Innocent Civilian Deaths Caused by Police Militarization

Originally published on August 23, 2014, at NationofChange.org

With the aggressive militarization of America’s police forces, innocent bystanders and family members often enter the crosshairs. For decades, federal programs have devised incentives for state and local police to utilize unnecessarily hostile weapons and battlefield tactics against civilians. Operating with a glaring lack of transparency and almost no public oversight, militarized police forces rarely find themselves accountable for their actions.

In a recent ACLU report titled War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policingthe Senior Counsel with the ACLU’s Center for Justice, Kara Dansky wrote, “The ACLU found through the course of this investigation that the excessive militarism in policing, particularly through the use of paramilitary policing teams, escalates the risk of violence, threatens individual liberties, and unfairly impacts people of color.”

After filing public records requests with more than 255 law enforcement agencies, 114 of the agencies denied the ACLU’s request. While investigating excessive weapon stockpiles and police militarization, the ACLU found a disturbing trend in Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams being used beyond their original mandate. Previously, SWAT teams had only been deployed to handle hostage, sniper, or terrorist threats. Now, SWAT teams conduct drug busts, disperse protesters, and execute “no knock” search warrants in residential neighborhoods.

While staying with relatives in Habersham County, Georgia, the Phonesavanh family had been asleep when a SWAT team executed a “no knock” search warrant just before3:00am on May 28. Before entering the room with guns drawn, one of the cops tossed a flashbang grenade into 19-month-old Bounkham Phonesavanh’s crib. The explosion blew a hole in the baby’s face and chest, covering him in third degree burns.

The search warrant had been intended for Bounkham’s cousin who was suspected of making a $50 drug sale. The suspected cousin had not been home at the time of the raid and was later arrested without incident. After being transported to an intensive burn unit, Bounkham was placed into a medically induced coma. Habersham County officials have refused to cover the baby’s medical expenses.

On the evening of January 5, 2011, 68-year-old Eurie Stamps was in his pajamas watching television when SWAT officers forcibly entered his home with a battering ram and tossed in a flashbang grenade. Not a suspect of any crime, Stamps complied with Officer Paul Duncan’s orders to lie facedown with his hands on his head. Duncan claims his bulky equipment caused him to lose balance and accidentally discharge his weapon. Stamps died on the floor with a bullet in his back. The suspect, his stepson Joseph Bushfan, had already been arrested outside the residence minutes before the raid.

Just past midnight on May 16, 2010, a Detroit SWAT team tossed a flashbang grenade into the living room where 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones had been sleeping on the couch. As the flashbang incinerated her blanket, Aiyana was immediately shot in the head by Officer Joseph Weekley. Weekly claimed that Aiyana’s grandmother had reached for his weapon, but ballistics and another officer’s testimony refute his accusations. Police later realized they had forcibly entered the wrong apartment. The suspect, Chauncey Owens, lived upstairs.

On January 4, 2008, Tarika Wilson had been holding her 14-month-old son when an Ohio SWAT team broke down her front door. Sgt. Joe Chavalia entered the residence shooting both Tarika and her infant son. Unarmed and not suspected of any crimes, Tarika died of her wounds while her child survived. Chavalia was charged with two misdemeanors, negligent homicide and negligent assault. An all-white jury convened for three hours before returning with a not guilty verdict.

During a drug raid in Modesto, California, 11-year-old Alberto Sepulveda was lying facedown on his bedroom floor when Officer David Hawn entered the room and fired his shotgun. Claiming his shotgun accidentally discharged, Hawn refused to take responsibility for taking Alberto’s life on September 13, 2000. Clearing Hawn of any criminal charges, former Attorney General Bill Lockyer admitted, “Unfortunately, too many times the deployment of a SWAT team has resulted in the unintentional death or injury to a peace officer or member of the public.”

The concept of the SWAT team formed as a reaction to the 1965 Watts riots. Since that time, the federal government has been pouring increasing amounts of money and military-grade weapons into the hands of law enforcement agencies. Citing the wars on drugs and terror to rationalize their actions, federal assistance from the DOD’s 1033 Program and the DOJ’s Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant has been escalating the militarization of American police forces.

Accepting massive stockpiles of military equipment, vehicles, and weapons, many police departments also heavily recruit ex-military personnel by offering hiring perks, “including extra points on the entrance exam, an age deduction from the maximum age limit, GI Bill benefits, retirement perks and more.”

By sidestepping the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, the government has blurred the divisions between the military and the police. The executions of “no knock” search warrants too closely resemble the night raids conducted in Afghanistan and Iraq. When the police become the military, the enemy becomes everyone.

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