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Virginia Cop Gunned Down Last Week Was Doing a Drug War Training Exercise

The Virginia State Trooper shot and killed at the Greyhound Bus Station in Richmond, Virginia, last week died while on a drug war training exercise aimed at patrons of the transportation hub.

Trooper Chad Dermyer, 37, was gunned down by James Brown III, an Illinois man with a lengthy criminal record, who in turn was shot and killed by Dermyer's colleagues. Two women were wounded in the gunfire, neither with life-threatening injuries.

The two fatalities come as a shock, but hardly a surprise. According to Drug War Chronicle, which has been tallying deaths directly related to domestic drug law enforcement activities since 2011, the killings bring this year's total to eleven. Over the past five years, drug war deaths have occurred at a pace of roughly one a week, and this year so far is about on track.

Of those 50 or so drug war deaths each year, only a handful have been police officers. But Dermyer is the second law enforcement officer to be killed upholding drug prohibition in a 10-day period: An Indiana deputy was killed March 22 in a misbegotten midnight drug raid over a single syringe.

In Richmond last Thursday, as Fox 10 TV reported:

State Police were at that station for a training exercise on how to intercept drugs at bus terminals, which are often critical transfer points for narcotics. Dermyer had just been training for his new position around 2:40 when he was shot by a man he approached as part of that training, according to State Police.

"The male subject pulled out a handgun and shot Chad multiple times," Virginia State Police Superintendent Col. W. Steven Flaherty said. "The male subject continued firing his weapon, as two state police troopers opened fire."

The Washington Post added a bit more detail:

[State Police Superintendent W. Steven] Flaherty said Dermyer and other troopers were at the station to train for what is called a counterterrorism and criminal interdiction unit. The unit is assigned to public transit areas and highways to identify and question people deemed suspicious. It is a way of intercepting drugs and guns.

Dermyer, wearing a dark blue uniform that resembles fatigues, had started to question the man when the assailant pulled out a gun and shot the trooper, police said. Dermyer was not wearing a protective vest.

Flaherty said the conversation lasted about 30 seconds. He said he did not know what drew Dermyer's attention to the man. Two other troopers returned fire, police said. Flaherty said the squad's training assignment was: " 'If you see some suspicious behavior, go over and engage and have a conversation.' That was what was taking place here."

While it may have been a "training exercise," what police were doing was surveilling and accosting real people in real life. And it got very real indeed when Dermyer stopped Brown, who was armed and who had an extensive criminal record, with arrests on counts ranging from the petty -- "failure to obey police, resisting a corrections officer, numerous drug charges" -- to the ugly -- "aggravated battery of a pregnant woman" -- to the quite serious -- "murder, intent to kill, aggravated battery with a firearm, felony possession of a weapon." (It's not clear which of those arrests actually resulted in convictions and on what charges.)

According to his aunt, who helped raise him and with whom he stayed until she kicked him out in December, Brown really didn't like cops. The aunt, Edith Brown of suburban Chicago, told WTVR News Brown had been to prison and had had enough.

"He said he would never go back to prison again," she said. "He would fight it out with them. He had a lot of anger about the police in the past," she said. "He pretty much thought he wanted to be infamous... in terms of having a showdown. He always praised those people who got into shootouts with police."

It's difficult to tease out the role of drug prohibition in the incident where Dermyer's and Brown's lives intersected -- and ended. It's embedded in an intricate tapestry of race and class, crime and criminalization, permanent paranoia and militarized policing. But the war on drugs is one of the threads, and now, two more people are dead.

Richmond, VA
United States

Chronicle AM: More Obama Commutations, SC Town Pays Big for Killing Teen in Pot Bust, More... (3/30/16)

The president has commuted sentences for another 61 federal drug offenders, Maine legalizers are fighting to get their signatures validated and their initiative on the ballot, a South Carolina town pays out big for the death of a local teen in a small-time pot bust, and more.

Zach Hammond's family has settled a lawsuit over his death in a small-time pot sting operation gone bad. (Hammond family photo)
Marijuana Policy

Maine Senate Approves Marijuana DUID Bill. The Senate voted 19-14 Wednesday to pass LD 1628, which establishes a blood level for THC over which the driver is presumed to be impaired. The bill sets the limit at 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood, the same as the states of Colorado and Washington. The bill now goes to the House.

Maine Legalization Campaign Gets Hearing On Invalidated Signatures. At a court hearing Wednesday, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol fought to get more than 17,000 invalidated signatures reinstated. The campaign accused Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap of using an "unconstitutionally vague" interpretation of election laws to invalidate the signatures -- all of which were notarized by the same person. Dunlap said the notary's signature didn't match his on-file signature. By invalidating the 17,000 signatures, Dunlap ensured that the initiative campaign would not qualify for the November ballot. The court has until April 11 to render a decision.

Oregon Governor Signs Marijuana Edibles Bill. Gov. Kate Brown Tuesday signed into law Senate Bill 1511, which allows people 21 and over to purchase edibles and extracts at dispensaries. The bill also allows recreational pot stores to sell medical marijuana tax-free to registered patients.

Medical Marijuana

Rhode Island Patients Protest Proposed Medical Marijuana Tax. Protestors gathered at the State House Tuesday to just say no to Gov. Gina Raimondo's (D) plan to impose a tax on patient and caregiver growers. "We have pain, we have cancer, taxing us is not the answer," they chanted. Under her plan, caregivers would have to pay $350 per plant and patients who grow their own would have to pay $150. The protest took place just before the House Finance Committee took up the proposal.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Full Transcript of President Obama's Atlanta Remarks on Heroin and Pain Pills. The White House has released the full transcript of the discussion panel in which President Obama took part Tuesday as part of the National Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta. Click the title link for the transcripts.

Law Enforcement

Family of Zach Hammond Settles Police Killing Lawsuit. The South Carolina teenager was shot and killed by police last summer as he sat in his pick-up truck. The teenage girl who was his passenger was the target of an attempted bust over the sale of a bag of weed, and police shot Hammond as he attempted to pull away from the scene. His family has settled the lawsuit for $2.1 million. State investigators last year concluded that the killing was justified, but the city has just paid up.

Sentencing

Obama Pardons More Drug Offenders. President Obama today granted clemency to 61 more federal drug offenders, more than a third of whom were serving life sentences. That brings to 248 the number of sentences commuted by Obama, more than the six previous presidents combined. He was also set to meet today with people whose sentences had been commuted by previous presidents to discuss their experiences with reentry and how the process can be strengthened. On Thursday, he will hold a Life After Clemency briefing at 2:00pm EDT, which can be viewed live at www.whitehouse.gov/live.

Drug War Idiocy: One Indiana Deputy Killed, Another Wounded in Midnight Drug Raid Over a Syringe

Howard County Sheriff's Deputy Carl A. Koontz, 27, was shot and killed and Sgt. Jordan F. Buckley, 35, was shot and wounded in a midnight drug raid gone wrong Sunday night in Russiaville, Indiana. The target of the raid, Evan Dorsey, 25, was later found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound inside the mobile home that was raided.

According to Drug War Chronicle, which has been tallying deaths directly related to domestic drug law enforcement activities since 2011, the killings bring this year's total to nine. Over the past five years, drug war deaths have occurred at a pace of roughly one a week, and this year so far is right on track.

In this case, they died over a syringe. That's right -- as the Indianapolis Star reported, the deputies were serving an arrest warrant on Dorsey for failure to appear in court over possession of a syringe.

The deputies went to the mobile home where Dorsey was staying shortly after midnight Sunday. According to Howard County Sheriff Steven Rogers, they were part of a team that included sheriff's deputies, Kokomo police officers, and the Russiaville town marshal.

Rogers said officers knocked on the door and announced their presence, but got no answer. He said the deputies "were shot as they entered the home."

Roger's account (or the Star's reporting) doesn't make clear just exactly how officers "entered the home." No one answered the door, so they either just opened it and entered or broke it down and entered. In either case, there were now armed intruders in the residence in the middle of the night. They were met with gunfire from Dorsey.

A SWAT team was called to the scene, but got no response from Dorsey. Two hours later, the SWAT team entered the home and found Dorsey dead of a gunshot wound. An autopsy released Monday described the wound as self-inflicted.

The death of a sheriff's deputy and a citizen in this incident should call into question the decision-making that led to the fatal encounter. Is failure to appear in court for possession of a syringe such a serious offense that it requires a midnight drug raid? In a nation where owning guns is seen as an inalienable right, should police be risking their lives breaking into homes in the night when they could reasonably assume an armed resident might mistake them for intruders? And above all, in retrospect, was it worth it?

While some states have legalized the possession of syringes without a prescription, many continue to criminalize their possession through drug paraphernalia laws. In Indiana, possession of a syringe is a violation of the paraphernalia law, and possession of a syringe with any detectable amount of an illicit drug exposes carriers to drug possession charges.

Russiaville, IN
United States

Chronicle AM: Canada Wakes Up the CND, Tampa Pot Decrim, CA Legalization Init Getting Signatures, More... (3/17/16)

California's leading legalization initiative is one-quarter of the way home, Tampa is the latest Florida locality to decriminalize pot possession, the Canadians wake up the Commission on Narcotic Drugs with a very reform-oriented speech, and more.

Canada came out strong for harm reduction and marijuana legalization at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna this week.
Marijuana Policy

California AUMA Legalization Initiative Has 25% of Needed Signatures. The Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA) initiative has accumulated nearly 100,000 signatures since petitioning began in January. It has until July 5 to turn in a total of 365,880 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot. While other initiatives are out there, this one, supported by tech billionaire Sean Parker and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), is the one most likely to have the dollars behind to actually make the ballot.

Tampa Decriminalizes Pot Possession. The city council has passed an ordinance that decriminalizes the possession of up to 20 grams of marijuana. The move was supported by the mayor and the police chief. Now, possession will no longer be a misdemeanor, but will be a civil infraction punishable by a $75 fine for a first offense, $150 for a second, and $450 for any subsequent offenses.  Tampa now joins a number of South Florida localities that have decriminalized, as well as Central Florida's Volusia County.

Medical Marijuana

New York State Senator Unveils Medical Marijuana Expansion Package. State Sen. Diane Savino  (D-Staten Island) has introduced a package of bills—Senate Bills 6998, 6999, and 7000—designed to expand the state's constricted medical marijuana program. One bill would allow nurse practitioners to recommend medical marijuana, another would allow the five organizations licensed to grow and sell medical marijuana to double the amount of dispensaries they can open from four to eight, while another would expand the conditions for which marijuana could be recommended.

Law Enforcement

Denver Cops Instructed to Not Punch Suspects Believed to Be Swallowing Drugs. The Denver Police Department's Office of the Independent Monitor recommended Tuesday that the department adopt new policies to provide guidance to officers when they arrest a suspect believed to be trying to swallow the evidence.  "The OIM recommends that the DPD revise its Use of Force Policy to provide specific guidance on what types of force are permitted, and prohibited, to remove potential contraband from the mouths of persons being placed under arrest. The OIM further recommends that this revised policy prohibit the use of strikes to force persons being place under arrest to spit out potential contraband," the report reads. The recommendation comes in the wake of a widely-decried 2014 incident in which an officer was recorded repeatedly punching a man who was allegedly trying to stuff a heroin-filled sweat sock into his mouth.

Sentencing

Groups File Brief Seeking Reduction in Life Sentence for Silk Road's Ross Ulbricht. The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) filed an amicus brief Thursday urging the US 2nd Court of Appeal to reduced the life without parole sentence meted out to Ross Ulbricht, who was convicted of operating the Silk Road drug sales website. Joining DPA in the brief were Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, JustLeadershipUSA, and retired federal judge Nancy Gertner.  "Mr. Ulbricht’s draconian sentence flies in the face of evolving standards of decency," said Jolene Forman, Staff Attorney at the Office of Legal Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance and lead author of the brief. "Nationally, lawmakers are working across the political aisle to reduce harsh sentences for drug offenses. And, many of our allies in Europe consider life without parole sentences inhumane."

International

Canada's New Liberal Government Wakes Up the Commission on Narcotic Drugs Meeting. A speech from a Canadian representative at the Commission on Narcotics Drugs (CND) meeting in Vienna this week was met with eruptions of applause from the audience after the speaker, Assistant Deputy Minister of Health Hilary Geller, made clear that the Liberals were embracing harm reduction, including safe injection sites, and marijuana legalization. Geller's speech not only contrasted sharply with the previous Conservative government's anti-drug reform positions, but also with the cautious pronouncements made by other nations. At the end of the speech, the audience of government officials and NGO leaders gave Geller a standing ovation.

Mexico Captures Cartel Leader Tied to Border Shootouts. After a bloody weekend in Reynosa, where at least a dozen people were killed in clashes between cartel gunmen and soldiers and cartel gunmen set up burning street barricades, federal police Monday captured the Gulf Cartel leader who was allegedly the target of the federal action on the border. The man arrested is Cleofas Alberto Martinez Gutierrez, who officials said was the cartel's number two boss in Reynosa. They found him at a Mexico City race track. 

February's Drug War Deaths

The war on drugs continues to exact a lethal toll, with drug law enforcement-related deaths occurring at a pace of just under one a week so far this year. There were three in January, and four more last month, bringing this year's toll so far to seven.

Of the February killings by police, one was of an unarmed white man, one was of an unarmed black man, and two were of armed black men. In all four cases, police shooters claimed they feared for their lives. In the cases of the three black men killed in the drug war, protests broke out after each killing. That didn't happen with the white guy, though.

The unarmed white man allegedly struggled with an arresting officer, the unarmed black man was holding a cell phone mistaken for a weapon, one armed black man was shot fleeing from police in disputed circumstances, and the other was shot by police as he wore a holstered weapon.

Where the war on drugs intersects with the American obsession with firearms possession, the bodies fall fast. None of the victims actually fired at an officer, but officers' fears of being shot impact the way they approach their duties, and the results are deadly -- even when there's not actually a real gun around.

Here's the February death toll:

On February 5, San Antonio police Officer John Lee shot and killed Antronie Scott, an unarmed black man, after an officer trying to arrest him said he mistook a cell phone in Scott's hand for a weapon. Scott, who was wanted on drug possession and weapons warrants, was being tracked by two detectives, who radioed the uniformed officer to make the arrest.

According to My San Antonio, at a press conference the following day, Police Chief William McManus explained that: "Officer Lee stated that he feared for his life when he discharged a single round" and the shooting happened "in the blink of an eye."

Audio of the incident confirms that Lee shouted, "Show me your hands!" and then shot within seconds. Lee told McManus he though Scott was holding a gun, but it turned out to be a cell phone.

There is no video of the incident because San Antonio police are not yet equipped with body cameras and the officer's dashcam had an obstructed view.

The killing sparked angry protests organized by activist Alvin Perry and Scott's family the following week.

"Just like my shirt says, 'Will I be next?' Anyone one of us could be next," said Perry. "Things like this have happened in San Antonio, but it's been swept under the rug or overlooked."

By the week after that, Scott's family had filed a federal lawsuit against Officer Lee, the police department, and the city of San Antonio. The lawsuit charges that "no reasonable police officer and/or law enforcement officer given the same or similar circumstances would have initiated such a vicious and unwarranted attack on Mr. Scott within a second of directing Mr. Scott to show his hands."

The lawsuit also cited department policy, which allows police too much discretion in use of lethal force.

Chief McManus moved to fire Officer Lee, placing him on "contemplated indefinite suspension" as the first step toward termination.

*****

On February 21, a Seattle police officer shot and killed armed black man Che Taylor, 47, after they encountered him apparently selling drugs while they conducting surveillance in the Wedgewood neighborhood.

According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, citing police accounts, officers spotted Taylor wearing a holstered handgun and, knowing he was barred from carrying firearms because of a past felony conviction, swooped in to arrest him as he stood beside the passenger window of a parked car. When officers tried to detain him, he allegedly refused to show his hands and lower himself to the ground as police ordered. So one officer opened fire on him.

The Seattle Police made available dashcam video of the shooting, but it does not clearly show Taylor's actions before he is shot. It does show two police officers armed with rifles approaching an apparently oblivious Taylor, who jerks his head up as they draw near, and then appears to be trying to comply with their contradictory demands -- "Hands up!" and "Get on the ground!" -- before being shot repeatedly by one of the officers.

While police said Taylor was trying to reach for his holstered handgun, the video doesn't show that. It does show the second officer opening fire on Taylor as soon as he (the officer) comes around the car, in what looks an awful lot like a summary execution.

The officer has been identified as Michael Spaulding. This wasn't his first killing. In 2013, he shot and killed a mentally ill man after slipping and falling, arguing that he no choice but to defend himself. That killing was ruled as justified by a King County inquest. The following year, he signed onto a desperate lawsuit to block Justice Department-mandated police use-of-force reforms.

The alternative weekly The Stranger consulted with several veteran police officers who criticized police for issuing contradictory demands and said that, contrary to the police account, he was complying with police orders. One, recently retired from the Kings County Sheriff's Office, who asked not to be identified had this to say:

"From the angle presented, I cannot draw any type of conclusion [about whether the shooting was justified]," he said. "If those officers had body cameras, it would be a lot easier." They were not wearing body cams.

"If they know they're dealing with a person that's armed," he said, "then you want to come in with force showing."

The way officers rush toward the car with their guns out is "standard stuff... That looks pretty textbook."

"From what I saw, he was told to get down, and he was getting down. And while he was down, I don't know what prompted them to shoot... He's getting down. But we can't tell if he's getting all the way on the ground."

"He was obeying commands," the former officer said. "And it looks like the other officer was going in to take control of him, when the officer with the rifle began to shoot."

Here's the video:

 

*****

On February 26, a Pennington County, South Dakota, sheriff's deputy shot and killed Abraham Mitchell Fryer, an unarmed white man. According to the Rapid City Journal, citing police sources, Deputy Robert Schoeberl pulled over Fryer, who was wanted on drug charges, in Rapid Valley just before midnight. Within moments, Fryer was dead, with the Journal reporting that "the shooting apparently came after the two men had fought."

Both men were transported to a local hospital, where Fryer was pronounced dead. Deputy Schoeberl was treated for unspecified injuries and released.

Police were quick to release Fryer's criminal history, calling it "extensive," and noting that he was wanted for failure to appear on marijuana possession, drug possession, and possession with intent to distribute charges in neighboring Meade County. He was also wanted by federal authorities on a weapons charge, but was unarmed at the time he was killed.

The shooting is under investigation by the state Department of Criminal Investigation, which is expected to issue a report within 30 days.

*****

On February 29, Raleigh, North Carolina, police Officer J.W. Twiddy shot and killed Akiel Denkins, an armed black man, after a foot chase. According to the Raleigh News & Observer, Twiddy was attempting to arrest Denkins on outstanding felony drug charges when Denkins took off running.

Police and witnesses agreed that the pursuit began outside a business on East Bragg Street, in a heavily African-American neighborhood, but disagreed on much else. According to a preliminary report from Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown, Twiddy caught up with Denkins behind a nearby house and grabbed him. As the pair struggled, Denkins allegedly pulled a handgun from his waistband and "began to move it toward Officer Twiddy," the report said.

"While still struggling with Mr. Denkins, Officer Twiddy drew his duty weapon and fired multiple shots as Mr. Denkins continued to move the firearm in his direction," the report said. "After the first shots were fired, Officer Twiddy felt Mr. Denkins' hand or arm make contact with his duty weapon. Officer Twiddy, fearing that Mr. Denkins was either going to shoot him or attempt to take his duty weapon, stepped back and fired additional shots at Mr. Denkins, who still had the firearm in his hand."

But the report clashes with accounts from witnesses. Denkins' former basketball coach, M.M. Johnson, said he talked to numerous people who were on the street when Denkins got shot.

"They said he took off running," Johnson said. "Everybody that was standing out there was talking about it. Ain't nobody said nothing about a struggle. They said he took off running and the police officer fell and started busting (shooting) because he couldn't catch him."

A preliminary autopsy report showed that Denkins was hit by four bullets -- one in his chest, one on his left forearm, one on his right upper arm, and one on his right shoulder. But the report does not say whether any of the shots came from behind.

Joe Jabari, owner of the building where the pursuit began, said he heard "a lot of people" say Denkins had been shot in the back and that he was "absolutely shocked" at the police chief's report.

"This kid came to me many times, saying, 'I wish I didn't have a felony charge because I need to change,' " he said. "He was trying, honest to God he was trying. That day, I don't know what happened. I'm not defending nobody, but some of these kids feel like they have no choice."

Denkins had previous drug convictions and was out on $10,000 secured bond after being charged in October with two counts of selling or delivering cocaine and one count of felony possession of cocaine with intent to sell or deliver. He had failed to show up for a court date, and an arrest warrant had been issued days before he was killed.

After the shooting, neighborhood residents broke into spontaneous protest, chanting "No Justice, No Peace," and later that evening, a small group gathered around "an anti-police sign with an expletive" that was hoisted on a utility pole.

Denkins' funeral last Friday was attended by more than 200 people, with "people wearing baggy jeans, red bandanas and anti-police T-shirts mingled with people wearing smart suits," as ABC News put it.

"Justice will be served whether we know it or not. Not by men, not by a judge but by the ultimate Supreme Court, Jesus Christ," said friend Aaron Cummings.

Officer Twiddy has been placed on administrative leave while the State Bureau of Investigation looks into the matter.

January Drug War Deaths: Two in Night-Time Raids, One Unarmed and Fleeing From Police

At least three people were killed by American police enforcing the war on drugs last month, including one young man who died in a late-night drug raid that netted a little more than a quarter pound of marijuana.

Two of the dead were killed in night-time drug raids. Both were allegedly armed, although in neither case is it asserted that they fired on police. In both cases, police have not mentioned -- nor have local media asked -- whether these were kick-the-door-down, SWAT-style no-knock raids.

In a country where firearm ownership is both cherished and widespread, surprise police assaults that could be mistaken for home invasions can well result in homeowners grabbing their weapons to protect themselves and their domiciles. And then getting shot dead for doing so. Was that the case in these two deaths? We will likely never know. (The homeowners sometimes shoot and kill the invading police, too, but, unlike the police, they tend to get charged with murder.)

The third case raises a different kind of issue. Here, the victim was fleeing from police and made the all-too-familiar move "toward his waist band." He also had something in his hand, but it wasn't a weapon. And now he's dead, too. An unarmed man, running away from the police, is killed they were so quick to fear for their own lives.

Here are January's drug war deaths:

  • On January 4, deputies in Louisiana's Beauregard Parish doing a night-time drug raid shot and killed Eric John Senegal, 27. They also shot and killed a dog at the house. The house was under investigation for drug activity and the deputies were serving a narcotics search warrant, according to State Police Troop D spokesman Sgt. James Anderson. Sheriff Ricky Moses later explained that the deputies "encountered an armed suspect who has been identified as Eric J. Senegal and an attacking dog which resulted in the deaths of both Mr. Senegal and the dog." The sheriff didn't say what kind of weapon Senegal had or whether the raid was a no-knock raid. The search warrant for the raid said deputies were looking for marijuana, cocaine, and illegal pills. There hasn't been any word on whether they found anything. State police have opened an investigation a A local television station's Facebook posting of a story about his death generated numerous and heated responses as the national debate over police use of force hit home for commenters.
  • On January 5, police in Ceres, California, shot and killed Albert Thompson, 28, after he fled from them at a small apartment complex. The officers were on patrol "because of prior illegal drug activity there," according a Ceres Police news release. When the police arrived, Thompson took off running, and the officers gave chase. Police said Thompson reached for something at his waist, and the officers fired, striking and killing him. Initial police reports said an "item" was found near Thompson's body. It was later revealed that the item was a hand torch. Thompson was a parolee-at-large wanted by the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
  • On January 16, West Virginia state troopers helping Elkins police execute a midnight drug search warrant shot and killed William Keith Waldron, 26, when he met them armed with a shotgun. Waldron "did wield a firearm and as a result officers did defend themselves by firing at the subject," prosecutors explained in the criminal case against one of the two other men in the home at the time of the raid. Police have not said whether the raid, which included at least seven officers, was a no-knock raid. They found a little over a quarter-pound of weed, some plastic baggies, and a scale.

The Most Outrageous Drug War Deaths of 2015 [FEATURE]

An as yet unnamed man killed by police in Rawlins, Wyoming, on December 30, after they were called to a convenience store about a person believed to be selling drugs in the parking lot, and Burlington, Vermont, resident Kenneth Stephens, 56, shot and killed by a state trooper and a DEA agent on December 22 when he met them with a rifle as they raided his apartment, were the last two people to make the Drug War Chronicle's drug war death toll tally, bringing it to 56 for the year.

This is the fifth year the Drug War Chronicle has tallied drug war deaths. There were 54 in 2011, 63 in 2012, 41 in 2013, and 39 in 2014. That's an average of just a hair under one a week during the past five years.

The Chronicle's tally only include deaths directly related to US domestic drug law enforcement operations -- full-fledged, door-busting, pre-dawn SWAT raids, to traffic stops turned drug busts, to police buy-bust operations. Some of the deaths are by misadventure, not gunshot, including several people who died after ingesting drugs in a bid to avoid getting busted and two law enforcement officers who separately dropped dead while searching for marijuana fields.

The dead included three other police officers, two Hattiesburg, Mississippi, cops gunned down in a traffic stop turned drug search in May and a Memphis cop gunned down over a $20 pot deal in August.

But 90% of the drug war dead are civilians. While some of the deaths are accidental and some are clearly justifiable, as when people are actually shooting at police, others are more questionable. Were all those guys in vehicles who got killed because police "feared for their lives" really trying to run down and kill cops over a drug bust, or were they just trying to get away?

And some are just downright outrageous -- one might even say criminal, although local prosecutors generally seem to disagree. In only one of the cases listed below was the police officer arrested, and in that case, she walked. Here are the worst drug war killings of 2015:

1. In February, Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, Police Officer Lisa Mearkle shot and killed David Kassick, 59, after he fled a traffic stop. Kassick was a relapsed heroin user who had done time in federal prison for heroin sales, and was carrying a needle and a spoon with residue on him. Video from Mearkle's stun gun shows her repeatedly tazing Kassick as he lay on his belly in the snow and yelling at him to show his hands as they jerk around from the tazing before firing two shots into his back four seconds apart. Mearkle was arrested on murder charges in April, but acquitted of murder charges in November.

 

Zach Hammond. Gunned down over his passenger's pot deal.
2. In March, Volusia County, Florida, Sheriff's Deputy Todd Raible shot and killed Derek Cruice, 26, during a dawn SWAT raid aimed at a small-time marijuana sales operation. Cruice, who was unarmed, was shot in the face. Police claimed they were "met with resistance and a shooting occurred," but Cruice's roommates vehemently disagreed. "He had no weapons on him or in the house," roommate Steven Cochran told the Daytona Beach News Journal. "Nobody was making any kind of resistance or keeping them from doing their job." Cruice wasn't even wearing a shirt, he said. "It's kind of hard to conceal anything or hide anything when this is all you have on. They entered the house and fired." Another roommate bluntly called the deputy's action's "murder." A grand jury directed by State Attorney R.J Larizza disagreed. In Ocober, it failed to indict Raible on any charge. Cruice was a popular figure in the local community, and there were protests over his death. The cops scored half a pound of weed and some cash, but no weapons in the raid.

3. Also in March, also in Florida, Putnam County sheriff's deputies shot and killed Andrew Anthony Williams, 48, as he attempted to flee in his vehicle from a "reverse sting." That's where cops pose as drug dealers, sell unwary customers small amounts of drugs, then arrest them. Deputies had successfully sold drugs to and arrested 10 people, but when they identified themselves and tried to arrest Williams, who was number 11, he declined. News 4 Jax had it this way: "…when they tried to arrest Williams, he took off in a blue SUV and, swerving to avoid deputies, ran into a tree. Williams then backed up and tried to take off again toward deputies causing four of them to open fire on Williams SUV, hitting him an unknown number of times."

Williams' death stinks for two reasons, First, reverse drug stings are a controversial tactic, sometimes arguably justifiable at the higher echelons of the drug trade, where selling sizeable quantities of drugs to a player to see where they go help crack a drug ring, but that logic isn’t at work here, where the only result is to round up some street drug buyers and drag them into the criminal justice system. Is having deputies pretend to be drug dealers to bust small-time users really the county's best use of its law enforcement resources?

And then there's the no-witness "he was going to run me over" defense used by the police to justify the killing. It happens not infrequently. Williams may have decided that getting busted on a minor dope charge was worth trying to murder a group of police officers with his vehicle. But could it have been that he was just trying to get away?

4. In April, 73-year-old Tulsa, Oklahoma, sheriff's Reserve Officer Charles Robert Bates shot and killed meth and gun trafficking suspect Eric Harris when he mistakenly opened fire with his pistol instead of his Taser. The shooting occurred in the midst of a struggle as Harris had attempted to flee on foot and there is no evidence that Bates intended to kill Harris, but the killing led to scandal over Sheriff Stanley Glanz's relationship with Bates and how the retiree volunteer managed to get in the middle of a Violent Crimes Task Force operation. Glanz was forced to resign in October and was indicted on a misdemeanor records tampering charge over his failure to release Bates' personnel records. Those records indicate that even though top sheriff's officials knew Bates wasn’t well-trained enough, they pressured others to ignore it. Bates himself was indicted for second degree manslaughter and goes on trial in April.

 

5. In July, Seneca, South Carolina, Police Officer Mark Tiller shot and killed 19-year-old Zachary Hammond. Hammond was behind the wheel of a car at fast food restaurant parking lot. He had driven there with a female passenger who was going to sell a small amount of marijuana to what turned out to be an undercover cop. Police said Hammond drove toward the officer, forcing him to fire, but that account was challenged by Eric Bland, an attorney representing Hammond's family. Bland said that the autopsy report showed that Hammond had been shot from behind and that the vehicle was not moving. The autopsy showed a first shot entering the teen's left rear shoulder and a second in his side five inches away that went through his heart and lungs before exiting his lower right side.

"It is clearly, clearly from the back," Bland said after viewing pictures of the bullet wounds at the coroner's office. "It is physically impossible for him to be trying to flee or run over the officer that shot him. This is a 19-year-old kid without a weapon in his car, clearly in the Hardee's parking lot on a date, and within five minutes he has two shots that appear to be in his back and his side, from an officer shooting him from the back -- and he's dead and this family needs answers."

The killing was egregious enough to spark a Justice Department investigation, which is still ongoing, but not enough to convince local prosecutors to go after Officer Tiller. In October, Solicitor Chrissy Adams declined to file criminal charges against Tiller. A federal wrongful death lawsuit filed by Hammond's family is pending.

 

 

Troy Goode. Authorities tried to blame his death on "LSD toxicity."
6. In September, a still unnamed member of an Akron, Ohio, SWAT team shot and killed Omar Ali, 27, during a raid on his hookah store. Police were investigating Ali for drug sales and domestic violence when they broke down the door to his business, then encountered him in the main room of his shop. Police said they ordered him to put his hands up, but he allegedly refused those commands and reached toward the back of his waistband. The unnamed SWAT officer then shot him. Police found no weapon in his waistband. What they did find was 2.8 grams of heroin and five doses of Suboxone hidden in his butt-crack.

7. In July, a group of police officers in Southhaven, Mississippi, arrested Troy Goode, 30, after he was behaving erratically under the influence of LSD he had ingested in anticipation of a Widespread Panic concert. His wife attempted to drive him home, but at some point, he got out of the car and began creating a disturbance. Police were called, and they chased and arrested him, hogtieing him face down on a stretcher. He was charged with resisting arrest, then taken in an ambulance to a hospital, where he died two hours later. In December, the State Medical Examiner ruled that Goode had died of "LSD toxicity," but given that there are no known cases of fatal LSD overdoses, that finding is hard to credit. Goode's family isn't buying it; they instead cite an,independent autopsy report that found Goode died after being hogtied and left prone for an extended period. That stress position caused him to have trouble breathing and, as his heart attempted to compensate, it went into cardiac arrhythmia. "He was suffocating. His heart increased into what is called tachycardia," family attorney Tim Edwards said. "There is no scientific basis to attribute his death to LSD. This was lethal force, putting someone in a prolonged hogtied position," Edwards said. "This was not a situation where a 300-pound man attacked a police officer in the dark. This was a science nerd." The family has asked the Justice Department to file a civil rights investigation and says it plans to file a lawsuit over Goode's death this month.

Black Lives Matter Makes A Powerful Connection With Racist Drug War [FEATURE]

This article was published in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

The Black Lives Matter movement sprung out of the unjust killings of young black men (Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown), either at the hands of self-styled vigilantes or police. But as the movement blossomed and matured, BLM began turning its attention to a broader critique of the institutional racism behind police violence against the black population.

While the war on drugs plays a central role in generating conflict between the black community and law enforcement, the critique of institutional racism in policing and the criminal justice system necessarily implicates the nation's drug policies. The grim statistics of racially biased drug law enforcement are well-known: blacks make up about 13% of the population, but 30% of all drug arrests; blacks account for nearly 90% of all federal crack cocaine prosecutions; black federal crack offenders were sentenced to far more prison time that white powder cocaine offenders; blacks and other minorities are disproportionately targeted in traffic stop and stop-and-frisks despite being less likely than whites to be carrying drugs, and so on.

People who have been spent careers working in the drug reform movement didn't need the publication of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow to understand the corrosive and screamingly unfair impact of drug war racism on black communities, but the 2010 broadside helped open eyes outside the movement and deepened the visceral impact of drug war racism for those already in the trenches. The book continues to reverberate. And now, Black Lives Matter is bringing a whole new sense of energy and urgency to the issue.

Despite efforts by leading drug reform groups like the Drug Policy Alliance, the world of drug reform remains overwhelmingly white. With marijuana legalization proceeding at a rapid pace and business opportunities emerging, the unbearable whiteness of the marijuana industry is becoming an increasingly high-profile issue.

Last month, Black Lives Matter activists released Campaign Zero, a comprehensive platform for curbing police violence and reforming the criminal justice system in the US. The platform does not explicitly call for ending the war on drugs, but drug war policies and policing techniques are inextricably intertwined with the policing problems (and solutions) it identifies. Campaign Zero calls for decriminalizing marijuana within the context of a broader call for moving away from "broken windows" policing, as well as demanding an end to mass stop-and-frisk and racial profiling policies, both impelled in large part by the drug war. It also calls for an end to "policing for profit," whether through issuing tickets for revenue-raising purposes or through another drug war creation, the use of civil asset forfeiture to seize cash and goods from people without convicting them of a crime (sometimes without even arresting them).

Most of the other Campaign Zero policy proposals regarding police use of force, militarization and community control don't directly address the war on drugs, but because the drug war is so pervasive, it is implicated with them as well. According to the FBI, drug offenses were the single largest category of arrests made, constituting 1.5 million of the 11 million arrests nationwide last year.

How does a mostly white drug reform movement that is already intellectually aware of drug war racism, and that has used it to its advantage in efforts like the Washington, DC marijuana legalization fight and the struggle to roll back harsh mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws, deal with Black Lives Matter? To its credit, the Drug Policy Alliance took a big whack at it during last month's International Drug Policy Reform Conference in suburban Washington. While race and the drug war were an issue at numerous sessions during the conference, a Live National Town Hall on "Connecting the Dots: Where the Drug Policy Reform Movement and the #BlackLivesMatter Intersect" brought a laser-like focus to the topic. And it was a hot topic -- event organizers had to move the event to a larger room at the last minute when it became evident that hundreds of people were determined to be there.

They came to hear from a panel that included BLM co-founder Patrice Cullors, Break the Chains: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs founder and executive director Deborah Peterson-Small, NAACP Legal Defense Fund senior organizer Lumumba Bandele, DPA policy manager Kassandra Frederique, and St. Louis hip-hop artist T-Dubb-O. DPA program director Asha Bandele was the moderator.

People have to open their minds to new paradigms, the panelists warned. "People are so wedded to the institution of policing they can't even imagine something different, something radical," said Cullors. "We have to transform the way our communities have been completely devastated by the war on drugs."

"We are at a historic moment right now, a moment where freedom looks different to people than how it looked before," said Peterson-Small. "Harriet Tubman famously said she could have freed more slaves if the people only knew they were slaves -- that's the psychology of enslavement. What we need now is a conversation about white people who believe they're free when they're not," she said.

"We black people already know we're not free," Small continued. "I worry about the people who believe they're free, the people who think the police are your friends, that they're here to serve and protect you. You have a lot of illusions about the role of police in your lives."

The legacy of slavery lives on all too vividly in the modern criminal justice system, she said.

"Policing is the way white America continues to replicate the cycle of enslavement, the power dynamic on which this society is based. Every time a black man is arrested, it's a reenactment of that dynamic," Peterson-Small said.

"We believe in two incompatible things," she told the audience. "We believe that we live in a free and democratic country where anyone who works hard can succeed, but we also know we live in a country established by and for the benefit of white men. White folks are in denial about that incompatibility, but it's no longer possible to pretend something that's been going on for 200 years hasn't been happening."

Removing the blinders from white people's eyes is part of the struggle, she said. "Our fight for freedom is your fight for freedom. Oppressed people have to be the agent and catalyst of freedom for their oppressors," she told a rapt crowd.

DPA's Frederique talked about the imperative she felt to make the connection between her work as a drug reformer and the broader issue of racism in America in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing.

"We can't wait to make the connection, I needed to understand how to make the connection," she said, "but I was without words. Now, I locate the work I do as racial justice. If we're going to continue to say that the war on drugs is war on people of color, if we continue to get nontraditional allies and say marijuana legalization is a civil rights issue and how we are winning, I find it hard to believe the idea that we can win the war on drugs without winning the war on people of color. If we think that, we're doing something wrong."

"Drug policy reform needs to systematically disrupt and destroy institutional racism," she said. "If we don't, we can't ask black people to sit at the table."

But as moderator Asha Bandele noted, it's not just white racism that's holding down black people when it comes to drug policy. "Respectable" black people have been a bulwark of the drug war, too. If you just obey the law, you won't get in trouble, they say, looking down their noses at their troublesome brethren.

That's wrongheaded, said Peterson-Small. "If we were having this conversation 135 years ago, people would have said the same thing about the pig laws as we say now about the crack laws," she said. "We've always been in a war for our survival in this country. The only reason we are here is to be a source of economic profit for other people."

Alluding to Poland's WWII-era Lodz Ghetto, Peterson-Small warned that meekly complying with harsh and arbitrary authority to ensure the survival of the community can end up with the elimination of the community.

"We've got to stop drinking that Kool-Aid," she said. "When we as a community are willing to stand up for the brother with a blunt and a 40 the way we did with Trayvon, they won't be able to keep us down."

"Just look at me," said hip-hop attired T-Dubb-O. "I have a dream, too. I don't want to be a hashtag, I don't want to sell drugs, to kill somebody who looks like me. It's the system of white supremacy that puts me in that mind state. When you talk about the war on drugs, that school-to-prison pipeline, that's what gives them that mind-state," he said.

"We don't own no poppy farms, but now we have a heroin epidemic," he said. "The murders you see in Chicago, those killings in St. Louis, that's heroin."

T-Dubb-O took drug war solidarity to the next level, mentioning the case of the 43 missing Mexican student teachers presumably killed by drug gangs working in cahoots with corrupt local politicians.

"We have to have an international vision of the people who are repressed," he said.

In response to an audience question, Peterson-Small got down to nuts and bolts. If we want to dismantle racism, drug policy provides a space to apply harm reduction to the problem.

"The work that really needs to be done is for people to understand that we're not the ones who need fixing," she said. "All of us have been infected by this thing. If we apply harm-reduction principles, we would focus on what is the intervention, not who is the racist. It's a course of treatment, not a weekend of racial sensitivity training."

The National Town Hall is just a beginning. We still have a long way to go.

Chronicle AM: Trump Says Let States Legalize, Mexican Villagers Go Vigilante on Crooked Cops, More (10/30/15)

A leading Republican presidential contender favors letting the states decide on pot policy, another Indian tribe wants to get in on the action, Mexican villagers turn the tables on crooked federal cops, and more.

Donald Trump says let the states decide on marijuana. (wikimedia/gage skidmore)
Donald Trump Would Let States Decide on Legalization. The Republican presidential contender said at a campaign rally Thursday that he supports letting states decide whether to legalize marijuana or not. "I really believe we should leave it up to the states," he said while taking questions at an event at the Nugget Convention Center in Sparks, Nevada.

North Carolina Indian Tribe to do Feasibility Study on Legalizing Marijuana. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians passed a resolution Thursday calling for a feasibility study to look into "the issues and impacts associated with legalization of cannabis." The resolution was submitted by tribal members who are part of Common Sense Cannabis.

Asset Forfeiture

Ohio Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Proposed. State Rep. Robert McColley (R-Napoleon) said Thursday he will introduce a bill to end civil asset forfeiture reform. "Essentially, what [the bill] does is ensure that in order for anybody to lose their property through a forfeiture proceeding, they must first be charged with a crime and then subsequently convicted of that crime," McColley said. "Now, under Ohio law, there is something called provisional title, which essentially means that the state can hold temporary title to the property during the course of legal proceedings if that property is subject to forfeiture. That is still in place, but in order for the final transfer of title to occur, there must be a conviction of the underlying crime that is the basis for the forfeiture."

International

Mexican Villagers Detain Eight Federal Police They Say Work With Drug Cartels. At least 200 residents of a small mining town in Guerrero state have captured and are holding eight federal police officers they say work for the Guerreros Unidos drug gang. The federal police chief said talks were underway with locals to win their release. The incident occurred in Carrizalillo, where the police had arrived on a mission to arrest a local cooperative farming commission leader. They came accompanied by local alleged drug trafficker, and when the cops tried to arrest the local leader, the locals arrested the cops. Click on the link for more sordid details.

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Three More Drug War Deaths This Month

A SWAT team member in Ohio shot and killed an unarmed businessman, and SWAT teams in South Carolina and Mississippi killed two more people in drug enforcement on the same day this week. There is also news on some past drug war killings.

This month's drug war killings bring the Drug War Chronicle's count of people killed in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year to 49. The figure only includes people who died as a direct result of the drug war.

  • In Ohio, 27-year-old Omar Ali died October 5, two weeks after he was shot and wounded by a SWAT officer during a September raid on his Akron hookah store. Police were investigating Ali for drug sales when they broke down the door to his business, then encountered him in the main room of his shop. Police said they ordered him to put his hands up, but he allegedly refused those commands and reached toward the back of his waistband. The unnamed SWAT officer then shot him. Police found no weapon in his waistband. What they did find was 2.8 grams of heroin and five doses of Suboxone hidden in his butt-crack.
  • In Florida, a Jacksonville Sheriff's Office SWAT team shot and killed an armed drug suspect during a residential drug raid Wednesday afternoon. The dead man has not yet been named. Police said they were preparing to break down the door to the home when they encountered the man armed with a hand gun. He allegedly turned to confront them, and was then shot and killed by Officer Nicholas Rodgers. The dead suspect didn't fire a shot. Police said they found cocaine and more guns when they searched the residence.
  • In Mississippi, a drug suspect was killed and a deputy wounded during a Monroe County SWAT drug raid Wednesday morning. The dead man has not yet been identified. Sheriff Cecil Cantrell explained that it all began with a traffic stop: "Basically, we did a traffic stop on a vehicle and he had quite a bit of drugs in there, ice (crystal meth)," Cantrell said. "We talked to him and asked him where he got the drugs, and he told us where he bought them. And we got a search warrant and went down to this gentleman's house. When we got there the SWAT team went down to the house. When they got to the back door, he opened the door and started shooting, wounded one of my deputies. The deputies shot back. Those were seasoned deputies who were on that SWAT team, and they had no choice but to shoot back. And that person is deceased now."

Please note that in all three cases, as in many other cases of drug war violence, the only account available is that from police.

Meanwhile, there is also news on a pair of earlier cases of drug war deaths.

  • In California, the El Centro Police and four named officers are being sued over the 2012 death of Charles Sampson during a drug investigation. A police body camera video picked up police threatening to arrest Sampson and his family members if he didn't tell them where he had hidden drugs. Police also said a drug dog had alerted on the residence, but they later revised that statement, and they didn't find any drugs in the house. Sampson became ill, apparently after ingesting methamphetamine, but when family members called 911 for an ambulance, police told the dispatcher to ignore all calls from the house because Sampson was "putting on a show." Only two hours later was Sampson taken to a hospital, and only because a police officer ignored instructions to take him to jail. The lawsuit goes to trial in May 2016.
  • And in South Carolina, prosecutors declined to file criminal charges against the police officer who shot and killed unarmed teenager Zachary Hammond during a pot bust in July. Hammond was the driver of a car parked at a fast food restaurant, and the girl in the passenger seat had just arranged a pot deal with a person who turned out to be an undercover cop. When the cops pulled up, Hammond began to attempt to drive away and was shot twice by Officer Mark Tiller. Tiller claimed self-defense, although video showed Hammond's car already passing Tiller when he opened fire. But Solicitor Chrissy Adams said Tiller would face no charges.

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