Militarizing Mayberry

Friday, November 18th, 2005

In 1999, North Richland Hills, Texas (population 55,000; number of murders in all of 2004: one) cops in SWAT gear raided the home of Barbara Davis and her so, Troy. They were acting on an (at the time) anonymous tip from Barabara Davis’ brother-in-law — with whom she’d had an ongoing feud — that Troy was growing marijuana in a closet.

The first judge denied Sargeant Andy Wallace a middle-of-the-night seach warrant, ruling that an anonymous informant with no track record wasn’t enough to justify a paramilitary early morning raid. No big deal. Sargeant Andy Wallace merely moved on to a more compliant judge, and got his warrant.

The SWAT team surrounded the home, then clumsily attempted to break down the back door with a battering ram. Didn’t work. But it did wake Troy Davis. A second team of cops decided to come through the front door. By then, Troy Davis had come out with a gun to defend his home (at least according to cops at the scene — Davis’ family isn’t so sure). The SWAT team put a bullet in his chest, and another in his stomach. He was pronounced dead at the scene. According to all parties at the scene, his last words were, “I didn’t know. I didn’t know.” Cops found some GHB, three marijuana plants, and some marijuana stored in plastic bags.

Here’s where it gets interesting. From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

A year before the North Richland Hills SWAT team shot and killed Troy Davis, two of the team’s members told superiors they were concerned that lax standards for the unit could leave it vulnerable to lawsuits.

Team leader Joe Walley asked his superiors to let him write standard operating procedures. He would later testify that he was “very uncomfortable going out on the street at night … doing a tactical operation without anything to go on.”

Another officer returned from a national sniper school and warned that almost everything the SWAT team did was wrong. The Police Department had no objective criteria for choosing team members. No written exam. No psychiatric profiles. Those on the team didn’t have to shoot better or be in better physical shape than other officers.

Those problems could come back to haunt the Police Department if the team had to use deadly force and got sued, police Detective Greg Stilley warned in a memo.

The cops who warned before the Davis shooting that the North Richland Hills SWAT team was an accident waiting to happen have since resigned or been suspended. As have two cops on the SWAT team who have questioned why the Davis raid took place at all.

But there’s more:

The attorneys also say that the Police Department had a policy of conducting no-knock raids for every narcotics search warrant, which they say is unconstitutional.

They’re right. It is. Though some mere procedural hoops can in effect allow them to conduct every just about any drug-related raid without knocking first. Apparently, even those minor hoops were too much for this particular police department.

As it turns out, Sargeant Wallace did zero follow-up investigation after the initial anonymous tip. It also turns out that Davis’ mother is a fairly well-known true-crime writer. Family attorneys say there’s evidence Wallace ordered this raid because of the press that would accompany a drug bust of a novelist’s son. Wallace insists he never knew Mrs. Davis was a writer, though court records show the anonymous tipster mentioned it several times. Davis family attorneys also say there’s evidence from crime photos of police tampering with the crime scene, and that forensics reports indicate Davis didn’t fall where police say they found him. The family admits it owns guns — Davis’s father was a retired state trooper. But they say Troy wasn’t carrying one when cops entered the apartment. Not that it matters. If cops break down your door and storm your home without announcing themselves, I think just about anyone is obliged to take up arms.

But it gets worse. The case pops back up in the news today. As the Davis suit approaches trial, we now learn that apparently no one in North Richland Hills was actually overseeing the SWAT team. Not only that, but nothing has been done since the shooting of Troy Davis to change the tactics and procedures of the SWAT unit. The city’s showing zero remorse, zero cooperation, and zero willingness to change.

North Richland Hills’ top officials at the time have testified in pretrial depositions that they don’t know how police procedures were updated and monitored. And their responses indicate that procedures were never examined after the 1999 drug raid led to the shooting death of Troy Davis.

At one point in a recent deposition of a police supervisor who helped plan the raid, a lawyer for the Davis estate grew frustrated that he could not get the information he sought.

“I’m just trying to get a straight answer from somebody from the city of North Richland Hills,” lawyer Mark Haney said, according to a transcript of a deposition. He said he wanted to find somebody who could speak knowledgeably about police procedures.

In frustration, he asked: “Is there anybody? … Who is it? Who can talk about this topic?”

City Attorney George Staples replied, “That’s not my problem. That’s your problem.”

[...]

A basic point of contention is who is responsible for Police Department operations.

Charles Scoma, who was mayor at the time of the raid, testified in a deposition that under the council-city manager style of government, the council and mayor are not responsible for direct oversight of the Police Department. That responsibility is left to the city manager and police chief, he said.

In his August deposition, City Manager Larry Cunningham said he took responsibility for hiring and firing police personnel, but he left police procedures and any post-shooting investigation up to the police chief.

Yet the police chief at the time, Thomas Shockley, testified in his deposition that Cunningham had greater authority over procedures than he did.

Shockley, who resigned earlier this year after he was charged with driving under the influence of prescription drugs, was asked by Haney, “Is it your testimony here today that you did not have the authority to establish policies for the city of North Richland Hills Police Department during the period of time you served as its chief of police?”

Shockley answered, “Based on what I was told, that apparently is true.”

He added that he was never specifically told by Cunningham that he had been delegated that authority.

In an interview, Cunningham described a separation of duties between civilians such as himself and police officers. He said, “The civilians in city management have to be very careful about stepping over the line about how to tell the police how to do their job in terms of criminal procedures and other procedures used to operate the Police Department.”

[...]

In his deposition, Cunningham was asked whether he had any role in ordering an investigation of the police raid.

“No, sir,” the city manager replied.

Next question: “Was that solely done internally within the Police Department at the direction of Chief Shockley, to your knowledge?”

Cunningham’s answer: “I don’t know who ordered it, but it was within the Police Department. I have no knowledge of it.”

Question: “Subsequent to the shooting death of Troy Davis, did you ever ask for there to be a review of the policies and procedures of the city of North Richland Hills Police Department to determine whether or not the policies in effect may have contributed to Troy Davis’ death?”

Answer: “No, I did not.”

Question: “Do you have any knowledge whether or not the city of North Richland Hills ever conducted such an investigation?”

Answer: “I’m not aware of any.”

Tiny Dinuba, California, which at the time had just twelve full-time cops, is facing bankrupcy after the town’s SWAT team shot and killed 64-year old Ramon Gallardo in a raid aimed at recovering a hot handgun. Dinuba hadn’t had a recorded murder in the town’s entire history. But it did have a SWAT team.

Gallardo thought he was being robbed, so he picked up a small folding knife to defend himself. The SWAT team opened fire. Cops were looking for his son, who wasn’t home at the time. And it turns out the tip that his son was in possession of the stolen gun was wrong, too.

Here’s hoping the Davises get at least the $12.5 million the Gallardos got. Perhaps a bankrupcy will convince North Richland Hills’ inept public officials to (a) exercise some oversight over its jacked-up police department, (b) rethink the policy of sending the SWAT team after nonviolent offenders, and (c) put some accountability mechanisms in place when things go wrong in the future.

Thanks to Michael McDowell for the tip on the latest in the Davis case.

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2 Responses to “Militarizing Mayberry”

  1. #1 |  Democracy Project | 

    SWAT Madness

    I watched a good portion of A&E’s 24 marathon over the weekend, gearing up for the two-hour season premier on Sunday, January 15. As almost everyone knows, 24 is a fictional drama – and an addictive one at that -…

  2. #2 |  The Agitator | 

    What Say You, Justice Scalia?

    The outrageous case of Troy Davis http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0315/p09s02-coop.html“>peters toward an unjust end.:The city of North Richland Hills won a five-year-legal battle…