On December 19, eight members of Texas’s Burleson County Sheriff’s Department banged open the door of the double-wide trailer rented by 28-year-old Henry Magee and his girlfriend. It was between five and six AM and the deputies, who were there to search for marijuana and stolen weapons, set off at least two flashbang grenades in an attempt to surprise and disorient Magee, their suspect. The leader of the team, Sergeant Adam Sowders, a seven-year veteran of the department, had requested the warrant be “no-knock,” meaning the police could enter the residence without announcing themselves. But it was possibly do to the confusion caused by the sudden entrance of the cops that led to Magee opening fire with a semi-automatic weapon and hitting Sowders. The cop later died, and Magee has been charged with capital murder, which can bring the death penalty in Texas.
The majority of SWAT-style raids on homes in the US—there are more than 100 a day—are over narcotics. It’s unclear how many are no-knock, but the line between and no-knock and announce warrants can be blurry, especially for sleeping residents who may not hear shouts of “police!” According to Dick DeGuerin, the high-profile defense lawyer representing Magee, no-knock warrants are uncommon in Texas because they are dangerous for officers who serve them.
DeGuerin told me that Magee’s girlfriend, who was five months pregnant and “hysterical, screaming, and crying” after the shooting, was forced to lie on her stomach until a female deputy let her turn over. DeGuerin is certain that Magee, whose parents asked him to take their son’s case, “had no idea” who was outside of his door that morning, and Magee thought he was being robbed. According to DeGuerin, Magee yelled “Who is it?” but go no response, then as “the door burst open,” he fired. After the shooting, Magee came out and quickly surrendered.
On Friday, DeGuerin said he hadn’t yet spoken to county District Attorney Julie Renken who filed the charges against his client. (My calls to the Burleson County Sheriff’s Department, the DA, and the county courthouse went unreturned.) He didn’t want to speak to the prospect of Magee’s chances of pleading out or having the charges dropped, but he said that the raid was initiated by a former coworker of Magee’s who had gotten himself into “some deep trouble” with the law and was trying to lessen it by informing.
The idea behind no-knock raids is that it’s safer for cops to take potentially armed criminals by surprise, and the number of warrants authorizing those raids have increased in recent years. Criminologist Peter Kraska told USA Today in 2011 that no-knock raids had increased to 70,000 or 80,000 a year since the 1980s when there were only 2,000 or 3,000 a year. By email, Kraska told me that those numbers, based on his research, should be the same today, or even higher.
Botched raids in Utah, Mississippi, Georgia, Virginia, Utah again, and elsewhere have led to dead police officers or homeowners, but police departments rarely even discuss changing their tactics, suggesting that DeGuerin may be right about the dangers of no-knock raids—particularly when the raid is primarily about seizing marijuana.
Sergeant Sowders is dead. Magee is charged with murder and could face death row. And on January 1, over in Colorado, the same substance that Sowders died trying to remove from society went on sale.
On to the rest of this week’s bad cops:
- Police in Boiling Springs Lake, North Carolina, fatally shot an 18-year-old with schizophrenia on Sunday. The family of Keith Vidal called the cops when he got ahold of a screwdriver during an unstable episode, and according to Vidal’s father Mark Wilsey, when officers arrived they Tasered his son several times and held him down. Then, Wilsey told local news station WECT, one of them said, “We don’t have time for this,” and shot the 90-pound teenager. Neighbors said Vidal, who also suffered from depression, did not have a history of violence. "There was no reason to shoot this kid," Wilsey told WECT. “They killed my son in cold blood. We called for help and they killed my son.”
- “WEED IS LEGAL, HOORAY” headlines notwithstanding, Colorado police will continue to go after unregistered grow operations in 2014. The Kiowas County Sheriff’s Department arrested two people after raiding a home on January 3 that contained 1,200 marijuana plants. Much like news that the ATF or local liquor control boards still raid illicit moonshine stills, this kind of news item feels like it should be an anachronism by now.
- Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an immense slab of beef that has somehow learned to hate, just cost taxpayers $21 million because of his racism. Seven months ago, US District Judge Murray Snow ruled that the county was unfairly targeting Hispanics and Latinos for immigration and traffic enforcement, and the county now has to pay a hefty fine that will go toward installing cameras in hundreds of cop cars, additional training for deputies, and paying the salary of a seven-person team that is supposed to oversee these measures. Arpaio remains one of the worst elected officials in America.
- On December 27, police in Holly Hill, Florida, shot a man’s dog after he told them the prostitute they were looking for didn’t live at his address. Richard Stotlar says cops “tried to argue” when he said they had the wrong house and he shut the door on them, after which they allegedly forced open his backyard gate and fired three shots at his dog Lady. According to local news station WESH, the city is “considering” paying the $3,000 vet bill that resulted from the dog’s injuries. Stotlar, who thinks the unnamed officer who fired the weapon should be fired and should “never be a police officer again,” said the cops told him they would pay it, implying they knew they were culpable. Holly Hill police are investigating, but reportedly the officer in question was a rookie who remains on the force. Stotlar has called a lawyer and PETA and seems ready to make a fuss.
- Speaking of shady doings in Florida, the Tampa Bay Times recently investigated the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Division of Law Enforcement and their habit of dressing in tactical gear and banging on doors in the early hours of the morning, as well as engaging in borderline-entrapment-style stings—culminating in guns-out raids of homes—all in the name of stopping the sale of artifacts like arrowheads. It’s a troubling story with a lot of bizarre details. For example, when wildlife officials came to the door of 52-year-old Terry Tinsley early in the morning of February 27, the twice-burglarized, hard-of-hearing man grabbed his handgun and was ready to fire until he heard calls of “law enforcement.” After two years of investigation and $130,000 in costs unrelated to the six different raids or the eventual prosecutions, Tinsley was one of 14 people arrested and charged with 400 felonies. The Times article also mentions allegations that agents handcuffed a suspect’s wife (which they deny), seized computers and cellphones, and harassed another spouse until she consented to a search of her home. Collecting these types of artifacts has been illegal for the past few decades, but the folks profiled in the piece seem generally baffled that this law is suddenly being enforced and with such vigor. Authorities say their SWAT-ish activities were for the safety of everyone. Would they still be saying that if Tinsley had been a little jumpier, or a little faster on the draw?
- Arguably Detroit police chief James Craig was giving up a little bit when he said on January 3 that armed citizens were a good deterrent to crime. Whether increased gun ownership helps prevent crime is up for debate, and generally, police chiefs in major cities don’t encourage private citizens to carry guns, but Detroit has a crime problem and doesn’t have extra money to spend on law enforcement. (Plus, Detroit police apparently occasionally straight-up rob people, which doesn't boost the department's credibility.) Why not encourage the responsible citizens who go through the process of applying for a concealed-carry permit to go armed? For being honest and for trusting that people allowed to carry guns won’t turn into criminals, Craig is our Good Cop of the Week.
Lucy Steigerwald is a freelance writer and photographer. Read her blog here and follow her on Twitter: @lucystag