Last week a 19-month-old toddler in north Georgia was critically injured when police tossed a “flash bang” grenade that landed his crib as he slept. The grenade was thrown into the house when a SWAT unit from the Habersham County Sheriff’s Office and the Cornelia Police Department conducted the surprise raid serving a no-knock search warrant for felony drug distribution. According to police, the grenade was used because earlier visits to the house by an undercover informant revealed that the suspect had weapons. But there were no weapons found at the property on the morning of the raid.
Little Bounkham “Bou Bou” Phonesavanh, along with his parents and three older sisters, were all asleep in the room while visiting from Wisconsin. Only the little boy was injured. “It blew open his face and his chest,” the boy’s mother, Alecia Phonesavanh, told reporters outside Grady Memorial Hospital. “Everybody was asleep. It’s not like anyone was trying to fight,” she added. Bou Bou is in a medically induced coma and breathing on a ventilator because one of his lungs has stopped working.
Watching news footage of the child’s despondent mother stating that she and the father “would gladly give up” their lives for his wellness was heartbreaking and enraging. The parents were guests at the home and weren’t named in the warrant.
According to police, an undercover informant had earlier bought methamphetamine at the house from the man they were looking for, Wanis Thometheva. One might hope that when executing a no-knock warrant, police officers would bother to check if there are children present before tossing grenades into homes. But too often overzealous cops will exercise little caution when it comes to arresting people on drug charges. And that’s the type of environment that has been fostered by the ongoing war on drugs.
The family is bringing a lawsuit against the Habersham County Police Department. District Attorney Brian Rickman said he is investigating whether any officers violated the law when they used the controversial no-knock warrant for the raid. The Governor of Georgia is getting involved, and the federal government is also likely to investigate.
This story recalls another no-knock warrant that was served in 2006 when rogue Atlanta Police Department narcotics officers killed 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston during a botched raid of her home. The police burst in, startling Ms. Johnston, who was able to fire off a shot herself before being killed in a hail of 39 bullets. This case also involved an undercover informant. And although he claimed to have never bought drugs at Johnston’s home, after the shooting police pressured him to lie and say that he had. It was later discovered that officers planted marijuana in the home that had been recovered from a different raid. They also lied and falsified documents to cover up their misdeeds. Subsequent trials saw four officers sentenced to federal prison for violating Johnston’s civil rights, while several others were given probation or fired. A lawsuit was filed and her family received a $4.9 million settlement.
This waste of life and human potential is a sad commentary on how law enforcement continues to utilize strategies out of all proportion to the crimes being committed. If police departments and the DEA weren’t so driven by careerist ambitions and a need to justify their existence, it would happen much less.
Years ago I heard about a local pot dealer who was busted after the police performed surveillance on him. After the police realized that he didn’t deal in large enough quantities, they let him go. He wasn’t worth their time. They didn’t even confiscate his supply.
Often police will use a low-level dealer or user to inform on someone higher up the chain. But relying on someone who is desperate and possibly an addict can be a risky proposition. Sometimes an informant facing possible jail time will fabricate stories in order to remain free. Sometimes they are coerced. And sometimes police plant drugs and lie in order to obtain search warrants. That was found to be routine in Atlanta’s police department when an investigation revealed that officers had been under pressure to meet performance requirements, which led them to lie and falsify evidence.
It’s past time we consider the consequences of America’s drug policies. That the war on drugs has failed seems obvious to many. Rates of addiction remain unchanged, overdose deaths are at an all-time high while the cost of certain drugs such as heroin is plummeting.
The DEA and our militarized police forces represent a large and ever-expanding bureaucracy that sometimes tramples the rights of the innocent to facilitate officers’ career advancement. If you’re hurting the children while trying to save the children, it negates the entire point. Harm reduction could be a viable strategy for drug use and addiction. Other countries such as Portugal and Uruguay have begun treating drug use and addiction as more of a public health issue than a criminal one. That seems logical to me. The cure should never cause more damage than the affliction.