Bad Cop Blotter

Even the EPA Is Using SWAT Teams Now

By Lucy Steigerwald

This is an alleged drug and human trafficking hotspot, according to the Feds. Photo via Flickr user Arthur Chapman

Last month, miners who were digging for gold in the remote wilderness near Chicken, Alaska, (population 17) were alarmed by the sudden arrival of a group of armed men. The eight dudes in body armor were from the Alaska Environmental Crimes Task Force, which is led by the Environmental Protection Agency and was there to check 30 or so small mining claims for violations of the Clean Water Act and other environmental no-nos. That doesn’t seem like it would require the use of much force, but the squad who showed up in Chicken included armed FBI and Department of Defense agents and even a plane for “air support.”

Though they expect environmental oversight, some of the miners were unnerved when the men showed up with little or no warning—though their jackets said “POLICE” in big letters, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to assume that the cops were gold-hungry robbers in disguise. “Imagine coming up to your diggings, only to see agents swarming over it like ants, wearing full body armor, with jackets that say POLICE emblazoned on them, and all packing side arms,” miner C.R. “Dick” Hammond, told the Alaska Dispatch. “You would be wondering, ‘My God, what have I done now?’”

A law enforcement agency using paramilitary tactics for seemingly no cause is not unique. Even when they're only checking occupational licenses or enforcing bans on keeping wildlife, cops all over the country seem more and more willing to Rambo up now and ask questions later. They often have excuses for their heavy gear—in this case, the EPA force told one of Alaska’s senators, Lisa Murkowski, that Alaskan state troopers had reported “rampant drug and human trafficking going on in the area.” But state troopers said no such thing, and Murkowski said that the line sounded “wholly concocted.” What's more, not a single arrest or citation has been filed against any of the miners—not only was no one running a drug and slaving empire in the woods, nobody was violating the Clean Water Act.

Reports of the Chicken raids outraged right-wing outlets ranging from Alex Jones’s Infowars to National Review, and now the state government, including Governor Sean Parnell, is getting involved. That's a welcome development. Alaska is as good a place as any to start pushing back the mission creep of federal regulatory agencies—the nice thing about the EPA’s job is that it shouldn’t involve pointing a gun at anyone, especially not some miners in the middle of nowhere.

More bad cops of the week:

- An officer with the Seattle Police Department who threatened a handcuffed man was given a 30-day suspension instead of being fired. Clayton Powell “engaged in multiple acts of misconduct” in an incident during August of last year, which is putting it nicely. He got in trouble while he was investigating the shooting of a nine-year-old with a pellet gun and confronted 18-year-old Ismail Abdella, who made threatening comments about wanting to fight Powell. The officer shoved Abdella several times during their argument, then arrested him while grabbing his hair and throwing him onto the hood of the police cruiser. A little later, after Abdella was in cuffs and alone in a holding cell, Powell was caught on tape moving towards him, waving his finger, and pretending to punch him.

- Speaking of the SPD (which is a complete mess), on Wednesday a Seattle cop accidentally shot an unarmed suspect in the leg. The injured woman was in a fight when the police coincidentally rolled by, and she took off running when they spotted her. The unidentified officer was chasing her when he took out his gun to “cover himself,” which seems like a bad idea seeing as how it’s easy for a gun to go off when you’re running. The good news is that the woman—who was wanted on multiple felony warrants—is fine, and the cop is on administrative leave pending an investigation.   

- On September 3 in Long Beach, California, witnesses captured footage of four officers trying to arrest 46-year-old Porfirio Santos-Lopez. One officer repeatedly hit Santos-Lopez with his baton, and at least one other officer used his Taser what appears to be multiple times. The reason for such violence was that Santos-Lopez was drunk and on meth—his family says he is also mentally ill—and had started a fight. Officers claim they hit the man because he was kicking and punching at cops and refusing to obey commands. That may be true, and Santos-Lopez likely deserved to be arrested, but the video uploaded to YouTube seems to show Santos-Lopez on his back in the road—apparently after an initial Tasering—kicking his legs as a defensive measure when cops hit him again and again with the baton. Bystanders thought he should be arrested, but that the police used excessive force. Santo-Lopez’s family said he was hospitalized for a collapsed lung and broken bones.

- A woman who has been on Arizona death row for over 20 years after being convicted of her child’s murder is free for now, thanks to an untrustworthy police detective. In 1989, Debra Milke supposedly gave her four-year-old son up to two men who killed him so that Milke could collect on a paltry $5,000 life-insurance policy. Those men confessed to the crime, while Milke denied her involvement—but during her trial detective Armando Saldate Jr. swore she confessed, even though there was no recording of her statement. After years of legal battles, a federal appeals court ruled that jurors should have been told about Saldate’s dodgy history of lying under oath, violating suspects’ constitutional rights, and receiving sexual favors from a woman he pulled over. Milke has not been exonerated for the death of her child, and she will probably be retried. But after two decades, it’s comforting that the authorities thought a man like Saldate, now retired, probably wasn’t trustworthy.

- Motivated by the supposed need for beefed-up security on the Mexican border, the Border Patrol (part of the Department of Homeland Security) is using eminent domain to acquire land in order to place surveillance towers. A local TV report from August 27 said that property owners are furious that not only is their land being taken, but the compensation offered is much lower than market value.

- For our Good Cop(s) of the Week, we offer sergeant Steven Sandusky and officer Jason Rains of the Kansas City Police Department, who on September 1 escorted an extremely freaked-out young deer off of a high bridge. The deer was so tired from its thunderstorm and traffic-induced panic that Sandusky only needed to gently touch it with his baton and it followed him to safety. AWWWWWWWW.

Lucy Steigerwald is a freelance writer and photographer. Read her blog here and follow her on Twitter: @lucystag

Previously: The DEA Is Monitoring Your Phone Calls

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