In April 1997, a SWAT team in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania raided the home of John Hirko, Jr. after an informant claimed to have purchased drugs from him. Within minutes Hirko was dead, and his body consumed by fire.
The police started the raid by tossing a flash grenade through a window, just a few seconds after knocking. When Hirko emerged from a bedroom with a gun, Officer Joseph Riedy shot Hirko 11 times, nine times in the back. One of the SWAT cops then detonated a second flash grenade near Hirko, sparking a fire that destroyed the house and prevented police or paramedics from giving Hirko any medical attention. The fire burned Hirko's body beyond recognition.
Hirko had no criminal record, but police claimed to have found evidence of drug distribution in the house after the raid. Hirko's fiancée said they were only recreational users, and that Hirko believed he was being robbed at the time of the raid. The local district attorney determined Hirko's death was a justifiable homicide. The following year Officer Riedy, the cop who killed Hirko, was named "Officer of the Year."
In the lawsuit Hirko's family filed against the city, expert witnesses for Hirko's estate testified that the disorienting effects of the grenade and its deployment in such close proximity to the alleged announcement, along with the lack of a clear police insignia on the SWAT team's black, military-style uniforms would have made it difficult for anyone to determine if they were being apprehended by police or invaded by unlawful intruders. Another witness for Hirko's family -- a police officer from the same department that conducted the raid -- testified that five months before the raid, he had warned senior officials in the department not to promote Officer Kirby Williams to head up the SWAT team, cautioning that, ''If the wrong guy gets up there, somebody was going to get injured or killed." Williams was promoted anyway. The SWAT team had no written procedures, and there were no standards or qualifications to join -- any officer who volunteered could serve on the team.
The expert witness for the city -- a longtime officer with the LAPD SWAT team -- testified that SWAT officers should not have insignia on their uniforms to make them easily identifiable as police officers, because doing so "would make them a target." He also testified that Hirko should not have been confronted outside his home, and that police were correct to storm the house to take Hirko by surprise. In short, he testified that there was nothing problematic about a raid that left a house destroyed, a man shot nine times in the back, and a charred corpse.
The federal jury disagreed, finding in 2004 that the SWAT team had violated Hirko's civil rights. Soon after the verdict, the city of Bethlehem settled with Hirko's estate for $8 million, nearly a fourth of the city's annual budget.
Read coverage of the case from the Allentown Morning Call here.
(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.)