Photo of a SWAT vehicle in Texas via Flickr user Steven Martin
On Tuesday, September 18, a US appeals court ruled that an August 2010 SWAT raid on a Florida barbershop was out of line.
It's heartening to read the 44-page decision, which sarcastically insults the Orange County, Florida, Sheriff’s Department for launching absurdly over-the-top operations to check licenses of barbershops in the area. At one establishment, Strictly Skillz, about ten cops—some with their guns drawn and faces covered—stormed in looking for contraband. Police cuffed the shop owners and forcibly removed the customers, but found nothing illegal going on in the shop.
This bizarre use of heavy-handed tactics is not unique to Florida. Earlier this summer, several exotic dancers in San Diego filed a lawsuit after being allegedly mistreated by local police, whose excuse for detaining and photographing them was that they were checking identification. Last year, a 12-officer team raided an animal shelter in order to put down a baby deer. There are far too many examples to mention, but federal agencies in particular seem to have recently caught the raid first, question later bug.
With the Strictly Skillz court ruling, barbers can proceed with a lawsuit against the cops for violating their Fourth Amendment rights. But as the law blog Simple Justice noted, there are various complicating factors and technicalities involved (aren't there always). The main one is that the court didn’t broadly decree that a SWAT-style raid in the service of checking licenses is unconstitutional, just that this particular one was excessive in its forcefulness.
So it might be a minor victory, but I'll take it. This ruling combined with the Senate hearing on police militarization from earlier in the month should give some police-reform advocates hope. Could the US finally be tilting away from SWAT raids and prisons as the answer to every societal ill? If so, it’s a change that’s a long time coming—and it’ll be longer still until we see departments across the country actually change their behavior.
On that unusually hopeful note, let's look at this week’s bad cops:
-Last month, a DEA raid on a Manchester, New Hampshire apartment resulted in a woman being shot in the arm and torso. Daniel Nunez claims in an article published on September 18 in the New Hampshire Union-Leader that his mother, Lilian Alonzo, was shot after his little sister opened the door to police, who then rushed in, causing Alonzo to reach for one of her grandchildren, and then—according the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office—“one of the officer’s weapons discharged.” No drugs were found in the apartment, but two of her adult daughters were arrested elsewhere that day as part of the operation. Nunez noted that since this was a long-term investigation, law enforcement should have known there would be children in the apartment and prepared accordingly.
-When Peoria, Illinois, Mayor Jim Ardis sent police to the home of Jon Daniel in April, they were searching for evidence that Daniel created a parody Twitter account of the mayor. Once there, police were distracted by a felony’s worth of marijuana which belonged to Daniel’s roommate Jacob Elliot instead. Daniel got off after the case created a whirlwind of negative national publicity for Ardis and the Peoria authorities, but Circuit Judge Thomas Keith ruled last week that the police had probable cause for the raid on Daniel’s home. The judge added that police should have stuck with searching for evidence of the parody Twitter account, but, you know, they didn’t, so Elliot remains in trouble. What a fucking mess.
-A Volusia County, Florida, sheriff’s deputy fatally shot a 52-year-old man on Saturday after an argument about a towed car. Now Edward Miller’s son (also named Edward) says his dad was deaf and disabled, and that his attempts to inform the deputy of this were ignored. Miller the elder was reportedly “brandishing a firearm,” but considering that to do so at a cop is basically suicide attempt, one has to wonder if that's an accurate account of what happened. (The younger Miller also had a gun at his hip, which was found to be legal and was returned to him. Welcome to America, y'all.) Deputy Joel Hernandez, who fired the fatal shots at Miller and is now on paid administrative leave, was previously cleared in an fatal shooting of a reportedly suicidal armed man who came towards him and refused to stop.
-Also on Saturday, a Ballston, New York, man died after being repeatedly hit with a stun gun. Daniel Satre, 43, was reportedly violently fighting with police at the time of the shocks, and had previously been acting unhinged. Six officers from the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Department and the New York State Police were present for the scuffle. Satre reportedly fell unconscious soon after being shocked, and was given CPR to no avail. A Monday autopsy might answer the question of just what killed Satre, and whether stun guns are as safe as cops and manufacturers pretend that they are. (Hint: They aren’t.)
-The scandal that is the Florida prison system continues, but it’s made some small steps toward accountability thanks to Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Crews. On Friday, 32 guards from four correctional facilities were fired over their involvement in the deaths of three inmates over the past two years. These continued dismissals of staff are good, but what would be better would be criminal charges against the all the guards involved in inmate deaths—including those who in 2012 burned mentally ill inmate Darren Rainey to death in a shower.
-More good news, of which there isn’t enough: In response to critiques of their use of lethal force, and the ensuing lack of accountability, US Customs and Border Patrol has acquired body cameras and will begin testing them during training sessions.
-After footage of Baltimore cop Vincent Cosom punching a man in June was released last week, several members of the Baltimore City Council have begun pushing to institute body cameras on officers in the city. One member plans to introduce a bill mandating cameras at a meeting on Monday. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is also advocating to change the law which says police officers get a hearing before they are fired, and she says she will make sure that “police brutality is not tolerated.” Could this be the beginning of a cameras-on-cops trend?
-On September 17, New York City police officer Gregory Zakoscielny noticed a car slowing down while watching for speeders on the Bronx River Parkway. He approached the car and quickly realized the female driver was choking on a cough drop. Zakoscielny gave the woman the Heimlich and called an ambulance, making him our Good Cop of the Week.
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