Drug Law

First Person: Going After Columbia SWAT for Drug Raid

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The Kinloch Court Video

On February 11, 2010 police in Columbia, Missouri served a search warrant at the home of a suspected marijuana dealer at a residence on Kinloch Court. At the time, all narcotics search warrants were being served by SWAT teams. The police had videotaped the raid for training purposes and it was obtained by a citizen under Missouri’s Sunshine Law and posted on YouTube.com in early May. The now infamous video of the incident went viral, appearing under several different handles and collecting over 2 million views and counting.

In the four and a half minute video, police enter the home, unload seven rounds of ammunition into the family dogs and manhandle the compliant suspect in front of his wife and 7-year-old son. His mother leads the crying child out of the hallway as the police follow a wounded and retreating dog into the kitchen to kill it.

The raid turned up less than a gram of marijuana and some paraphernalia; the suspect was charged with child endangerment.

Ed Rosenthal, the Executive Director of Green Aid, and I publicized the video through our social network and encouraged our readers to file official complaints with the Columbia Police Department.

In early June 2010, I, Ed and the other 94 official complainants received a letter in the mail from the Police Chief Ken Burton whose investigation of our complaints concluded the officers had done nothing wrong or outside the bounds of standard procedure. The letter closed with a paragraph outlining the appeals process through the newly created Civilian Police Review Board (CPRB).

Ed and I immediately filed our appeals, and to our surprise were the first and only to do so. Our appeal grabbed headlines in Columbia, not because of the actual details of our complaint and appeal, but because we are Californians. Our case was the first to be heard by the CPRB since its creation in January.

Unfortunately, when the CPRB heard our complaint on July 14, 2010, the main focus of the meeting was whether or not Ed and I had jurisdiction to appeal from California. Because the meeting was grossly unproductive, it was delayed until August 4th. In response to the meeting, Columbia resident, Dan Viets, an ACLU attorney and the Missouri Coordinator of NORML, filed an appeal as well, which 41 other residents signed on to.

On July 23, I flew out to Columbia to meet with residents and law enforcement, further research our appeal, and meet with local media, a strategy that has been incredibly successful for Green Aid.

In Columbia I worked closely with multiple citizens’ groups: University of Missouri (Mizzou) NORML, Americans for Forfeiture Reform, Keep Columbia Free, and a group created in response to the incident, CoMo Citizens.

Without the help of these groups, my trip would have been a complete failure. I was constantly defending our right to appeal; although Ed and I are not residents of Columbia, we are stakeholders in this case because not only were we (and two million other people) witness to the raid, but we are freedom and democracy-loving Americans who believe that if these injustices exist anywhere in America it is our responsibility to work with law enforcement to stop enacting these raids in our name and with our tax dollars.

Asset Forfeiture and SWAT Raids

Eapen Thampy, with American’s for Forfeiture Reform, provided me with two-thirds of the warrants served by a SWAT team in Columbia since 2007, which he had obtained through Missouri’s Sunshine Law. Along with four interns, he has been extensively researching these reports to provide evidence of police misconduct.

What I read in that pile blew me away. For years, all narcotics warrants were served with a SWAT team, most without prior surveillance of the residence to assess.the risk to police. Many of these were so blatantly non-violent it was impossible to justify the use of the SWAT team. One such warrant was served by a SWAT team on two college students sitting in their living room playing Xbox.

Additionally, a majority of these warrants were served late. If these criminals were suspected of being dangerous enough to require a SWAT team to serve the warrant either Columbia is an incredibly dangerous place (which it isn’t) or there is another incentive in waiting to serve the warrant. Missouri’s forfeiture laws require that assets seized by police be routed into the public school system. Police all over the country have been circumventing these state laws by using federal officials and procedure in these seizures. In the state of Missouri, 80% of asset seizures are conducted through federal jurisdiction. When the federal government seizes the assets, the money is sent to the Department of Justice, who then issues a check back to the police department (aka a “kickback”) for a portion of the seizure. Police use this to buy more equipment, usually weapons and vehicles.

The warrant on the now infamous Kinloch Court incident was served eight days late and the police found less than a gram of marijuana and some paraphernalia. If police serve warrants late on suspected drug dealers, it is more likely that they will seize less drugs and more cash. The police file for the Kinloch Court incident states that although they had not conducted surveillance on the home, they had been tapping phones. The suspect’s phone records show that forty minutes after they had entered the home, he had allegedly scheduled a “re-up.”

Additionally, each of the warrants served by a SWAT team costs a minimum of $2000 per raid, which does not include the cost of prosecution, incarceration, and parole. The warrants and affidavits I was working from represented a minimum of $120,000 of taxpayer funding.  Often times, these search warrants are served on holidays or after hours to procure overtime and holiday pay.

Columbia’s Chief of Police, Ken Burton

In response to outrage over the Kinloch court incident, Chief Burton held a press conference in late May to discuss reforms he made in the department. By that time, many other police training videos had been obtained and leaked on YouTube.com, one video was of a man being pulled over for a routine traffic violation and within 23 seconds of making contact with the officer he was tazed—while his young children watched. As these incidents have become public, Chief Burton has been taking heat over the department’s policies and tactics. He has been working within his reach to amend or create new policies in the department, but has inherited a department that is not as cooperative with the will of the citizens as he intends.

There have been a string of police incidents in Columbia where officers have shown excessive force without probable cause: tazing a drunk for peeing in an alley, mistakenly serving a search warrant with a SWAT team on an elderly woman and then offering her McDonald’s cheese burgers as consolation, tazing a man threatening to jump off a bridge (which resulted in him falling off it) and barring a suspect of her right to see a lawyer, to name a few.

Chief Burton, who has held his position for 15 short months, has limited the scope and reformed the procedure of SWAT raids. Suspected drug traffickers must be under sufficient surveillance before determining whether it is necessary to conduct a SWAT raid. SWAT teams will not be serving narcotic search warrants unless it is predetermined that serving the warrant may be hazardous. While these policy changes are a step in the right direction they are not enough to prevent further “Kinloch Courts”. The term “hazardous” is subjective, and succinct guidelines should be in place to determine if the situation is hazardous enough to warrant the use of a SWAT team (i.e. proven ties to violent criminal organizations, proof of ownership of weapons, previous violent convictions).

Also at issue is his enforcement of Columbia’s 2004 initiative that made marijuana law enforcement the lowest priority. Many of Burton’s public comments have been billed as pro-legalization in the media. When I asked him about his opinion of current marijuana laws and the point he intended to make in the conference, he said “I don’t care if it is legal or not, but I will enforce the laws that are on the books. If citizens are unhappy with the laws, they should not be angry at police but rather work with their legislators to change them.” He also expressed dissatisfaction with the vagueness of the law; saying he would prefer to go after truly violent crime but will not supersede the authority of local and federal legislators.

Furthermore, Chief Burton has been open and willing to speak and work with Columbia citizens on further reforms. He faces a good deal of opposition within the department. Before he took the position in 2009, former Chief of Police Randy Boehm had created the policies that had facilitated the unwarranted and unchecked SWAT raids, shooting and tazings. Boehm now works at the University of Missouri in security and law enforcement.

The Investigation

When I obtained the police file of the incident and investigation, it was clear that there was no way their investigation would turn up anything but an exoneration. Excluded from the scope of the investigation: Columbia’s marijuana lowest priority law, whether there was probable cause to issue the warrant, whether a SWAT team should have served it, whether shots should have been fired, or the tactics used by the officers.

Additionally the department admits to having knowledge of and possessing the means to deal with animals, in particular dogs, in non-lethal forms.  In the reports, the dogs at Kinloch Court are alternately described as a pit bull, two pit bulls, and a pit bull and an unnamed breed. According to the family’s attorney, Jeff Hilbrenner, there was one pit bull, which retreated after the initial wound, and a Welsh Corgi, who was harmed but not killed.

The police report claims that the pit bull appeared as if it was gearing up to attack the officers when they fired the initial shots, but they were fired immediately after the front door was opened and before the team had crossed the threshold of the home. The dog began audibly yelping and retreated. It is standard policy of SWAT teams to immediately secure all sides of the perimeter, and although the camera does not follow police into the kitchen, within another 20 seconds shots are fired and the pit bull is killed.

The CPRB Hears Our Appeal

On August 4th, I returned to Columbia, this time with Ed, to hear our appeal. CPRB member Susan Smith prefaced her recommendation for the handling of our appeal by comparing marijuana cultivation and distribution to the Oklahoma City Bombing, rape, methamphetamine production, the Times Square bomber, and 9/11. She continued on to say that although Whitworth was charged with misdemeanor possession, there was evidence to believe that he was running a drug “enterprise”. Her proposal for the board was to throw out our appeal, accept Chief Burton’s changes and move on.

Boardmember John McClure though not as radical concurred with Smith, saying “if you continue to pick a scab it will never heal,” and recommended that the board move past our appeal. This wound however has yet to be cleaned out and is now infected.

Boardmember Betty Wilson had a different view of the appeal, “None of us can distance ourselves from what happened… it shocked our conscious and is a taint on our community.” She was the only board member to receive applause from the citizens in attendance when she concluded the obvious—although the police found nothing wrong with their own behavior and found a procedural justification for it, the incident was offensive to the citizens and the people who viewed the video because the police obviously lacked the discretion of compassionate human beings. The minute they entered the home and encountered a non-hostile suspect, barking but not attacking dogs and a seven-year-old child, they should not have fired their weapons and should not have manhandled the suspect.

Wilson recommended that our complaint be returned to Ken Burton to reopen the investigation. Although Smith was looking at her cell phone while Wilson was speaking, she strongly disagreed. Additionally, Smith suggested that we the appellants and the public be restricted from addressing the board until after they took their vote.

The board voted against reinvestigating our complaints 4:3, with board member Steve Weinberg voting against us although he said he did so, “with a troubled mind.”

After the vote was taken, Ed opened the public commentary. “I know this was a difficult decision for the board,” he said “and somehow everyone but Ms. Wilson missed the large elephant in the room because you were busy dissecting technicalities.”

He went on to point out that the “reliable evidence” for the search warrant were two anonymous phone calls a year apart, a search of the Whitworth’s trash that only showed indicia of use not of sales, and that the police showed no discretion when entering the house.

“If your job was to shoot animals in front of small children, you probably would quit. The level of trauma caused by enacting these militaristic raids has likely caused post-traumatic stress disorder for these officers. They need to be psychologically evaluated to determine if they are fit to carry weapons,” he said.

Ed, again, pointed out the obvious to the board, “police internal investigations always find police innocent, the investigation should have been conducted by a private investigator.”

He concluded by asking why no one on the board had bothered to call him or myself to discuss the items of our appeal.

Dan Viets, who filed a nearly-identical appeal along with 40 Columbia citizens took the podium, “I am assuming that since you voted tonight before hearing the California appellants speak that you will do the same to the citizens next week, so we will have to use this time to address you,” he said.

Spencer Pearson of Mizzou NORML told the board that he as well as many other citizens were proud to have Ed and I appeal the exoneration of these officers, and the board was doing a poor job of creating cooperation between police and citizens.

Mitch Richards of Keep Columbia Free fired at the board, “This is completely outrageous, the police can speak for themselves. Your vote does nothing to fix the situation, the reality is violence was created where there was none,” and then directed at Smith “It is wholly distasteful and not at all applicable to link the war on terror to the war on drugs.”

The next day, Ed and I had a closed door meeting with a group of about 25 residents to outline our strategy moving forward. We encouraged them to not just meet but to go out and be active. Whenever the police violate a citizen’s rights, everyone should file complaints. If the officers are exonerated, everyone should file official appeals. Continue to flood the department with this type of paperwork until they stop terrorizing the citizens. Additionally, we discussed the residents’ appeal which was to be heard the following week.

On August 11, the board met again to discuss the appeal Viets had filed with the citizens. They again barred the appellants from speaking on the matter and again voted against further investigating the incident.

We are currently strategizing with the citizens groups to take our appeal to a higher level of authority—possibly at the state level.

You can follow our trips to Missouri, hear radio interviews, read our official letters of appeal, and local news stories at www.EdRosenthal.com, Twitter.com/EdRosenthal, and Facebook.com/EdRosenthal