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The severe burning of a 19-month-old toddler could accomplish what the unnecessary killing of a 92-year-old woman couldn’t – reining in the use of no-knock warrants by SWAT teams in Georgia.
In 2006, an elderly Kathryn Johnston was gunned down by an Atlanta police SWAT team as she pulled out a rusty revolver to protect herself from what she thought were robbers breaking into her home in the middle of the night. It turned out that the police, looking for drugs, had raided the wrong house.
After that incident, two Georgia lawmakers, state Sens. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, and Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, introduced a bill in 2007 that would have set limits on the use of no-knock warrants. It passed the state Senate but died in the House.
Now, after another botched drug raid – this time in rural Habersham County in northeast Georgia, where a sheriff’s deputy threw a flash-bang grenade into a sleeping toddler’s crib – the two lawmakers are renewing their call for reform.
The toddler, Bounkham “Bou Bou” Phonesavanh, was released from the hospital Tuesday after more than five weeks of painful surgeries, including the re-attachment of his nose. He will be scarred for life, and he may also end up with brain damage, family members said.
WND was the first to report that the “intelligence” relied upon by Sheriff Joey Terrell came from a confidential criminal informant, who “assured” the sheriff that there would be no children in the home during the 3 a.m. raid.
When a no-knock warrant is issued, police do not have to conduct an arrest in the traditional way, by knocking on the front door and announcing their presence. They can simply storm in unannounced.
Fort, the Democrat senator, said he will introduce his bill restricting no-knock warrants as soon as the state Legislature reconvenes in January. He is optimistic it will pass this time. He cites the existence of a strong tea party presence among Georgia Republicans as the main reason for his optimism.
The tea party has joined the NAACP in a case of strange bedfellows rallying against no-knock warrants. Several protest rallies have been held. One such rally that should have gained the attention of Republican and Democrat lawmakers was held across from the Habersham County Courthouse on June 7, organized by a coalition of NAACP, libertarian and tea party activists.
Fort believes the cooperation between left and right will be key in turning the tide against the police and prosecutors, who lobbied hard in 2007 to defeat his bill in the State House.
“You have a tea party very interested in this issue. In 2007 you didn’t have a tea party, so the circumstances have changed and the continued use of these no-knock warrants and the abuse of them and the perception that something should have been done about this a long time ago and more people are unnecessarily being harmed and killed, I’m optimistic we’re going to be successful this time. It will take a lot of work, but it’s time.”
Fort said neither he nor Mullis wants to eliminate no-knock warrants. Rather, they want tighter restrictions put in place. He said the combination of military-grade weaponry now common at all police agencies with no-knock warrants is a “recipe for disaster” that must be addressed before more innocent people get killed or maimed.
In Clayton County, Georgia, a pregnant woman was injured by a flash-bang grenade during a 2010 police raid.
“Right now there is nothing codified, no statute that regulates no knock warrants. It’s all case law,” Fort said. “There’s nothing in the code that regulates them. So my bill would, one, define them but more important it would place restraints on their use.”
Fort said there are three levels of evidence with “clear and convincing” being the highest standard and “reasonable suspicion” the lowest. In between is what’s known as “probable cause,” the standard Fort wants to see clearly demonstrated before any no-knock warrant is issued by a judge in Georgia.
He said the bill may also include some protocols or requirements that police and sheriff’s departments must have in place, such as minimum levels of training for those who serve no-knock warrants.
“But the core issue for me is making sure there is a criteria that magistrates have to use,” he said.
The chief magistrate in Habersham who approved the no-knock warrant that led to the injuries to little Bou Bou has announced he will resign effective July 15.
“These no-knock warrants are used to protect law enforcement when they go into a house and when they believe there’s going to be evidence lost or destroyed. What’s happened is they have become too common. They were supposed to be special warrants reserved for special circumstances, and now they’re routinely issued by judges,” Fort said. “I think under my bill they would be issued sparingly and only when they are truly needed.”
But the problem of judges issuing no-knock warrants for SWAT raids as a matter of routine is not just a Georgia problem, criminal justice experts say.
The number of house raids by SWAT teams across the U.S. has increased from about 3,000 in 1980 to upwards of 80,000 last year, said Peter Kraska, professor of criminal justice at Eastern Kentucky University and author of the book “Militarizing The American Criminal Justice System: The Changing Roles of the Armed Forces and Police.”
Kraska said the alternative media and even some mainstream media are starting to do a better job of exposing the budding American police state, but there’s still a long way to go.
“I think it’s pretty telling that the Georgia case didn’t receive national attention, and when it did, it was the damn sheriff talking about how devastated his officers were. That’s just outrageous,” Kraska said. “What possible justification could anybody come up with for using that extreme method of policing on a private residence? They used a Navy SEALs approach for busting someone who (they thought) smokes a little marijuana or meth. It just makes no sense. But the sheriff said his officers felt bad.”
In the end, the 3 a.m. raid in Habersham County turned up no drugs or guns. The target of the raid was not there. He was arrested several hours later at another house and only charged with drug possession, not sales.
“The presence of a small-time drug dealer in the house should not even matter when deciding to use such force on a residential household,” Kraska said. “The fact that it was used can only be seen as reckless by any rational analysis of what happened in Habersham County.”
Cheryl Chumley, author of the new book “Police State USA: How Orwell’s Nightmare is Becoming Our Realty,” agrees and said the state appears to be dragging its feet in an ongoing investigation of the police action May 28 in Habersham County.
“It’s unbelievable that this family would have to suffer this at the hands of the very people who are tasked with serving and protecting the public – the police,” said Chumley.
She called the fact that the investigation is still going on after a month “unbelievable.”
“Five weeks,” she said, “is a long time – time enough for a toddler to be blown up, placed in a coma, undergo numerous operations and surgeries, receive untold number of medical tests and analyses, make a miraculous recovery, get discharged, and no doubt be scheduled for a slew of follow-up appointments – at medical facilities hundreds of miles from the place of incident, no less – yet it’s not long enough, apparently, for the police to come to some sort of finding of fault.”
Chumley said the officers involved should be held accountable.
“When over-hyped, overly aggressive police make an error that injures or kills, the least the American public – the taxpaying source of police paychecks – ought to be given is a quick and speedy resolution that reflects true accountability,” she said. “And accountability in this particular case demands, at minimum, the at-fault officers be fired.”
Supporters of the Phonesavanh family held a benefit breakfast Wednesday at an Atlanta restaurant to raise money for mounting medical bills.
The family had moved to Georgia from Wisconsin about a month before the police raid because their home in Wisconsin had burned down. They have steadfastly denied any involvement with drugs, saying they don’t use or sell them or allow anyone around their children who does.