Police said there was no way they could have known a baby was inside a home they stormed with a "no-knock" drug warrant at 3 a.m.
But a "flash grenade" tossed by a SWAT team officer landed in Bounkham Phonesavanh's crib, badly burning the 19-month-old and leaving holes in his face and chest that exposed his ribs. Today, weeks after the May 28 raid on the house outside Atlanta, it's not clear whether the child his family calls "Baby Bou Bou" will survive. Sheriff Joey Terrell of Habersham County, Georgia, called the incident "a terrible accident that was never supposed to happen."
A report from the American Civil Liberties Union Tuesday said such botched raids are increasingly likely because police are bulking up on military-style gear and pressing SWAT teams into service more often.
"Neighborhoods are not war zones, and our police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies," the report said. "However, the ACLU encountered this type of story over and over when studying the militarization of state and local law enforcement agencies."
The report said 62 percent of police SWAT team deployments in 2011 and 2012 were for drug searches. In the same two years, 79 percent of SWAT deployments involved executing a search warrant.
Previous research by Peter Kraska, a criminal justice professor at Eastern Kentucky University, found that police SWAT teams conducted 45,000 raids in 2005, up from around 3,000 in 1980.
The sheriff's office in Georgia said there were "no clothes, no toys, nothing to indicate" there were children in the home they raided last month. The ACLU said there were toys in the front lawn.
"My three little girls are terrified of the police now," Alecia Phonesavanh, the toddler's mother, told the ACLU, according to the report. "They don’t want to go to sleep because they’re afraid the cops will kill them or their family.”
Police went to the house looking for 30-year-old Wanis Thometheva, Phonesavanh's cousin, who was suspected of making a $50 drug sale. He was not at the house during the raid and was arrested later, allegedly with a "small amount of drugs" in his possession, the report said.
"SWAT teams were created in the 1960s for a very specific set of scenarios like hostage-taking, active shooter scenes and true emergencies," the ACLU's Kara Dansky told The Huffington Post previously. "We're seeing increasingly that police are using SWAT teams to do raids of people's homes often in low-level drug cases. This sometimes causes an escalated risk of violence, as we saw in this case."
Only 7 percent of SWAT deployments in 2011 and 2012 were for situations involving a hostage, barricaded person, or active shooter, according to the report.
Law enforcement justified the raid that injured the baby by saying the home was known to have guns. The ACLU report found that a firearm was found at the scene in 35 percent of SWAT raids.
"Given that almost half of American households have guns, use of a SWAT team could almost always be justified if the 'presence of a firearm' was the sole factor determining whether to deploy," the report said.
The report also found that race often factors into SWAT team deployments. "When paramilitary tactics were used in drug searches, the primary targets were people of color, whereas when paramilitary tactics were used in hostage or barricade scenarios, the primary targets were white," the report said.
Overall, 42 percent of people affected by SWAT raids were black, and 12 percent were Hispanic, according to the report.
"This is about race," Alecia Phonesavanh told the ACLU. "You don’t see SWAT teams going into a white collar community, throwing grenades into their homes.”
Kevin E. Wilkinson, the police chief in Neenah, Wisconsin, explained to The New York Times why police rely on military tactics and gear. “I don’t like it. I wish it were the way it was when I was a kid,” he said. But he said the possibility of violence, however remote, required taking precautions. “We’re not going to go out there as Officer Friendly with no body armor and just a handgun and say ‘Good enough.’”
The ACLU's Dansky said she hopes the report will spur government at every level to hold police departments accountable. She said Congress should restrict military equipment the State Department provides to police and state legislatures should establish strict guidelines on when paramilitary tactics can be used.
In general, Dansky said, SWAT teams should only be used "when they're truly needed."
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