Police Raid on Okra Plants? 10 Totally Pointless SWAT Raid Nightmares

Here are some frightening, egregious examples of Americans being terrorized by SWAT teams and military-like units.

On October 6, a grand jury in Habersham County, Georgia decided that members of a SWAT team who maimed and disfigured a 19-month-old toddler during a botched no-knock drug raid should not face any criminal charges. It was yet another example of militarized, trigger-happy narcotics officers endangering the public with impunity, which has been the norm in the War on Drugs. SWAT teams, when used appropriately, can save lives: for example, an effective, well-trained SWAT team can actually reduce the number of injuries and fatalities in certain hostage situations. But with American police having become overly militarized in recent years, the use of SWAT teams in non-extreme circumstances has become much too common.

In June, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released the results of an in-depth study of police militarization. Titled “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,” the report analyzed 800 SWAT raids in the U.S. and concluded that the vast majority of them were unnecessary. Kara Dansky, senior counsel for the ACLU’s Center for Justice, stated: “We found that police overwhelmingly use SWAT raids not for extreme emergencies like hostage situations, but to carry out such basic police work as serving warrants or searching for a small amount of drugs. This unnecessary violence causes property damage, injury, and death.”

Below are ten frightening, egregious examples of Americans being terrorized by SWAT teams and military-like units in 2014 when such force was totally unnecessary.

1. The Phonesavanh Family, Habersham County, Georgia

Of all the botched drug raids that have occurred in 2014, the most appalling was the one that took place in Cornelia, Georgia on May 28—when narcotics officers carried out a paramilitary no-knock SWAT raid at 3 AM at the home of Alecia Phonesavanh. The person they were looking for, Phonesavanh’s nephew Wanis Thonetheva, was suspected of making a $50 methamphetamine sale. Thonetheva, however, didn’t even live in Phonesavanh’s home and was nowhere to be found during the raid. But Phonesavanh’s 19-month-old toddler, Bounkham “Bou Bou” Phonesavanh, was home. After breaking down the door of the Phonesavanh home, one of the officers tossed a flashbang grenade—which landed in the baby’s crib, exploded and caused the toddler extensive injuries (includingsevere burns, disfigurement and a hole in his chest that exposed his ribs). No drugs were found in the home, and Wanis Thonetheva was subsequently arrested without incident.

To make matters worse, Habersham County officials announced in August that the county would not be giving the Phonesavanh family any assistance with the baby’s huge medical expenses. And the fact that members of the SWAT team escaped criminal charges on October 6 only encourages militarized narcotics officers to continue endangering the public.

2. David Hooks, East Dublin, Georgia

In September, methamphetamine addict Rodney Garrett confessed to stealing an SUV from the home of 59-year-old David Hooks, an East Dublin, Georgia resident who owned a construction company. Garrett claimed that he found a bag of meth in the vehicle, and the Laurens County Sheriff’s Department obtained a warrant for a no-knock raid on Hooks’ home. When the SWAT team broke into Hooks’ house on September 23, Hooks—according to attorney Mitchell Shook, who is representing Hooks’ widow—thought he was being robbed again and grabbed a gun to defend himself, although Shook said Hooks’ didn’t actually fire it. At least 16 shots were fired by the SWAT team, killing Hooks instantly. Shook told reporters, “There is no evidence that David Hooks ever fired a weapon.” 

No drugs were found in the home during a 44-hour search. And there was no evidence that Hooks had any involvement in drug trafficking apart from the dubious claims of a confessed meth addict and car thief.

3. Ruth Hunter, Henrico, Virginia

On April 10, 75-year-old Henrico, Virginia resident Ruth Hunter was terrorized by the Virginia State Police when they carried out a no-knock drug raid on her apartment. They were searching for a drug suspect who lived in an apartment two doors down, but thanks to a sloppy investigation, Hunter’s apartment was the one on the search warrant. Hunter was placed in tight plastic handcuffs while officers interrogated her, and no drugs were found in her apartment. After the officers found the man they were looking for in a nearby apartment and arrested him, his fiancée confirmed that they had raided the wrong apartment. According to Hunter, the officers never even apologized and said that she would have to pay to fix the front door herself. 

4. Jessica Walker, Bakersfield, California

In the War on Drugs, it isn’t uncommon for narcotics officers to screw up an investigation and carry out a paramilitary SWAT raid on the wrong house or apartment. That happened to Bakersfield, California resident Jessica Walker in April 19, when militarized officers conducted a no-knock raid on her apartment at around 11 PM. The SWAT team suspected one of Walker’s neighbors of selling drugs, but Walker’s apartment ended up on the search warrant by mistake. Getting ready to take a bath, Walker was half undressed when officers broke her door down, ordered her onto the ground and handcuffed her in front of her four children. The officers let Walker go when they realized they had raided the wrong address, and thankfully, neither Walker nor any of her children were injured.   

5. Dwayne Perry, Cartersville, Georgia

In Cartersville, Georgia, state narcotics officers acted like soldiers in Fallujah, Al Anbar when, in early October, they invaded the back yard of Dwayne Perry. Flying overhead in a helicopter, they were searching for marijuana plants and thought they spotted some in Perry’s yard. The officers, weapons drawn, invaded the yard with a K-9 unit. But what they thought were marijuana plants turned out to be okra plants. Perry told WSB-TV: “I was scared…….They were strapped to the gills. Anything could have happened.”

6. Barbara Thomas, Houston, Texas

In May, Houston resident Barbara Thomas and her autistic son were traumatized by militarized narcotics officers who conducted a no-knock raid on their house in the predominantly black Cashmere Gardens section of the city. It turned out that officers had the wrong address: Thomas lived at a “5816” address, and the drug suspect they were looking for lived at a “5818” address. Thomas told Houston’s KPRC-TV, “They told me to get down. There were guns everywhere—I mean, the long guns with lights on them. I was crying hysterically…… I thought they were going to kill us.”

7. Jason Westcott, Tampa, Florida

Militarized police are a hazard all over the United States, but progressive talk radio host/attorney Mike Papantonio has said more than once that militarized police in the Deep South (who he describes as “Dixieland stormtroopers” and “ninja cops”) are especially toxic. And the Dixieland stormtroopers were feeling very trigger-happy when, on May 27, a SWAT team in Tampa, Florida carried out a no-knock raid on the home of 29-year-old Jason Westcott (who narcotics officers suspected of selling marijuana). Westcott, who evidently believed he was being robbed, grabbed his gun—and he was killed when the SWAT team opened fire. Officers found about two dollars worth of marijuana in the house.

8. Sally Prince, Des Moines, Iowa

Unjustified SWAT raids often occur in connection with the War on Drugs, but they can also come about if officers suspect another nonviolent offense such as illegal gambling or credit card fraud. Sally Prince of Des Moines, Iowa found that out the hard way in February 2014, when a SWAT team used a battering ram to break down the door of her home. The officers didn’t raid the home in search of al-Qaeda members, but rather, in connection with an investigation for alleged credit card fraud. Officers were looking for about $1000 worth of electronics that had allegedly been purchased with a stolen credit card. But no evidence was found in connection with that investigation, and thankfully, no one was injured.

Prince told Des Moines’ WHO-TV: “This is over property purchased with a stolen credit card. It doesn’t make any sense to go to such extremes for something that simple.”

9. Larry Lee Arman, St. Paul, Minnesota

There have been many examples of militarized narcotics officers killing pet dogs during drug raids, and the two dogs that St. Paul, Minnesota resident Larry Lee Arman owned were shot and killed when a SWAT team carried out a no-knock drug raid on his home onJuly 9. Although Arman acknowledges that he is a recreational marijuana user, he has vehemently denied any involvement in drug trafficking—and the only items found during the raid were a glass bong and marijuana remnants in a metal grinder. Camille Perry, Arman’s girlfriend, was present during the raid and said that she feared for the lives of their young children. “The only thing I was thinking was my kids were going to get hit by bullets,” Perry told Minneapolis’ KMSP-TV. But gratefully, their children—unlike Bounkham “Bou Bou” Phonesavanh—were not injured.

10. Lilian Alonzo, Manchester, New Hampshire

Journalist Radley Balko (author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces) has often said that when paramilitary weapons are used in connection with investigations for nonviolent offenses, the chances of innocent people being injured escalate. That happened in Manchester, New Hampshire on August 27, when members of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raided the apartment of 49-year-old Lilian Alonzo.

Although two of her daughters, Johanna Nunez and Jennifer Nunez, were suspects in the investigation, Alonzo herself was not a suspect—and neither of them lived with her. During the raid, the unarmed Alonzo was picking up a baby when two shots were fired; one of them went through her left arm and entered her left ribcage (30 stitches were needed). No drugs were found in Lilian Alonzo’s apartment.

Alex Henderson's work has appeared in the L.A. Weekly, Billboard, Spin, Creem, the Pasadena Weekly and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @alexvhenderson.

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