“If we’re wrong …”

A twelve-year-old girl gets severely burned by a flash-bang grenade in a drug raid, and the police chief doesn’t know how to respond.

Billings, MT, police, investigating what they thought was a meth lab, tossed flash-bang grenade through the window of a house during a 6am “dynamic-entry” raid. A sleeping twelve-year-old girl suffered second-degree burns described by a newspaper reporter who saw a photograph as “black and red.”

The decision to use essentially military tactics was based on some sort of point-scoring system; no human being is taking any responsibility for that choice, or for the fact that the intelligence about the suspected drug law (no arrests were made after the raid) seems to have missed the presence of children. And there seems to have been more than a little bit of incompetence involved:

The grenade is commonly called a “flash-bang” and is used to disorient people with a bright flash, a loud bang and a concussive blast. It went off on the floor where the girl was sleeping. She was in her sister’s bedroom near the window the grenade came through, Fasching said.

A SWAT member attached it to a boomstick, a metal pole that detonates the grenade, and stuck it through the bedroom window. St. John [the police chief] said the grenade normally stays on the boomstick so it goes off in a controlled manner at a higher level.

However, the officer didn’t realize that there was a delay on the grenade when he tried to detonate it. He dropped it to move onto a new device, St. John said. The grenade fell to the floor and went off near the girl.

OK. Mistakes happen, and people get hurt. That’s life. In a more sensible world, the police chief would be horrified by what happened and would pledge to review the procedures to minimize the chance that it would happen again.

Instead, what we get is this stupid, heartless bureaucratic bumpf:

A claims process has already been started with the city. St. John said it’s not an overnight process, but it does determine if the Police Department needs to make restitution.

“If we’re wrong or made a mistake, then we’re going to take care of it,” he said. “But if it determines we’re not, then we’ll go with that. When we do this, we want to ensure the safety of not only the officers, but the residents inside.”

“If we’re wrong or made a mistake”? IF?????? Fool, someone on your payroll who hadn’t been properly trained in the handling of dangerous weapons severly burned a twelve-year-old girl who hadn’t been accused, and won’t be accused, of any crime. And you’re quibbling about whether you’re going to pay for her goddamned medical care?

Look, manufacturing meth is a nasty business, and some of the people in it don’t play nice. There will be times when dramatic tactics are actually necessary. But not often, and not on a point-score system. The problem with setting up SWAT teams everywhere is that none of them will be very good at what they do, and they’ll all want to do what they’re drilled to do whether it’s really necessary or not.

At some point, citizens need to get past the drug-war rhetoric and say “Enough!”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

59 thoughts on ““If we’re wrong …””

  1. Is it just me, or does the idea of throwing a flash bang grenade into a meth lab full of toxic and poisonous chemicals sound really dangerous and stupid. How do these chemicals react to the components of a flash bang grenade.

    1. No……it’s not just you. I suspect pretty much any sane person would think the same thing. Except, apparently, the idiots in that SWAT team.

  2. Toxic? Not just toxic… some of the reactants are highly flammable.

    A flash-bang grenade around flammable materials. Definitely not smart.

    As my mom says, “It may not take all kinds to make a world, but we sure seem to have them anyway.”

  3. I caught an early episode of COPS from the 80s and the contrast of how they handled the drug busts/arrests vs today’s militarized operations was stunning. And depressing.

  4. In modern American marketplace of ideas, due diligence seems to have passed its expiration date:

    “St. John said investigators did plenty of homework on the residence before deciding to launch the raid but didn’t know children were inside.”

    And about that ‘point-scoring system’:

    “Investigators consider dozens of items such as residents’ past criminal convictions, other criminal history, mental illness and previous interactions with law enforcement.

    Each item is assigned a point value and if the total exceeds a certain threshold, SWAT is requested. Then a commander approves or rejects the request.

    In Tuesday’s raid, the points exceeded the threshold and investigators called in SWAT.”

    They had no choice, the metrics made them do it.

    1. I can even appreciate the point system that they have set up…..it apparently is designed to flag repeat offenders and maybe situations where violence is anticipated. STILL….part of the equation should be to anticipate the presence of children or other non-combatants…..especially when the action is going to take place in a residence.

      1. You are right, a point system like this is a perfectly reasonable tool. The problem (one of many) is that once this is in place it becomes “policy” — and once a policy is in place anything goes as long as it doesn’t “violate policy” (too egregiously). Just look at the chief’s statement, “If we’re wrong or made a mistake, then we’re going to take care of it”; believe me, if they can legally justify their actions by being “within policy,” they will.

        Bad policing goes on all the time, but it’s almost always within policy — even when innocent citizens are killed (perhaps I should write “especially when innocent citizens are killed”).

        1. I’m in favor of a point system for the police. If a department exceeds a certain number of abuse complaints, that’s a point. For every “wrong address” or drug raid that yields no drugs, that’s a point. For every $10,000 of settlement cash the dept. has to pay out, that’s another point. If a department exceeds a threshold, then the department is disbanded, the chief is investigated on criminal charges, and a new department is assembled with all-new hires.

  5. Meth seems to be genuinely damaging and dangerous. Mark, if marijuana becomes legal, will some fraction of people chose it, instead of meth? Would that be a reasonable thing to think of as a benefit of marijuana legalization?

    1. Who is there who now can’t get pot but can get meth who would switch? I’m having a hard time understanding the model here.

      1. Okay, but if there are people who can get meth and can’t get pot, let’s give them some danged pot already!!! Sheesh.

      2. The notion I had was, meth and pot are both made more expensive and troublesome to get by illegality; if pot gets less expensive and troublesome people might choose pot more. I really don’t know: in high school and in college (a little) I used pot, this is forty years ago, and I am wholly out of touch. I really have no good idea how people are choosing between, or if they are substitutes for each other. Is ‘getting high with pot’ utterly different from ‘getting high with meth’? or are they somewhat substitutes?

        1. The effects of pot & meth are almost diametrically opposed. There are some people who do both, but I, as a pot smoker, will never try meth at any price, even if offered free.

    2. If you think this is a reasonable model of the world, ask yourself why the meth-heads are not willing to simply get drunk on rotgut. Legal, cheaper, easier to acquire.
      That surely answers the question, does it not?

    3. I do actually think that if you had a choice of kids/teens huffing paint vs. smoking pot get them some pot. Not going to happen in this world because we can’t discuss kids/teens using anything but I suspect that there would be a lot less damage there (even with recent NIDA studies confirming memory issues associated with youthful use of pot).

  6. They had the damn place surrounded, with military equipment. Why not just knock on the damn door? What’re the inhabitants going to do – start a firefight with a goldarn SWAT team?

    1. The cops’ claimed reason for bashing in the door is that they’re afraid the perps will flush the evidence down the toilet. By this line of reasoning, they may as well shoot the perps first, to avoid the risk of subsequent perjury.

  7. “If we’re wrong or made a mistake, then we’re going to take care of it,” he said. “But if it determines we’re not, then we’ll go with that.”

    Anyone betting that they’ve got a checklist to determine if they’ve made a mistake?

    1. “Did we get away with this last time we injured an innocent bystander or raided a house with no drugs? Check!”

  8. Just how much does events like this factor into your cost/benefit analysis of drug prohibition?

    1. I would like to see an answer to this question too. I just don’t see how a cost/benefit analysis could come out *anywhere* near equal. It’s a quagmire — let’s get the bleep out.

      If I’m wrong, someone prove it.

  9. At least, unlike the girl in Detroit some time ago, they didn’t shoot her dead after burning her with the grenade.

  10. Policy blah, blah, blah. Drugs are bad. Cops are usually worse. Worth mentioning on a jury questionnaire, but that’s not why I do it.

  11. At some point, citizens need to get past the drug-war rhetoric and say “Enough!”

    I’ve had enough for years. Trouble is, I’m not a millionaire so therefore I can’t buy a lobbyist’s access.

  12. Waging a drug war is an inherently nasty business, which is why things like this happen. Manufacturing drugs is only a contingently nasty business, nasty due to the war on drugs. Making meth wouldn’t be any nastier than making asprin if it weren’t illegal.

    This means that all the nastiness is the fault of the cops, whether or not they happen to attack the wrong house.

    1. well, the fault of the folks who pay and mandate the cops – including the many citizens who vote for politicians who promise to be tough on drugs – though this one took some stupidity on the part of the cops to execute so disastrously.

    2. if you’re sincere here and not being snarky i find myself in rare agreement with almost all of your comment except that i’ve made aspirin as part of an organic chemistry class and i’ve read through common syntheses of meth and meth does go through a nastier set of reactions with more hazardous byproducts than aspirin requires.

      1. I don’t think the chemicals are the “nasty” part that has most people concerned. I’ve made urethane myself, in my last employer’s R&D facility, and isocyanates are about as nasty a chemical as you could imagine, but people don’t freak over rubber manufacture.

        1. i sense that you are intending more of a moral understanding of “nastiness.” on the other hand i think you may be deliberately missing my point just to be a little more feisty, meth labs are not likely to be set up at an r&d facility unless you work in a pharmaceutical house working on a better synthesis of desoxyn, and i tend to believe people would freak out a lot more about rubber manufacturing with isocyanates if it were being done in clandestine labs that were liable to police invasion with explosive devices. i stand by my original assessment of environmental impact vis-a-vis aspirin and meth. the rest of the argument you can have.

          1. I think my point is that the only reason meth labs ARE clandestine in the first place is the drug warriors.

      2. Yes, but in a lab with proper ventilation & safety equipment, and properly trained personnel; not a problem. Done in a trailer park with make-shift apparatus and a strung-out tweeker mixing industrial chemicals; a bit more dangerous.

    3. Actually, making meth produces all sorts of toxic byproducts. Given your general approach to environmental regulations, I don’t trust you to create a regime in which it is legal to make the stuff.

      1. Oh for crying out loud. This is an insane line of argument to go down.
        The problem with meth (legal or otherwise) is that it destroys people. The byproducts of its manufacture are a trivial issue compared to that.

        If some eco-minded Walter White figured a clean way to make meth without any toxic byproducts, would ANYONE change their opinion about the drug? No. So stop pretending that the byproducts are at all relevant to the argument.

        1. for me, the discussion of toxic byproducts has less to do with it’s legal status and more to do with throwing an explosive device into the factory. in that instance, the byproducts are relevant to the argument.

        2. If some eco-minded Walter White figured a clean way to make meth without any toxic byproducts, would ANYONE change their opinion about the drug?

          It depends upon what you mean by “change their opinion.” It certainly would change the way I look at it. Would it change it enough to change my overall opinion as to whether meth should be legalized? I don’t know. It’s not something I’ve looked into enough to even have a strong opinion as to how we should treat it now, without a clean way to make it.

  13. As far as citizens getting past the rhetoric…. I suspect that most people in this country probably have about the same attitude on this as the crowd at the republican debate that cheered the guy with no insurance.

  14. The point of a warrant is to slow the process down by forcing the police to think about what they propose to do, and then subject that thinking to a second look by a neutral and detached magistrate. The point of a checklist is to speed the process up. Granted, the execution of the warrant is beyond the reach of the magistrate. Maybe Montana needs a statutory solution to this problem, by giving the magistrate power to review the method of the execution of the warrant. That said, I find it hard to believe the chief of police of a small town like Billings could be so detached.

  15. Even when properly conducted no knock raids are a recipe for disaster. They really have very little legitimate application outside of hostage situations. But apparently getting to play commando is regarded as one of the perks of the job.

    No knock searches have so much potential to go bad, they ought to be subject to strict liability.

    1. Weapons violations? Gang-related activity? Arrest warrants for Murder, Armed Robbery, really any violent crime which involves a weapon or a human death should obviously be served in a no-knock, flashbang and stinger heavy demonstration of power. Remember bulletproof armor doesn’t really work at all against certain round/handgun combinations, let alone the assault weapons which can be found in the possession of bangers in all major and moderately sized cities. Cops are relatively well paid for civil servants, but they are not paid well enough to calmly knock on the door of house which they know to contain firearms and a probable murderer. If I was serving an arrest warrant for armed robbery at a residence I would bang every room and pull the front door off with an APC. This was obviously a disastrous fuck-up and obviously the cops should have to pay and should emphasize the importance of determining the presence of non-suspect parties in the future. That does not mean that we should go around disbanding all of the localish SWAT teams just yet.

      1. A police official once allowed as how SWAT is sometimes used in low risk situations as training for SWAT teams. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy to know that the police view me as a practice dummy.

    2. I think Brett (who, so far as I know, is not an attorney) has introduced a specific legal term — strict liability — which is EXACTLY right for this type of situation. If you make those gunslingers on the side of the law responsible for their results, then their actions will become more deliberate, and more circumspect.

        1. The suggestion is courtesy of Glenn Reynolds, (He suggests this every time he remarks on no knock searches.) who is, in fact, an attorney.

          I, of course, am not, but I do know what “strict liability” means, so it’s not like I stumbled onto the term by accident.

          “Weapons violations? Gang-related activity? Arrest warrants for Murder, Armed Robbery, really any violent crime which involves a weapon or a human death”

          Geeze. No. Set aside the fact that “weapons violations” don’t remotely belong on that list, being non-violent, most of them the equivalent of not filing a tax form. (In fact, most ARE not filing a tax form! Form 5320.4, to be specific.) Just because you check all the boxes on the form doesn’t mean you’re going to show up at the right door, or that the person you’re going after is actually guilty of anything more than annoying a police informant.

          You get to treat the people like human scum after they’re convicted, not before.

          Why not starve them out? Surprise them on the way to the grocery store? Invest in warrant delivery robots, instead of tanks? We don’t need to turn every arrest into a miniature Waco.

          1. I did not mean failing to file a tax form related to a weapon when I said weapons violations. I meant convicted felons with weapons, drug raids where there is actually specific intelligence concerning the presence of firearms in the target area, etc. Police culture is regrettable and the pool of people who become police officers could totally be improved if we wanted to pay enough for it to be a whitish collar job, but somehow I don’t think you would endorse the requisite tax increases Brett. Also, and I really am not trying to be a dick here, but not only am I not surprised that you mentioned Waco, I actually thought that you would if you responded to what I wrote (even as I wrote it). People who dwell on Waco are often a half-step away from thinking new world order ninjas are going to fastrope out of a silenced black helicopter and intern them in FEMA camps. I’m not saying you are, I’m just sayyin.

          2. sorry to disabuse you, student, but people from very disparate points of view can still dwell on waco and it doesn’t require a belief in black helicopters to do so. i’m from a completely different part of the political spectrum from brett but the utter stupidity of atf actions at the branch davidian camp came to mind when reading this article. i certainly think that law enforcement agencies walked away with seriously flawed lessons from that incident/massacre. lessons that have led to a 12 year old having a stun grenade dropped on her without warning through a window.

          3. What was Waco, if not a no-knock search writ large? And fouled up large, too.

            I’m not so sure they really learned such bad lessons from Waco; Now, Ruby Ridge they learned some ugly lessons from, which is why Waco followed. But, what followed Waco? If there’s been another major standoff/atrocity since, I’ve missed it. And they went after several targets after, which previously would have been handled in the same manner, so they must have cleaned up their acts somehow.

            No, I think the no-knock search is a result of other forces. Such as a generation of police raised on first person shooter games, and entering law enforcement expecting something more like that experience than Mayberry RFD?

            And, of course, the war on drugs. That’s a general problem with prohibitions, IMO, and you can see it going back to the first Prohibition.

            You’re presenting law enforcement with a sort of law which is fundamentally impossible for them to effectively enforce while acting in a reasonable manner. They simply can’t drive the probability of catching the criminal high enough while respecting civil liberties, and the profits make official penalties, subject to 8th amendment analysis, ineffective, too, especially given that low probability of their being imposed.

            So the police start replacing certainty and formal penalties with fear and terror. No knock searches are just another way of terrifying people.

    3. “Even when properly conducted no knock raids are a recipe for disaster.”

      An occupant is awaken in the middle of the night and has maybe thirty seconds to decide whether he is being confronted by a tornado, home invasion, police or who knows. If he makes the wrong decision, he could end up dead or in prison the rest of his life.

      If wide awake, trained SWAT team members with presumed situational awareness make a mistake and someone is injured or killed…oh…well…$hit happens.

  16. Oh and I should also have added that on the way to the grocery store is bad because that wording applied to the real world basically guarantees the presence of motorists and often pedestrians and businesses proximal to the arrest. Starving them out is fine unless, as was the case in Waco, there are a ton of children inside who the police have now assumed a sort of moral responsibility for by surrounding the place and forcing a tense situation with a bunch of armed psychos. Clearly the children did not end up being any better served given what happened, but I really do not believe (and no sane person does) that the government intended to burn all of those children alive. The outcome was terrible and the approach in general may or may not be misguided, but it was basically the single worst thing that could result from a sane set of motivations on the part of the police. Treating it as if it was some major proof against strong central authority in general is similar to drawing the conclusion that we should wage constant holy war against countries which are not entirely cooperative in degrading the capabilities of violent NGOs because of 9/11.

    1. is it okay if i treat it as major proof that law enforcement agencies can demonstrate a total lack of restraint and common sense? the sherrif of mcclennan county at the time of the raid claimed to have told the atf that what they were preparing to do was stupid and that if he had been allowed to go to the compound alone he would have come back to waco with koresh with him. the atf didn’t see any opportunities for glory in that.

    2. “Clearly the children did not end up being any better served given what happened,” Understatement of the century. No, based on the statements of those involved, the government didn’t intend to burn the children alive. They intended to torture them with CS gas until the parents surrendered, and the fire just kind of happened.

      “but I really do not believe (and no sane person does) that the government intended to burn all of those children alive. The outcome was terrible and the approach in general may or may not be misguided, but it was basically the single worst thing that could result from a sane set of motivations on the part of the police.”

      You know, there’s a difference between not presuming ill motives, and presuming their absence. I don’t think the feds went into Waco determined to kill people, but they sure as hell didn’t go in determined to NOT kill people. Or even particularly concerned not to. Not so much the presence of malice, as the absence of beneficence. No, all the psychos with guns were not on the inside of that building, not by a long shot.

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