To Protect And Bomb

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 16 2015 @ 7:37am

This week ProPublica reported on law enforcement’s overuse of flashbang grenades:

Police argue that flashbangs save lives because they stun criminals who might otherwise shoot. But flashbangs have also severed hands and fingers, induced heart attacks, burned down homes and killed pets. A ProPublica investigation has found that at least 50 Americans, including police officers, have been seriously injured, maimed or killed by flashbangs since 2000. That is likely a fraction of the total since there are few records kept on flashbang deployment.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit wrote in 2000 that “police cannot automatically throw bombs into drug dealers’ houses, even if the bomb goes by the euphemism ‘flash-bang device.’” In practice, however, there are few checks on officers who want to use them. Once a police department registers its inventory with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, it is accountable only to itself for how it uses the stockpile. ProPublica’s review of flashbang injuries found no criminal convictions against police officers who injured citizens with the devices.

The article goes on to detail several incidents of flashbang misuse. Sullum comments on one of them:

One of those Little Rock raids involved a grandmother accused of illegally selling beer and food from her home—a misdemeanor that triggered the use of a battering ram and a flash-bang, which started a fire in a pile of clothing. “If she hadn’t been selling illegal items out of the home, no warrant would have been served,” the police spokesman told ProPublica. “What you call extreme, we call safe.”

To my mind, tossing explosive devices into the homes of nonviolent offenders is decidedly unsafe; in fact, it is inherently reckless, especially since there is always the possibility that innocent bystanders like Treneshia Dukes or Bou Bou Phonesavan will be injured or killed. Even if the police had found the drugs they were expecting in those cases, that would hardly justify their paramilitary assaults. Flash-bangs, like SWAT tactics generally, should be reserved for life-threatening situations involving hostages, barricaded shooters, and the like. They should not be casually tossed into the mix of techniques for busting unauthorized sellers of bud or beer.

Update from a reader:

To make matters worse in the case of Bou Bou, the county is refusing to pay the $1 million+ in medical bills that the family now has and will continue to have as Bou Bou will need at least 10 more reconstructive surgeries over the next 20 years. The county says that it would be illegal for them to pay the bills as state law grants them sovereign immunity from negligence claims, so any money they would pay the family would constitute an illegal “gratuity”. It’s unconscionable that the police can nearly kill this kid with their reckless and overzealous tactics and just walk away without having to pay a dime to the family they just financially destroyed.