The cops were looking for a meth dealer who had not lived there for at least a year.
A SWAT team breaks into a home early in the morning based on an informant’s tip, expecting to find an armed methamphetamine dealer. Instead they encounter an innocent family with several young children.
Those were the circumstances in which police in Habersham County, Georgia, nearly killed a toddler with an errant flashbang grenade in 2014, leading to a lawsuit that was eventually settled for $3.6 million. Something similar happened last week in Mesa County, Colorado. This time no one was injured or killed, although things easily could have turned out differently.
Around 11:30 p.m. last Tuesday night, the Western Colorado Drug Task Force, which includes representatives from the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) and the Grand Junction Police Department (GJPD), received a tip from an informant who claimed cops would find a stash of methamphetamine and guns at an apartment in the Coronado Villas complex in Clifton. The tip apparently was the sole basis for the warrant that 15 to 20 officers served around 5:30 a.m. the next morning. “Upon initial contact at the residence,” the MCSO and GJPDO say in a press release, “officers received no answer at the door.” That’s hardly surprising, given the early hour. Cops routinely conduct drug raids when people are sleeping, the better to discombobulate their targets, and then use the residents’ failure to promptly answer the door as an excuse to break it down, which only magnifies the chances of a violent encounter.
“As is standard protocol when probable cause has been developed that illegal or dangerous activity is occurring, and armed with the signed search warrant, officers forced entry into the home, using a breaching tool,” the press release says. “During entry into the residence, several windows of the home were broken.” Fortunately, the cops did not toss any flashbangs while entering the house, but they terrified the occupants, who included five children ranging in age from 3 to 12. “Ultimately,” the cops say, “officers contacted the residents inside the address, and determined that they were not the suspects that officers were looking for.”
The phrase “contacted the residents” is an anodyne description of a much scarier reality. “Waking up to guns in my face, I consider that the beginning,” the father of the family, Sean Armas, told KJCT, the ABC station in Grand Junction. “That’s how it was, all my kids had guns on them. It was out of line….It’s a dangerous situation they put my family in, and for my kids, it just keeps playing through their minds.”
The basic problem here is that the government insists on using violence when it is not morally justified: in response to peaceful, consensual transactions between adults. But even taking the war on drugs as a given, a little more restraint would go a long way. The false sense of urgency that leads to raids like this one, where the cops felt they had to act so quickly that there was no time for a proper investigation, must be countered by a constant awareness of how a raid can go horribly wrong. The common practice of serving drug warrants by crashing into people’s homes in the middle of the night is supposedly aimed at preventing violence, but it makes potentially fatal mistakes more likely, even when the information on which the raid is based turns out to be accurate. Cops are easily mistaken for burglars, and residents defending their homes (or even just blearily descending the stairs with an unidentified object in their hands) are easily mistaken for would-be cop killers. Children are horribly burned by explosive devices designed to confuse the enemy. Fortunately, no one was injured or killed in this case, but it has happened before, and it is bound to happen again.