August Was Another Drug-War Death-Filled Nightmare in America

The August 19 death of a black St. Louis teenager shot by police executing a drugs and guns search warrant got national attention and sparked local protests, but it was by no means the only drug war-related death in recent weeks.


According to the Drug War Chronicle, which has been tracking deaths related to US domestic drug law enforcement operations since 2011, the number of people to die in the drug war so far this year is up to 42, including at least five in the past month.  

Most of those deaths went largely unremarked (except for the killing of a Memphis police officer, which sparked predictable outrage), but the killing of black teenager Mansur Ball-Bey by a white St. Louis police officer drew both protests and national concern as yet another example of police violence against black men. The fact that it happened in St. Louis, just minutes away from Ferguson, Missouri, where the death of Michael Brown at the hands of police a year ago sparked violent protests and helped lead to the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement, only heightened attention.

According to Reuters, police were executing a search warrant for drugs and guns at a residence when two young men fled out the back door of the home. Police said Ball-Bey, 18, turned and pointed a gun at them, and officers fired four times, killing him. Police said Ball-Bey's gun was stolen and that they recovered crack cocaine at the scene.

Local residents didn't believe the police account, and dozens of people quickly blocked a nearby intersection, where police arrested three people. Later that evening, more protesters gathered, with some throwing rocks at police and police responding with tear gas. The protests have continued. 

An autopsy showing that Ball-Bey was shot in the back has led to more distrust and suspicion, even though police have offered an explanation, saying that officers were in different locations and that when Ball-Bey turned toward one officer, he turned away from another one who fired. The killing remains under investigation and intense public scrutiny.

Even though police and investigating prosecutors may be able to justify Ball-Bey's death—he had a gun and pointed it at police—the race of the victim and the shooter made the killing especially combustible. Other drug war deaths deserve similar scrutiny, but rarely get it. 

Not all drug war deaths come at the hands of the police—sometimes they are the victims—and not all drug war deaths are homicides. Some are accidents. But the bottom line is these deaths might not have happened if society had a more enlightened response to drugs. 

Here are the other people who died in the drug war in the past month:

  • In Midland, Texas, a teenage mother died on July 29 after swallowing four grams of methamphetamine during a traffic stop in a bid to protect her boyfriend, the father of her infant son. According to News West 9, Sandy Brooke Franklin, 18, and Zane Paul O'Neal, 22, were pulled over by Midland Police, and O'Neal, who was on probation, told her to swallow the drugs. She did, but ended up going to jail anyway over two traffic warrants. While in jail, she did not reveal that she had swallowed the drugs, but 36 hours later, guards noticed she was unwell. Only then did she admit ingesting the meth, but it was too late—she died in the hospital.
  • In Memphis, a Memphis police officer was shot and killed after interrupting a small-time marijuana deal on August 1. According to the Drug War Chronicle, Officer Sean Bolton approached a parked vehicle and a passenger got out and fought with Bolton, then shot him. Police later found 1.7 grams of marijuana and a set of scales in the car. Police said they normally wouldn't arrest someone for that tiny amount of pot, but the accused shooter, Tremaine Wilbourne, was on parole and likely would have been jailed.
  • Near Chinook Pass, Washington, a state trooper died on August 6 while investigating a reported marijuana grow. According to the Yakima Herald-Republic, Detective Brent Hanger, 47, an undercover agent on a statewide drug task force was following a tip near the mile-high pass when he "suffered a medical condition and died." He had complained of chest pains and shortness of breath before collapsing. 
  • In Hobbs, New Mexico, a fugitive drug suspect was shot and killed by Lea County Drug Task Force officers on August 12. According to the Hobbs News-Sun, William Smith had been on the run since a drug raid the previous week and was killed after a high-speed chase. He was a passenger in the vehicle. A week later, the New Mexico State Police provided an update on the case, which added little information except to say "a firearm was located in the immediate area of Mr. Smith." The state police said the investigation was ongoing.
  • In North East, Maryland, a man on probation with a history of drug offenses and drugs in his vehicle was shot and killed as he struggled with a state trooper on August 21. According to Baltimore's CBS Local News, Charles Hall, 30, was in a Walmart parking lot when he was spotted by the trooper, who attempted to place him under arrest. "The man refused to submit, resisted, and a physical altercation began between the wanted person and the trooper. This actually moved to the driver’s side of the suspect’s vehicle, a physical struggle was going on, the suspect was able to get his key into the ignition, get the vehicle started," Maryland State Police spokesperson Greg Shipley explained. "So the trooper during this struggle as the vehicle was accelerating fired his department issued pistol and fatally wounded this individual." AlterNet ran a story on this incident last week including video of Hall's wife screaming "He wasn't fucking armed!" in the aftermath of the shooting.

Since the Drug War Chronicle started tracking these deaths in 2011, they have averaged about one a week or 50 a year. This year, we're already up to 42. 

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