Police overkill: Death of Cape Girardeau native draws national attention

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

By John W. Whitehead

Once upon a time, the motto emblazoned on police cars was "To Protect and Serve." However, as police forces are transformed into pseudo-SWAT teams, complete with riot gear and a take-no-prisoners attitude, the fear that cops are overstepping their limits is on the rise.

For example, an 88-year-old woman was recently shot and killed when policemen barged unannounced into her home. Police officers broke down Kathryn Johnston's door while serving a no-knock warrant to search her home on a dangerous, run-down Atlanta street known for drugs and crime, prompting the woman to fire at the "intruders" in self-defense. The officers returned fire, killing the octogenarian.

According to initial police reports, the officers had been tipped off to search Johnston's home for cocaine. However, the police have since reportedly acknowledged that the raid may have been the result of a mistake. According to a televised interview with a man claiming to be the police's informant, he never purchased drugs at Johnston's home and the police had asked him to lie about providing the information. No cocaine was found.

In another incident, a 23-year-old man died on his wedding day when New York policemen fired 50 bullets at his car. According to news reports, Sean Bell and two friends were leaving a strip club after Bell's bachelor party when an undercover officer, who was part of a larger operation at the club, thought he heard one of Bell's group say, "Yo, go get my gun." When the officer approached Bell's car, an altercation erupted and police started firing.

It remains unclear whether the officer identified himself as a policeman or what prompted the gunfire. However, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg agreed that the police response seemed excessive. As Bloomberg stated, "I can tell you that it is to me unacceptable or inexplicable how you can have 50-odd shots fired."

Bell, the father of two, was to have married his high school sweetheart that day. His two companions were seriously injured. All three men were unarmed.

Last, but not least, police Tasered and gunned to death Derek Hale, a decorated 25-year-old U.S. Marine [and Cape Girardeau native] who had served two tours of duty in Iraq, as he sat talking to a woman and two children in front of a house in a Delaware neighborhood. Police swarmed Hale in front of the suspected home of a member of an outlaw motorcycle gang that is notorious for violence and drug offenses.

Upon engaging Hale, who was sitting with his hands in his sweatshirt, the officers insisted he place his hands in view. Immediately after that, according to independent witnesses, the police Tasered him three times and fired three .40-caliber rounds into his chest, ultimately leading to his death.

Hale had no criminal or arrest record in Delaware, and witnesses to the shooting insist that he was no threat to the police. In fact, after police Tasered Hale the second time, one of the independent witnesses yelled at the police that what they were doing was "overkill," to which one of the officers responded, "Shut ... up or we'll show you overkill."

Sadly, more and more police actions like these are resulting in the deaths of innocent civilians. In fact, over the past 25 years, there has been a disturbing change in the way many law enforcement officials approach their jobs. The result has been overaggressive police actions, or what some call overkill.

The militarization of civilian law enforcement, along with a dramatic and unsettling rise in the use of paramilitary units (known as SWAT teams) for routine police work, has also contributed to the alarming use of deadly force by the police. The most common use of SWAT teams today is to serve narcotics warrants, usually with forced, unannounced entry into homes.

As Radley Balko of the Cato Institute writes: "These increasingly frequent raids, 40,000 per year by one estimate, are needlessly subjecting nonviolent drug offenders, bystanders, and wrongly targeted civilians to the terror of having their homes invaded while they're sleeping, usually by teams of heavily armed paramilitary units dressed not as police officers but as soldiers."

It's time for law-abiding Americans to ask themselves how much more innocent blood must be shed before we call a halt to such unnecessarily aggressive police tactics. Indeed, while there may still be many fine law enforcement officials who believe their primary duty is to protect and serve their communities, I fear their numbers are dwindling.

John W. Whitehead is a constitutional lawyer and founder and president of the Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, Va. E-mail: johnw@rutherford.org.<I>;

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