By Radley Balko
Seven-year-old Aiyana Jones was killed during a SWAT raid in Detroit over the weekend (more here and here). Police raided a duplex looking for a suspect in a murder investigation. According to Jones' family, the suspect was arrested in the apartment opposite where the little girl was shot. Police thus far are only saying that they had a warrant for the entire building, and that the suspect was arrested in that building.
The family says when police tossed a flashbang grenade through the window of the apartment where Jones was sleeping, the device ignited the blanket on her bed and set Jones on fire. The police initially claimed Jones was shot after her grandmother had an altercation with one of the officers. They now say the contact with the grandmother was incidental and the gun discharged accidentally. According to the family, neighbors warned the officers that there were children in the home, and pointed officers to toys in the front yard.
If police in this case had intelligence that their suspect posed an immediate threat to others, there might be some justification for using a SWAT team to apprehend him. Clearly a homicide suspect presents more of a threat than someone suspected of drug crimes. But it doesn't appear that the suspect was holding anyone hostage or on some sort of killing spree. And unless we learn that's the case, it's hard to understand why you'd send a SWAT team and deploy incendiary flash grenades into both units of a duplex, especially if it's clear there are children and bystanders inside.
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If nothing else, Aiyana Jones' death illustrates just how volatile and violent these raids can be, as well as their low margin for error. It shows why they should be used only when such force is necessary to defuse an already violent situation—that is, unless police intervene, there is an immediate threat of further loss of life. That's really the only scenario under which you can justify using tactics that have proven over the years to themselves carry a not insignificant risk of taking innocent lives.
More as we learn more details.