In Georgia, a SWAT team has blown up a baby’s face with a grenade.
Early Wednesday morning, a multi-jurisdictional tactical team conducted a no-knock raid on a Georgia home suspected of containing drugs and weapons, and after breaking the door down with a battering ram, tossed a so-called “stun grenade” through that doorway, and into the crib where 19 month-old Bounkham Phonesavanh slept. That baby is now in a medically-induced coma. The team responsible for the raid is reportedly very broken up about the injury, but police say they used the no-knock raid and SWAT tactics because the suspect had a previous weapons arrest, and because their confidential informant saw no indications of children at the residence.
The child’s mother, Alecia Phonesavanh, disputes that:
“My son’s old playpen was right outside because we were getting ready to leave, we were going to throw it away… it was very, very visible,” Phonesavanh said.
“They can’t tell me there was no signs of kids,” Phonesavanh said. “My van sits right next to the door that they busted into. My van has family stickers on it, four car seats inside, right next to the door that they kicked in,” Phonesavanh said.
The kicker, though, is that the cops found no weapons or drugs in the home. The suspect was arrested later, at a different location.
The term “stun grenade” sounds fairly innocuous, if contradictory; we’ve all seen Star Trek, we’ve all seen Rick Sanchez get voluntarily convulsed by a stun gun. To give you some idea of what was thrown into that crib, though, here’s a video demonstration of a “stun grenade,” also known as a “flashbang”:
These devices emit a 2.4 million candlepower flash, a 175 decibel bang, and can burn at 4,892 degrees Fahrenheit. Often referred to as “nonlethal,” they’re actually classified as “less lethal” devices, because they can, and do, kill. Like many “nonlethal” police measures, flashbangs were originally intended for use only in extreme situations, or as a replacement for deadly force, but those goalposts have obviously, inevitably moved. They are also just another part of our civilian police force’s long march toward militarization.
That march probably began in 1984, when police in San Ysidro found themselves badly outgunned by a mass murderer who killed 21 people at a McDonald’s there. That massacre resulted in police forces around the country to adopt more militarized weapons and tactics, and by the end of the decade, a police tank was starring in Die Hard.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 created a new and supremely-rich market for military-style police weapons and tactics, and the expiration of the assault weapons ban made sure that police would continue to match the ever-escalating firepower available on the civilian market. What was once a novel set piece in an action movie is now wallpaper in news stories about police response to threats.
The dual threats of terrorism and well-armed domestic bad guys are very real, so this level of readiness isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the problem with toys, even deadly ones, is that they don’t sit around long without someone playing with them. In 2006, The Cato Institute‘s Radley Balko, now of The Washington Post, sounded the alarm about no-knock SWAT raids, including this disturbing map showing raids that resulted in the deaths of police officers, innocent people, and non-violent offenders.
Balko built on that research for his book “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces,” which traces the phenomenon to the unrest of the 60s, and lays most of the blame on the War on Drugs. Writing for WaPo about the baby injured last week, Balko says:
There are some very limited circumstances where flashbangs may be appropriate in domestic policing, such as when a fugitive has barricaded himself in a building, or during a hostage situation where lives are at immediate risk. Using them for drug raids is reckless, dangerous, and unnecessarily jeopardizes the safety and constitutional rights of citizens in the name of preventing other citizens from getting high.
Of course, that’s also a pretty good description of the drug war in general.
Balko may be correct that the drug war is the germ that started this infection, but oppressive policing tactics have spread like a plague. We all remember casual pepper spray guy, and many of us care deeply about the racist stop and frisk policies that are openly, unashamedly debated by public officials these days. For some reason, though, these concrete and devastating examples of oppression have failed to capture the attention of the mainstream press.
Balko may be correct that the drug war is the germ that started this infection, but oppressive policing tactics have spread like a plague. We all remember casual pepper spray guy, and many of us care deeply about the racist stop and frisk policies that are openly, unashamedly debated by public officials these days. For some reason, though, these concrete and devastating examples of oppression have failed to capture the attention of the mainstream press, or the rest of the public, in the way that, say, Edward Snowden’s hypothetical warnings about your cellphone have.
This isn’t so much a knock on Snowden, then, as it is on the 2.4 million candlepower spotlight and high-decibel blare the press has placed on him, and on other issues that receive outsize attention. The political press, for example, has been much more responsive to the amorphous concerns of the tea party than they have to groups who are impacted by voter suppression laws.
The energy that the press devotes to these comes at a cost. Part of the problem is that most journalists, and most of the audience they covet, don’t see themselves as people who will ever come into this kind of contact with law enforcement. The hazards of being stopped and frisked (and maybe jacked up) on the way home, or shot down in their own driveways, or prevented from voting, or having a four thousand-degree grenade thrown through their door, just aren’t as real as the possibility that someone other than Google & Friends is parsing their internet activity, or keeping track of their phone bill.