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Raid(s) Of The Day: "Operation Caribbean Cruise"

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Note: The "Raid of the Day" features accounts of police raids I've found, researched, and reported while writing my forthcoming book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces. It's due out in July, but you can pre-order it here.

James Bigelow, a retired lieutenant with the Washington, D.C. Metro Police Department, awoke early on the cold morning of February 22, 1986 to the sound of his doorbell and a knock at the door. That was quickly followed by the sound of a sledgehammer smashing into the same door. As he and his wife ran downstairs, they were met by a team of narcotics agents, along with those agents' guns.

Bigelow, 58 at the time, had a brother who was a former deputy police chief in D.C. His son was still a police officer with the department. Somehow, the cops had still managed to mistakenly raid his home. Bigelow and his wife sat at gunpoint while police ransacked their home. They found nothing. They didn't bother fixing the front door, which they had clear of its frame.

At about the same time, Thomas Timberman awoke to a sharp knock at his door. When Timberman, a career foreign service worker, answered the door, he was met by two agents dressed in dark clothes, carrying shotguns. They didn't tell him they were police. Instead, they told him he should go look at the door to the basement apartment he was renting out. That door too had been knocked off its frame. Timberman rented the apartment to a colleague, a senior official at the State Department. That official was on vacation at the time. Eventually the officers admitted they had made a mistake. They had intended to raid the home next door.

That same morning, narcotics agents also raided the home of Ewan Brown, who worked for the Washington Post. According to Brown, the police quickly looked over the house, after which the head of the raid team said, "I think we have the wrong house." They spent the next two hours tearing the place apart, anyway. Brown tried to point out that his house didn't match the description of the house described in the warrant. He tried to tell them that neither he nor the nephew who lived with him fit the description of the dreadlocked Rastafarian the police were looking for. They found no drugs, briefly apologized, and left. "It was like the allied troops at Normandy," he'd later say.

In all, 530 police officers -- 12 percent of the Washington, D.C. police department -- plus federal agents from the IRS, U.S. Parks Police, ATF, Immigration, and the IRS conducted 69 simultaneous raids all across the city. "Operation Caribbean Cruise" intended to target a ring of Jamaican drug smugglers. It was the largest planned police operation in Washington, D.C. history. They had anticipated making over 500 arrests, seizing hundreds of pounds of marijuana worth millions of dollars, and confiscating dozens of automatic weapons. The early morning raids were the culmination of a 16-month investigation.

The final tally: 27 arrests, 13 of them for mere possession of marijuana. The cops also seized 13 weapons, and found $20,000 in illegal drugs. In the end, the number of people the police department had assigned merely to handle the paperwork for the rests they had expected to make exceeded the number of people who were actually arrested. They found none of the alleged Jamaican drug dealers. "The dismay of police was evidence soon after the raid began at 5 a.m.," the Washington Post reported, "as officers, some solemn-looking and others laughing at their misfortune, congregated around police vehicles outside the targeted homes and packed away their shotguns, bulletproof vests, sledgehammers, and helmets."

Still, the D.C. police department had little sympathy for the people they had wrongly raided. From the Washington Post:

Deputy Chief Shugart said that police had received a number of complaints from people who said that police had mistakenly raided their homes. He said that in those cases, the police had gone back to the source of the allegations and confirmed that the information in affidavits filed in support of the search warrants was accurate.

"They [the people who protested the police actions] don't control all the people in their homestead," he said, adding, "We will work with them to make repairs" of any unnecessary damage done during the raids."

Shugart's dismissive attitude toward the people who'd just had guns pointed at them and had their homes ransacked shows just how far law enforcement officials could be removed from the people they served. First, merely verifying with, say, a confidential informant that the raided house was the same addresses where the informant claimed to have bought some drugs doesn't mean it was a legitimate raid. Informants lie. They're especially likely to lie if they've just sent the police who work with them, pay them, and know where they live to the wrong house. But even Shugart was correct -- even if the homes, curtilages, or properties of innocent people were being used by drug pushers without their knowledge -- that doesn't change the fact that he'd just sent armed men to storm the living rooms and bedrooms of innocent people at five o'clock in the morning. If drug dealers were selling form the porches or front yards of D.C. residents while they were at work, or sleeping, or on vacation -- and if they'd just done a 16-month investigation, you'd think this would be a detail D.C. police would have picked up -- perhaps that's a good reason to apprehend the suspects during a controlled buy, instead of with dynamic entry pre-dawn raids.

Not that the D.C. police weren't embarrassed. But they were embarrassed that they hadn't collected a larger bounty to lay out on a table for the news cameras, not that they had just subjected innocent people to unnecessary violence. Borrowing from Winston Churchill, one unnamed city official quipped to the Washington Post, "Never have so many gathered together to confiscate so little for so much overtime."

Sources: "Operation Caribbean Cruise passage culled from Linda Wheeler, "Beureacratic Pressures Blamed for Failure of D.C. Drug Raids," The Washington Post, February 27, 1986; Linda Wheeler, "Officers' Unneighborly Error," The Washington Post, February 27, 1986; Linda Wheeler and John Ward Anderson, "Grand-Scale D.C. Police Raid Achieves Small-Scale Results," The Washington Post, February 23, 1986.

Filed by Radley Balko