The Tipping Point
I'm on vacation this week, and reposting some old stuff. This post is from 3½ years ago.
Tarika Wilson's killer went free last week. "Killer" might not be the word a lot of people would use for Joseph Chavalia: he was the Cincinnati police officer who gunned down Tarika during a drug raid on her house, as she was holding her year-old child. The child was hit, too, in the shoulder and hand; one of his fingers had to be amputated. It's hard to fault the jury which acquitted Chavalia. Nobody argued that he went into the house with the intent of shooting anyone, and the jury obviously believed his testimony that he fired because he saw someone in the shadows, and thought shots were being fired at him. Turns out the gunfire was from downstairs, where police officers shot two charging pit bulls. That's just the unfortunate consequence of drug raids. Collateral damage, the Pentagon would call it.
Cheye Calvo knows all about that. Calvo's the mayor of Berwyn Heights, a small burg in Maryland. He came home from work on July 29, greeted his mother-in-law, Georgia, who was cooking dinner in the kitchen, then took his two labradors out for a walk. He noticed there was a package on the front steps, addressed to his wife, and when he came back he took the package into the house and set it on the living room table, then went upstairs to change. A few minutes later, he heard Georgia scream.
Georgia screamed because she saw men in black, wearing masks and carrying guns, running towards the house. It was the police. After breaking down the front door, they shot one labrador where he stood at the door to the kitchen, and shot the other one in the back as he was running away. Georgia was handcuffed and made to lie face-down on the kitchen floor, next to the body of one of the slaughtered dogs. Calvo came downstairs in his boxers, and was made to kneel down in the living room.
For nearly two hours, the police questioned Calvo and Georgia about the package, which, it turned out, contained 32 pounds of marijuana. Calvo and Georgia told them they didn't know anything about it. The police searched the rest of the house, then left. Calvo and his wife spent about four hours cleaning up the house afterwards; the police officers had tracked the dogs' blood everywhere.
A few days later, the police disclosed that they'd solved the crime: it turns out that a couple of men, one of them a FedEx deliveryman, had run a scheme where one would deliver the package to the door of a home, and the other would pick it up before it would be retrieved by the homeowner. Of course, that didn't happen here because the police had intercepted the package; they were the ones who placed it on Calvo's doorstep.
Although the police acknowledge that "the Calvos appear to be innocent victims," they've refused to apologize, saying they followed standard procedures.
They're right, and that's the problem: this is standard procedure anymore. The Cato Institute has a nice map of botched military raids, like this one, over the past twenty years or so.
Calvo's case is hardly unique, but he is, to a certain extent. Unlike Kathyrn Johnston, the 92-year-old Atlanta woman who was killed in a drug raid two years ago, or Salvador Hernandez, the 63-year-old man the Salem police shot 5 times in the chest in a drug raid back in 1996, or Tarika Wilson, Calvo is white, upper-class, and clearly innocent of any wrongdoing. And not just of drugs; when somebody winds up dead in a drug raid, the cops are willing to let just about anything float to the surface in an effort to divert attention from what they did. When the Denver SWAT team killed Ismael Mena in a drug raid on the wrong house back in 1999, they subsequently, and falsely, claimed that he was an illegal immigrant.
Calvo, to his credit, understands that:
The reality is that this happens all the time in this country and disproportionally in Prince Georges county and most of the people to whom it happens don't have the community support and the platform to speak out. So I appreciate you paying attention to our condition but I hope you'll also give attention to those who may not have the same platform and voice that we have.
He's written a letter to the Justice Department and requested a civil rights investigation into what happened. And maybe this'll nudge the cops off the desire to go Rambo on ordinary citizens. Calvo claims that while he was sitting there, handcuffed in his own living room, he heard one of the detectives confide in another that she was "excited" because this was her first raid. In Mena's case, the police had been accompanied on the raid by Colorado Rockies' second baseman Mike Lansing. No, you're not reading that wrong; it was subsequently learned that it was not unusual for Denver athletes to accompany police on those raids, just for the thrill.
So maybe that will change, or maybe not. I have a case now where the police did a SWAT team raid on a house over a controlled buy of $60 worth of marijuana. I asked the cop at a pretrial why they had the SWAT team there, and he told me they use a formula to determine whether to use SWAT, and my guy was "off the charts."
Some chart: he's 51 years old, and has a 1994 4th-degree felony conviction for drug possession and a 1982 conviction for aggravated assault.
UPDATE: The Berwyn Heights Police Department conducted its own investigation into the matter, and you'll be astonished to learn that they determined they'd done nothing wrong; the police chief said "I'd do the same thing tomorrow." Calvo sued, and he and the city subsequently entered into a settlement, the terms of which weren't disclosed.
Did things change? From a news story a little less than a year ago:
A Tucson, Ariz., SWAT team defends shooting an Iraq War veteran 60 times during a drug raid, although it declines to say whether it found any drugs in the house and has had to retract its claim that the veteran shot first.
As for my client who was "off the charts," I got him off. The judge threw out all the evidence because the detective had lied in his affidavit for the warrant.