Casualties of the Corrupt Drug War

Published November 20, 2007

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It was one year ago this week that narcotics officers in Atlanta, Georgia broke into the home of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston.

They had earlier arrested a man with a long rap sheet on drug charges. That man told the police officers that they'd find a large stash of cocaine in Johnston's home. When police forced their way into Johnston's home, she met them holding a rusty old revolver, fearing she was about to be robbed. The police opened fire, and killed her.

Shortly after the shooting, the police alleged that they had paid an informant to buy drugs from Ms. Johnston's home. They said she fired at them first, and wounded two officers. And they alleged they found marijuana in her home.

We now know that these were all lies. In fact, everything about the Kathryn Johnston murder was corrupt. The initial arrest of the ex-con came via trumped-up charges. The police then invented an informant for the search warrant, and lied about overseeing a drug buy from Johnston's home.

Ms. Johnston didn't actually wound any of the officers. They were wounded by fragments of ricochet from their own storm of bullets. And there was no marijuana. Once they realized their mistake, the officers handcuffed Ms. Johnston and left her to bleed and die on the floor of her own home while they planted marijuana in her basement.

We now know that it was routine for Atlanta's narcotics officers to lie on drug warrants. We know that judges in the city rather systematically approved those warrants with no scrutiny at all (the judge in the Johnston case literally rubber-stamped the warrant), abrogating their oaths as guardians of the Fourth Amendment.

Two months before the Johnston raid police officers nearly killed another elderly woman in the same neighborhood after forcing their way into her home in a mistaken raid. A year earlier, they had mistakenly raided the home next door to Johnston's. And just days before, Atlanta police had conducted another forced-entry raid that turned up all of two marijuana cigarettes.

We now know that once the officers in the Johnston case knew they were in trouble, they pressured one of their actual drug informants to lie for them, and vouch for the fabricated account of the controlled buy.

That informant--Alex White--refused, and bravely came forward to tell the media what had happened. Had he given in to the pressure put on him by APD narcotics officers, the world would still likely believe Kathryn Johnston was a drug dealer, and her killing was justified.

In fact, subsequent investigations showed that the corruption at the Atlanta Police Department was so pervasive, Police Chief Richard Pennington eventually had to replace the entire narcotics division.

Atlanta is still in a state of self-examination since the Kathryn Johnston case. To its credit, the city is considering real reform in the way it conducts its drug policing. Politicians at the municipal, state and federal level may guide that process, as may a lawsuit from Ms. Johnston's family.

But beyond Atlanta, the beat goes on. All across the country, narcotics units and SWAT teams are still kicking down doors in the middle of the night and still deploying flash grenades and using aggressive, paramilitary tactics--and they're still doing all of this to apprehend people suspected of nonviolent crimes. And they're still making mistakes.

In February of this year, 16-year-old Daniel Castillo, Jr. was killed in a police raid on his family's home in Texas. Castillo had no criminal record. A SWAT officer broke open the door to the bedroom as Castillo, his sister, and her infant son were sleeping. When Castillo rose from the bed after being awoken to his sister's screams, the SWAT officer shot him in the face.

In March, police in Spring Lake, Minn., acting on an informant's tip, raided the home of Brad and Nicole Thompson. The couple was forced on the ground at gun point and warned by an officer, "If you move, I'll shoot you in the f___ing head." Police had the wrong house.

In June, a 72-year-old woman on oxygen was thrown to the ground at gunpoint in a mistaken drug raid near Durnago, Colo.

In fact, since the Johnston raid last year, there have been mistaken drug raids on innocent people in Temecula, Calif.; Annapolis, Md.; several incidents in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City; Galliano, La.; Hendersonville, N.C.; Ponderay, Idaho; Stockton, Calif.; Pullman, Wash.; Baltimore; Wilmington, Del.; Jacksonville, Fla; Alton, Kansas; Merced County, Calif.; and, believe it or not, Atlanta, Ga.

And of course, these are merely those reported in newspapers.

If any good has come of this, it's that the media coverage surrounding Kathryn Johnston's death has at least exposed the country to the widespread use of "dynamic entry" tactics for routine service of drug warrants, and the rather predictable problems that come with armed police breaking into someone's home. The fact that Johnston was a 92-year-old woman rather than a 19-year-old man probably has something to do with that.

This week, the Drug Reform Coordination Network will release a Zogby Poll on paramilitary police tactics. The numbers are surprising. Nearly two-thirds of those polled don't believe "aggressive entry tactics such as battering down doors, setting off flash-bang grenades, or conducting searches in the middle of the night" are appropriate tactics when the suspect is a nonviolent drug offender.

In fact, in every demographic group Zogby measured, a majority of respondents said such tactics should not be used in routine drug investigations, including 56 percent of self-identified Republicans, and 52.5 percent of respondents describing themselves as "very conservative."

There have been other Kathryn Johnstons over the years. In fact, dozens of innocent people have been killed in mistaken or botched drug raids since these more aggressive police tactics started to be used with more regularity, beginning about in the early 1980s. Cities like New York, Denver, and San Diego have, like Atlanta today, come under tremendous scrutiny over the years after a botched raid ended with the death of an innocent.

Unfortunately, these stories tend to follow a pattern: intense media coverage, followed by promises of reform from police and politicians, followed by-inevitably-a return to business as usual.

Perhaps Atlanta will turn out differently.

Radley Balko is a senior editor with Reason magazine. He publishes the weblog, TheAgitator.com.

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