange tableau. Was someone playing an elaborate practical joke?

One of the men spotted Georgia gaping out the window. He lifted his high-powered assault rifle and pointed it directly at her, she recalled. Georgia -- still clutching her wooden spoon -- threw both hands up in the air and screamed. "Cheye, I think it's SWAT!"

Cheye was sitting on the edge of his bed in his boxers. He was just about to put on his black dress socks, when he heard Georgia scream something that made absolutely no sense. He looked out a bedroom window to see armed, masked men running. He was still wondering if they were home invaders when he heard his front door shatter.

In the kitchen, Georgia spun to face the sound of the splintering door. Men in black burst through the front door and into the living room.

Georgia stood trembling in front of the kitchen stove. Payton, who had been stretched out in a corner of the living room farthest from the front door, his head resting near the threshold to the kitchen "turned toward the front door when I turned," Georgia recalled. "He didn't have time to do anything else." Almost instantly, men in black ran forward and shot Payton in the face, Georgia said. "They kept shooting," she recalled. "I didn't know how many times they shot Payton because there was so much gunfire."

"Down on the ground!" Georgia recalled someone screaming at her. She was too terrified to move.

Chase, always timid even when there was nothing to fear, did what he did best -- he ran. He ran away from the men in black, zipped past Georgia at the stove, Georgia recalled. The screaming, running men followed Chase, shooting as he tried escaping into the dining room, Georgia said. She watched in horror as men in black rushed the dining room from all directions. "I could hear Chase whimpering," Georgia said. Then she heard someone shoot at Chase again, she said.

Note that this raid took place during an investigation into the smuggling of 32 pounds of marijuana. There's no suspicion of crimes against people or property. There's no talk of the threats against police or the presence of weapons. Yet police stormed in like it was D-Day with guns blazing. Beloved animals died. People could have died, as they have elsewhere.

Is it that hard to knock on the door, which is still, in this country, supposed to be the default means of serving search warrants?

Apparently it is. In many places in the country, including Prince George's County, most drug warrants are served with a sound of splintering wood and a rush of armed and armored members of SWAT. Is it any surpise that the practice comes with a body count?

The natural reaction for many innocent people, when they are under attack, is to fight back. Kathryn Johnston opened fire, so did Ryan Frederick, so did Vang Khang, and so did Cory Maye. All too often, police point to these incidents of people resisting armed assault as further evidence that SWAT needs to be deployed for every interaction with the public.

But here's the unpleasant truth: People have the moral right to defend themselves against violent attack, even if their attackers are wearing uniforms. The level of force used in these raid is unjustifiable, and the potential for injury or death at the hands of the raiders is all too real. There is no moral obligation on anybody's part, no matter what the law says, to submit to brutal treatment. It would have been unwise for Cheye Calvo to shoot police officers as they stormed into his home, but he would have been perfectly justified in doing so.

And if his neighors, seeing his distress, had rallied to his support with shotguns in hand, they would have been in the right, too.

A badge is not, and cannot be, a license to abuse and kill. If the law says otherwise, than the law becomes illegitimate. Really. The natural right to protect yourself and your loved ones trumps any vote ever taken by a legislative body.

It doesn't need to come to this. People shouldn't have to rely on the gun in the nightstand as a deterrent against those who are supposed to be protectors.

One of the people who came to Calvo's assistance during and after the raid was Berwyn Heights Officer Amir Johnson. Troubled by what he saw, he parked himself in the middle, saying, "I wanted to personally witness what is going to happen to my mayor, so if they try to say this guy went for a gun -- and he didn't -- it's not going to happen on my watch."

Even the police know the situation is out of control, and the good ones are starting to keep at least an occasional watch on the stormtroopers.

But an Officer Johnson here and there won't keep peaceful people's doors on their hinges, or keep humans and animals from ending up in pools of their own blood. That will have to come from a change in policy and culture at the nation's police departments.

Police and politicians can do that on their own, or they can wait for the day when the neighbors of a future Cheye Calvo take matters into their own hands.

Original report here

(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today)

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