So as I've mentioned, I have a book on police militarization coming out in June. (Pre-order it here!) In anticipation of that, I'm starting a new "raid of the day" feature on this blog. Each weekday between now and then, I'll post the details of a militarized police operation. Most will be raids that were botched, on the wrong house, or in some other way went wrong. But I'll also feature some that went right -- or at least as intended -- which can be just as problematic. My intent here is to show the breadth and depth of the problems that come with a more militarized domestic police force. And, of course, to promote my book!
I know, June is a ways away. Not to worry! I have plenty of material. In fact, I could have started this feature a couple years ago, and still have had more than enough examples to take us through June.
Today's featured raid is the March 1996 raid in Miami, Florida that claimed the life of 73-year-old retired salesman Richard Brown.
The police in Miami had received a tip from an informant that Brown, who had no criminal record, was selling drugs from his small apartment. So they sent the SWAT team. The police claimed at the time that Brown began firing at them as soon as they entered his home. So they fired back.
And they fired back.
And they fired back.
By the time they were finished, they had pumped 123 rounds into Richard Brown’s apartment—nine of them into Richard Brown. One Miami SWAT officer also mistakenly shot one of his colleagues in the back.
The police never found any drugs. They did find something else, which they weren’t expecting: Brown's 14-year-old great-granddaughter Janeka, whom he had raised. They found her cowering in the bathroom. When the raid began, Brown had told the girl to take the phone into the bathroom, to call the police, and to wait until it was safe. So she waited, prayed, and trembled as bullets dug into the walls around her. When she finally came out, she saw the bloodied body of the man who had adopted and raised her slouched in his bedroom closet. Janeka Brown would later receive a $2.5 million settlement from the city of Miami.
In 2002, she told 60 Minutes that she never saw the gun the police claimed Richard Brown fired to instigate the barrage of gunfire. That’s because it didn’t exist. "One of the officers supposedly picked up the gun—who gave it to another police officer, who gave it to another police officer, and then suddenly it came to the crime scene technician," Brown’s attorney said in an interview with the CBS news program. “And, of course, lo and behold, there were no fingerprints on it, or smudge marks or anything of that nature.”
That still wasn’t enough to prevent an internal report from clearing the SWAT officers of any wrongdoing. Former Miami Internal Affairs supervisor and 25-year police veteran John Dalton told the Miami Herald that the Internal Affairs supervisor at the time of the raid, William O'Brien, discouraged a thorough investigation of the Brown case. "They were very defensive about this shooting from the beginning," Dalton said, adding that he'd been "chewed out" by O'Brien for asking difficult questions. Raul Martinez, the Internal Affairs officer who cleared the men who killed Richard Brown, would later become Miami’s chief of police.
But the questions about Brown’s gun persisted, and eventually led to a federal investigation. Five of the officers involved in the Brown raid were indicted for lying about the gun. That investigation raised more concerns, and federal prosecutors started to look into other cases. From a 2002 CBS News report:
Now prosecutors have filed criminal charges against another half dozen Miami officers in four more shootings. They expect to go on trial in a year.
Guy Lewis, then U.S. attorney, laid out the government's case at a news conference. "These officers planted weapons," he said. "They lied about their roles in the shootings. They lied about what they saw. They falsified reports. They tampered with crime scenes."
Lewis claims the cops stole guns, wiped them clean of fingerprints and held on to them, sometimes for months, until they needed to plant them at a scene. The officers have pled not guilty and have been suspended with pay.
The officers all were members of Miami's elite police squads – the SWAT teams, the crime suppression unit, the street narcotics unit.
Officer Arturo Beguristain, who has been involved in more shootings than any other officer on the force, is one of those who emptied his weapon during the Brown raid. Beguristain alone fired 30 shots and also found the gun police say Brown fired. He also has found guns at two others shootings now under indictment.
One member of the SWAT team, improbably named Robert Rambo, testified for the prosecution. He told 60 Minutes that the SWAT teams in Miami “operated by their own rules” and “expected everyone else to lie to protect them.” In all, 11 Miami cops were tried on a variety of charges related to planting guns and covering up four shootings in the mid-1990s. In 2003, a federal jury returned a mixed verdict. Four officers were convicted for their actions with respect to two shootings, but the jury was unable to reach a verdict for the other seven.
Most notably, even though Richard Brown wasn't a drug dealer; even though he never fired at the Miami SWAT team, as they said he did; even though he never even had a gun; even though they recklessly fired more than 100 rounds into his house, killing him; even though they had no idea there was also a 14-year-old girl inside; despite all of that, all of the officers involved in the raid on Richard Brown were acquitted of all criminal charges.
There will be more problems with Miami SWAT teams in the coming years. More on that in future "raid of the day" entries.