CORNELIA, Ga. — This town on the edge of the Appalachians has fewer than 5,000 residents, but the SWAT team was outfitted for war.
At 2:15 a.m. on a moonless night in May 2014, 10 officers rolled up a driveway in an armored Humvee, three of them poised to leap off the running boards. They carried Colt submachine guns, light-mounted AR-15 rifles and Glock .40-caliber sidearms. Many wore green body armor and Kevlar helmets. They had a door-breaching shotgun, a battering ram, sledgehammers, Halligan bars for smashing windows, a ballistic shield and a potent flash-bang grenade.
The target was a single-story ranch-style house about 50 yards off Lakeview Heights Circle. Not even four hours earlier, three informants had bought $50 worth of methamphetamine in the front yard. That was enough to persuade the county’s chief magistrate to approve a no-knock search warrant authorizing the SWAT operators to storm the house without warning.
The point man on the entry team found the side door locked, and nodded to Deputy Jason Stribling, who took two swings with the metal battering ram. As the door splintered near the deadbolt, he yelled, “Sheriff’s department, search warrant!” Another deputy, Charles Long, had already pulled the pin on the flash-bang. He placed his left hand on Stribling’s back for stability, peered quickly into the dark and tossed the armed explosive about 3 feet inside the door.
It landed in a portable playpen.
As policing has militarized to fight a faltering war on drugs, few tactics have proved as dangerous as the use of forcible-entry raids to serve narcotics search warrants, which regularly introduce staggering levels of violence into missions that might be accomplished through patient stakeouts or simple knocks at the door.
Thousands of times a year, these “dynamic entry” raids exploit the element of surprise to effect seizures and arrests of neighborhood drug dealers. But they have also led time and again to avoidable deaths, gruesome injuries, demolished property, enduring trauma, blackened reputations and multimillion-dollar legal settlements at taxpayer expense, an investigation by The New York Times found.
For the most part, governments at all levels have chosen not to quantify the toll by requiring reporting on SWAT operations. But The Times’ investigation, which relied on dozens of open-record requests and thousands of pages from police and court files, found that at least 81 civilians and 13 law enforcement officers died in such raids from 2010-16. Scores of others were maimed or wounded.
The casualties have occurred in the execution of no-knock warrants, which give police prior judicial authority to force entry without notice, as well as warrants that require police to knock and announce themselves before breaking down doors. Often, there is little difference.
Innocents have died in attacks on wrong addresses, including a 7-year-old girl in Detroit, and collaterally as police pursued other residents, among them a 68-year-old grandfather in Framingham, Massachusetts. Stray bullets have whizzed through neighboring homes, and in dozens of instances victims of police gunfire have included the family dog.
Search warrant raids account for a small share of the nearly 1,000 fatalities each year in officer-involved shootings. But what distinguishes them from other risky interactions between police and citizens, like domestic disputes, hostage-takings and confrontations with mentally ill people, is that they are initiated by law enforcement.
In a country where 4 in 10 adults have guns in their homes, the raids incite predictable collisions between forces that hurtle toward each other like speeding cars in a passing lane — officers with a license to invade private homes and residents convinced of their right to self-defense.
After being awakened by the shattering of doors and the detonation of stun grenades, bleary suspects reach for nearby weapons — at times realizing it is police, at others mistaking them for intruders — and the shooting begins. In some cases, victims like Todd Blair, a Utah man who grabbed a golf club on the way out of his bedroom, have been slain by officers who perceived a greater threat than existed.
To be sure, police officers and judges must find probable cause of criminal activity to justify a search warrant. Absent resources for endless stakeouts, police tacticians argue that dynamic entry provides the safest means to clear out heavily fortified drug houses and to catch suspects with the contraband needed for felony prosecutions.
But critics of the forcible-entry raids question whether the benefits outweigh the risks. The drug crimes used to justify so many raids, they point out, are not capital offenses. And even if they were, that would not rationalize the killing or wounding of suspects without due process. Nor would it forgive the propensity of police to err in the planning or execution of raids that are inherently chaotic and place bystanders in harm’s way.
Forcible-entry methods have become common practice over the past quarter century through a confluence of the war on drugs, the rise of special weapons and tactics squads, and Supreme Court rulings that have eroded Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches. Support for their continued use has been bolstered by an epidemic of opioid abuse and the threat of domestic terrorism.
The Times found that from 2010 to 2015, an average of least 30 federal civil rights lawsuits were filed a year to protest residential search warrants executed with dynamic entries. Many of the complaints depict terrifying scenes in which children, elderly residents and people with disabilities are manhandled at gunpoint, unclothed adults are rousted from bed and houses are ransacked without recompense or apology. Louise Milan, 68, of Evansville, Indiana, alleged in her filing that she and her 18-year-old daughter were handcuffed in front of neighbors during a door-busting 2012 raid prompted by threats against police made by someone who had pirated her wireless connection.
“There’s a real misimpression by the public that aggressive police actions are only used against hardened criminals,” said Cary J. Hansel, a Baltimore lawyer who has represented plaintiffs in such lawsuits. “But there are dozens and dozens of cases where a no-knock warrant is used against somebody who’s totally innocent.”
At least seven of the federal lawsuits have been settled for more than $1 million in the past five years. They include a $3.75 million payment in 2016 to the family of Eurie Stamps, the unarmed Framingham grandfather who was accidentally shot, while compliant and on his stomach; and $3.4 million in 2013 to the family of Jose Guereña, a 26-year-old former Marine shot more than 20 times as agents broke into his house in Tucson, Arizona. No drugs were found.
In each of those cases, as in almost all botched raids, prosecutors declined to press charges against the officers involved.
PLANNED IN HASTE
Perhaps no fiasco illustrates the perils of no-knock searches as graphically as the 2014 raid in Georgia’s northeast corner. On May 22, an eager young Habersham County sheriff’s deputy named Nikki Autry, who was attached to a narcotics task force, turned a small-time methamphetamine user into a confidential informant. Intent on avoiding jail, the informant, James Alton Fry Jr., set about the task of baiting bigger fish.
According to trial testimony and investigative documents, the agents sent Fry out on the night of May 27 to make drug buys. He scored two Lortab pain pills on his first approach, struck out with a second source and then was connected to a meth dealer named Wanis Thonetheva. Around 10:30 p.m., Fry, his wife, Devon, and their housemate, Larry Wood — all persistent meth users — drove to the address provided by the dealer.
“It didn’t look like a drug house,” Devon Fry later testified. “This was a nice house. It’s usually a shack or trailer.” Police did not follow them to provide protection or surveil the property.
Wood conducted his business out front with Thonetheva, a 30-year-old U.S.-born son of Laotian immigrants, as the Frys waited in their red pickup. All three appeared shaken when they met up with their handlers in a church parking lot. They had spotted two men at the house whom they took to be guards for the drug operation, and a third who might have been a supplier.
The agents sent the informants home, but about half an hour later Autry texted Devon Fry with an afterthought. “Did y’all see any signs of kids at wanis’ house,” she asked.
“Nothing except a mini van,” came the response.
Thinking she was on to a big score, Autry, who was 28, did not wait for daylight or further investigation. She returned to the Sheriff’s Office, where she pulled Thonetheva’s criminal history and mug shot. With the approval of the sheriff, Joey Terrell, she alerted the county’s Special Response Team to prepare for a raid. She and her drug unit commander, Murray J. Kogod, began drafting the application for the no-knock warrant.
The affidavit included inaccuracies and hyperbole. It asserted incorrectly that James Fry — the only informant formally certified by police — had bought the drugs, rather than Wood. Autry described Fry as “a true and reliable informant,” even though he had not made a buy before that night. Despite the lack of surveillance, she wrote that she had “confirmed that there is heavy traffic in and out of the residence.”
Shortly after midnight, Autry and another agent awakened the county magistrate, James N. Butterworth, with a house call. He read the affidavit and placed her under oath.
She told him that Thonetheva had been arrested several times for drug possession, that there might be armed lookouts at the house and that an assault involving an AK-47 had been reported there the previous year. The judge, who had never denied Autry a warrant, found no reason to dispute probable cause and signed at 12:15 a.m.
“If you had drugs and you had weapons, that was constitutional purpose to go on in there, not to knock on the door,” he later testified.
During their pre-raid briefing, team members circulated a photograph of Thonetheva, a Google Earth image of the brick house with dark shutters and a sketch of the three-bedroom interior. Autry mistakenly told the team’s commander that the drug deal had gone down near a side door to an enclosed garage, so he plotted his entry from there. She told him there were no signs of children or animals, failing to mention the minivan.
When the flash-bang detonated with a concussive boom, a blinding white light filled the room. The entry team rumbled in, screaming for the occupants to get to the ground. Stribling peered into the playpen with a flashlight and found 19-month-old Bounkham Phonesavanh.
Stribling waved off Long, who had lobbed the grenade. “Charlie, go away, you don’t need to see this,” he said.
The child, known affectionately as Bou Bou, had a long laceration and burns across his chest, exposing his ribs, and another gash between his upper lip and nose. His round, cherubic face was bloodied and blistered, spackled with shrapnel and soot. The heat had singed away much of his pillow and dissolved the mesh side of the playpen.
At first the child was silent. But as Stribling picked him up, rubbed his feet and shook his arms, he began to wail. Even the drug agents stationed outside the other end of the house could hear the screams.
“You don’t think that baby got hurt, do you?” one asked another.
‘A SECRET WORLD’
SWAT was pioneered in Los Angeles and other big cities in the late 1960s and early 1970s in response to civil unrest and raging firefights. Today, almost every police agency with at least 100 officers, and about one-third of all smaller ones, either has its own full-time unit or participates in a part-time or multijurisdictional team, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Once the teams were formed, their existence had to be justified. Drug searches became the answer. Dr. Peter B. Kraska, a criminologist at Eastern Kentucky University, estimates that SWAT deployments increased roughly fifteenfold between 1980 and 2000 as the war on drugs escalated.
There is no way to know the true number of forcible entries because there is no federal mandate that police agencies report on SWAT operations. Only two states have required it, and efforts by news and watchdog groups to compile national figures have been frustrated by police stonewalling.
“This is kind of a secret world within a secret world,” said Dr. Tom Nolan, a criminologist at Merrimack College and a SWAT veteran of the Boston Police Department. “They don’t open up.”
Among the cities examined in the recent ACLU study was Little Rock, Arkansas, where the SWAT team broke down doors and detonated flash-bangs in more than 90 percent of 147 narcotics search warrant raids between January 2011 and March 2013, according to data shared with The Times.
Deadly outcomes did not slow them down. In 2010, two team members were shot, neither fatally, and a suspect was killed, in a no-knock raid that uncovered half an ounce each of marijuana and crack. Less than two years later, a SWAT officer killed an armed 31-year-old man during an early morning raid that turned up three marijuana plants. The unit then conducted five more raids in the ensuing two weeks.
The shootings prompted a new policy that the team must withdraw if it encounters an armed suspect, but they did not prompt broader reconsideration.
“It’s not foolproof, not always going to happen just right,” said the SWAT commander, Lt. Tim Calhoun. “But it winds up being the most safe for us. These are dangerous people we’re dealing with.”
Summoning armed criminals outside, he said, is no less risky than startling them inside. Long stakeouts exhaust manpower and can lead to dangerous vehicle pursuits, street confrontations and traffic stops that do not yield as much contraband.
It matters little, Calhoun said, that drug crimes may not always pose an immediate mortal threat. “If you have a dope house next door,” he said, “there’s probably nothing the police can do that would be overreacting.”
The mission creep for the heavily militarized teams has coincided with a stark shift toward law enforcement in the Supreme Court’s search for the proper balance between public safety and individual rights.
In 2003, the Supreme Court affirmed the right of officers to break into a residence with a standard warrant after knocking and waiting only 15 to 20 seconds. Three years later, it undercut even that requirement by concluding that evidence remains admissible even when the police barge in more quickly.
That has helped blur the distinction between no-knock and knock-and-announce entries. “Either the door comes in and people are yelling ‘Sheriff’s office’ or people yell ‘Sheriff’s office’ and the door comes in,” said Judge Brian M. Rickman of the Georgia Court of Appeals, who was district attorney in Habersham County during the Cornelia raid.
In The Times’ inventory, 47 civilians and five officers died as a result of the execution of knock-and-announce searches, while 31 civilians and eight officers died in the execution no-knock warrants. The type of warrant could not be determined in three civilian fatalities.
With so little restraint exerted by the federal courts, few states have offered greater protections. A survey by The Times found that 13 states have enacted laws authorizing no-knock warrants. Another 13 have blessed them through rulings by appellate courts. In seven states, no-knock warrants are routinely granted in the absence of explicit authority by statute or the courts. In 16 states and the District of Columbia, no-knock warrants are not customary but police can nonetheless make unannounced entries with standard warrants.
Only in Oregon does state law prohibit no-knock entries, and only in Florida has a state Supreme Court disallowed no-knock warrants. That 1994 opinion recognized a “staggering potential for violence to both occupants and police.” In 2015, the Utah Legislature banned forcible entry if the only suspected offense is drug possession.
Elsewhere, even when prompted by sensational headlines, legislative efforts to curb the raids have encountered resistance. Several proposals withered in Georgia’s General Assembly the year after the Baby Bou Bou episode, including prohibiting no-knock raids between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Those failures only deepened mistrust in minority neighborhoods, said state Sen. Vincent Fort, a Democrat who sponsored the bills in the Republican-controlled legislature. “It makes some community members see the police as occupying forces as opposed to community partners against crime,” he said.
OFFICERS ARE DIVIDED
Some SWAT veterans find it confounding that many police agencies remain so devoted to dynamic entry. The tactic is far from universally embraced, and several departments have retired or restricted its use over the years, often after a bad experience.
The National Tactical Officers Association, which might be expected to mount the most ardent defense, has long called for using dynamic entry sparingly. Robert Chabali, the group’s chairman from 2012-15, goes so far as to recommend that it never be used to serve narcotics warrants.
“It just makes no sense,” said Chabali, a SWAT veteran who retired as assistant chief of the Dayton, Ohio, Police Department in 2015. “Why would you run into a gunfight? If we are going to risk our lives, we risk them for a hostage, for a citizen, for a fellow officer. You definitely don’t go in and risk your life for drugs.”
Another former chairman of the association, Phil Hansen, said SWAT teams tended to use dynamic entry as “a one-size-fits-all solution to tactical problems.” As commander of the Police Department in Santa Maria, California, and before that a longtime SWAT leader for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, he said it seemed foolhardy to move so aggressively in a state that voted in November to legalize recreational marijuana.
“Why am I risking people’s lives to save an ounce of something that they’re bringing in by the freighter every year?” he asked.
But officials with other law enforcement groups reject such absolutist approaches.
“If you want to take the position that narcotics laws in this country should not be enforced, then OK, yeah,” said Sheriff Greg Champagne of St. Charles Parish in Louisiana, president of the National Sheriffs’ Association. “That’s not the position of the law enforcement people around the country that I know. If you’re going to make narcotics cases you need to have evidence, and search warrants are how you get it.”
Champagne said his deputies looked for opportunities to detain suspects on the street or in cars. Even so, he said, “there are times we just have to go in.”
‘WHY DIDN’T YOU KNOCK?’
As SWAT officers administered first aid to Bou Bou Phonesavanh, other agents detained his parents — Bounkham and Alecia Phonesavanh — and their three other children, ages 3 to 7.
“You know why we’re here,” an officer barked at Bounkham Phonesavanh.
He didn’t. “Why didn’t you knock on the door?” he asked.
Elsewhere in the house, the agents came upon Bounkham Phonesavanh’s sister, Amanda Thonetheva, who owned the place, as well as her boyfriend, her grandson and one of her sons. They did not find her other son, 30-year-old Wanis, who no longer lived there but dropped by at times. Nor did they find guns or drugs beyond some meth residue in a glass pipe. Later that night, deputies arrested Wanis at another address.
The Phonesavanhs had suffered their share of misfortune. Earlier that year, the family’s house in Janesville, Wisconsin, had burned down. They stayed in a motel as long as they could afford it, then lived for two weeks in their 11-year-old Chrysler Town & Country minivan.
They drove to Georgia when Phonesavanh’s sister offered the room in her garage. Seven weeks later, after struggling to find work, they were preparing to drive back to Wisconsin.
Remarkably, Bou Bou survived the explosion after being sped to a hospital in Atlanta. Now 4, he underwent his 15th surgery late last year, with more to come, his mother said. “The nightmares are still there,” she said, “several times a week. When he wakes up he’s usually sweating and holding his face.” She said all of her children became scared when they saw a police officer or security guard.
The Phonesavanhs, who have returned to Janesville, received $3.6 million in settlements to the federal lawsuit they filed against the traumatized members of the drug and SWAT teams. The payments were made through government insurance policies purchased with taxpayer funds. All but $200,000, Alecia Phonesavanh said, has been spent on medical and legal bills.
“Things are still quite the struggle,” she said. “They didn’t mean to hurt my son, but they could’ve done a lot more to prevent this.”