A training exercise conducted by the National Guard for US Marshals in Georgia. Photo via the Georgia National Guard's Flickr
On Wednesday, a 59-year-old nurse named Louise Goldsberry was in her apartment in Sarasota, Florida, having dinner with her boyfriend, when a squad of heavily-armed men appeared at her door. They said they were police, but Louise wasn’t so sure. One of them was pointing a gun at her through the kitchen window, and when they stormed through the door, a disconcerting light shining in her eyes, she was terrified. “We're the fucking police, open the fucking door!” the cops were screaming. She grabbed her (legal) revolver—the men who said they were cops told her to drop it and she shouted “I’m an American citizen!” back at them.
It was the kind of situation where someone could have easily died. Luckily, Craig Dorris, Lousie’s boyfriend, had the presence of mind to ask the officers for ID and reassured her that these guys really were cops. She eventually put the gun down, and the officers cuffed her and her boyfriend, searched her house, and were gone in half an hour. No one was charged with any crime whatsoever.
The police were searching the apartment complex for a suspected child rapist eventually found in another part of the city. The cops said later that they had no reason to believe that the suspect was in Goldsberry’s apartment. But they told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that nobody in the other apartments had reacted to their door-pounding, barked commands, or commando gear with hesitation, and that made them suspicious. So they opened Louise’s door without permission and—not surprisingly, since this is gun-happy Florida—found themselves looking down the barrel of a privately-owned firearm.
US Marshall Matt Wiggins, who was part of the raid, thinks everything the cops did was hunky-dory. “I went above and beyond. I have to go home at night,” he told the Herald-Tribune. He also suggested that since Goldsberry wasn’t arrested—merely cuffed for a half hour—or shot there was no reason to go to the media with her story. Though he said “I feel bad for [Louise],” he also scoffed at the notion that she didn’t realize immediately that the armed men at her door were the police.
Louise’s story didn’t get much press, probably because it’s fairly routine. Though in this case the cops were looking for a genuinely sick, violent criminal, many people on the receiving ends of such raids are getting the classic drug war treatment without having done anything worse than sell illegal substances. There are more than a hundred SWAT raids a day—mostly over narcotics—and it’s actually amazing that more cops and more homeowners don’t end up in standoff situations like Louise’s—or worse, end up like Richard Dale Kohler.
Richard was shot to death on June 26 by a West Virginia SWAT team who came to his trailer at six in the morning. Cops say he pointed a rifle at them, forcing them to unload their weapons on him. This week the family of the 65-year-old, who say he was disabled and used a cane, are asking why he’s dead, and whether state troopers shot through his door before he could open it. Regardless of that, and of Kohler’s guilt in the accusations of small-time drug dealing and receiving stolen property, the man is dead because of bad policy. By continuing to conduct raids like these, cops have it both ways—they claim the element of surprise is key to catching the “bad guys,” yet each time they bet their lives and the lives of the homeowners on the latter knowing almost instantly that they’re dealing with legitimate law enforcement. In many cases like Louise’s, the burden of verifying that the men with guns are actually the police is all on the civilians. In a world that contains violent criminals, nervous cops, and millions of legal guns, that’s far too much to ask.
On to our bad cops of the week:
- According to the American Civil LIberties Union, cops nationwide are scanning and storing millions of license plate tags to track people’s movements—a program that cops say is 100 percent legal because you have no expectation of privacy when you are driving around in public. (Though you probably don’t assume that the government knows where your car is at all times.) Obviously license plates are a useful way to find real criminals, but the ACLU and other civil libertarians are worried that there is no national oversight in the storage of this data; some states purge this information regularly, but others never do.
- A 23-year-old off-duty cop in Tucson, Arizona, was fired and arrested for assault after he pointed his gun at a convenience store clerk on Monday, probably while drunk.
- When Revina Garcia had a diabetic episode while driving on July 12, she rear-ended another car—so sheriff’s deputies in Santa Fe County, New Mexico, broke her vehicle window, dragged her outside, handcuffed her, and left her facedown on the hot pavement for more than a minute. This was all captured on police dashcam footage, which is probably the only reason the police are promising to look into the incident with an internal investigation.
- On Tuesday, James Palermo, an officer in San Marcos, Texas, was arrested for aggravated assault by a public servant for a May incident during which he gave a woman a concussion and at least two broken teeth while arresting her. All charges against the woman—obstruction, resisting arrest, and public intoxication—were later dropped and sound like they were baseless to begin with.
- A federal judge ruled on July 12 that San Antonio, Texas, cop Daniel Alvarado “may [emphasis added] have used excessive force” when he fatally shot an unarmed 14-year-old who had run off after the cop saw him punch a schoolmate in November 2010.
- Oklahoma district attorney Jason Hicks faces criticism after he allowed a private security training firm to help make traffic stops and drug busts and to take a cut of any resulting money or property seizures. This is a terrible policy (reminiscent of the government’s practice of letting private companies run prisons), and there were cases of money being seized even though no one was charged with any crime, but Jason claims that everything he did was legal. Prosecutors have been ordered to drop criminals charges based on any of these stops.
- After a doctor confirmed that he was no longer disabled, a former Hamilton, New Jersey, cop named Joseph Derrico had his tax-free $70,000-a-year disability pension revoked. Jason, a 20-year-law-enforcement veteran, had resigned from the Hamilton Township police force in 2010 after he was indicted for receiving stolen jewelry. The retirement board got suspicious when Jason was found participating in a reality show in which he wrestled and ran.
- Antonia Morrison, a linebacker for the University of Florida football team, was arrested on Sunday for barking at a police dog.
- For our Good Cop of the Week, we present Limestone County, Alabama, sheriff Mike Blakely. On Friday, Mike responded to the call of a family on vacation who said their cat was locked in a jewelry safe making “anguished cries,” and the housesitter wasn’t able to free it. Considering how many bad laws Blakely could have been upholding, we salute the sheriff for using his time wisely and choosing to rescue an innocent creature from unjust imprisonment.
Previously: Asset Forfeiture, the Cash Cow of the Drug War