SWAT Officer Killed by Non-Lethal Flashbang Grenade

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

Charlotte, North Carolina, SWAT officer Fred Thornton was killed last month when a flashbang grenade exploded as he was securing his equipment in the trunk of his patrol car. This comes a few years after the federal government began a criminal investigation of a firm that manufactured faulty flashbangs, one of which prematurely detonated in 2008, causing permanent injury to three FBI agents.

I explain this in more detail in a column I wrote last year, but the thing to keep in mind is that the only malfunction with the flashbangs in these stories was the timing of their detonation. Had they not gone off prematurely, they would eventually have been used against U.S. citizens, just as they’re used every day in America. Most of the time, they’re used against people merely suspected of a crime, and most of the time those crimes are nonviolent, consensual drug crimes. That is, by design, when they’re used exactly as intended, flashbangs cause serious, sometimes permanent injury to people who have yet to even be charged—much less convicted—of nonviolent, consensual crimes.

The people on the receiving end of a flashbang grenade are undoubtedly just as unprepared for their effects as Officer Thornton or the FBI agents injured in 2004. The grenades and the raids in which they’re used are intended to take their subjects by surprise. The grenade’s specific purpose is to give officers a tactical advantage in situations where they’re entering a house or a room and have no way of knowing what’s going on inside. Which means they’re deployed blindly. Which means there’s a good chance the people subjected to flashbangs—which would include both suspects and innocent bystanders—are in just as defenseless a position as Thornton or the injured FBI agents were.

According to the family of Aiyana Jones, the nine-year-old Detroit girl killed in a police raid last year, the flashbang police tossed through her family’s window landed on her blanket, setting it and her on fire just before an officer mistakenly shot her. Flashbangs have set homes on fire (some resulting in fatalities), caused severe burns, and confused police officers into thinking they were coming under gunfire, causing officers to open fire themselves. The blinding, deafening effects have also induced fatal heart attacks. For all of these reasons, the NYPD, to its credit, has stopped using them.

In an interview for my column last year, Clay Conrad, a Texas criminal defense attorney who has challenged the use of flashbangs in court, offered an interesting proposition. “We were prepared to argue that if these things are as harmless as the state claims, we should be able to detonate one in the courtroom. That would have been fun.”

I doubt any court would allow that. Which is precisely the point. Weapons like tear gas or Tasers also cause injury, but they’re only used (or at least they’re only supposed to be used) against someone who has demonstrated that they are an immediate threat to police or those around them. Flashbangs are usually deployed before the suspect has been given a chance to comply peacefully.

The devices that killed Officer Thornton and injured those FBI agents did exactly what they’re supposed to do. It’s just that from the officers’ perspective, the devices went off at the wrong time. We should be asking why,we permit the government to routinely use the same devices against U.S. citizens.

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45 Responses to “SWAT Officer Killed by Non-Lethal Flashbang Grenade”

  1. #1 |  André | 

    I’d love to see that happen on CourtTV or, say, an episode of Judge Judy.

  2. #2 |  gonzostl | 

    Sometimes I think I need a vacation from this site. I don’t think upset is the word for what I feel; maybe exasperation? It all seems to be common sense. I guess what my dad always said is correct “common sense ain’t so common. Thanks and keep up the good work Radley.

  3. #3 |  Bergman | 

    Terrifying fact: Roughly one person in ten thousand is so allergic to tear gas, that they die instantly on first contact with the stuff. The US Army has long been in the habit of exposing recruits to the gas during training, both to give them a good idea of what to expect if they ever encounter it in the future, and to find out who is going to keel over on the first whiff of the stuff; They have a medical team standing by to resuscitate as needed.

    Granted, tear gassing a crowd is less lethal than using, say, VX gas. But there’s still one hell of a difference between less-lethal and non-lethal.

  4. #4 |  Yizmo Gizmo | 

    I’m not usually into malfunctions, but first Janet Jackson and now this.
    It’s almost like someone up there is watching.

  5. #5 |  SJE | 

    I’ll bet that this goes into USAToday as part of the “war on cops”

  6. #6 |  Kristen | 

    Are we sure Aiyana Jones was shot mistakenly? Last I heard, there was quite a bit of dispute over how and why she was murdered.

  7. #7 |  Mike T | 

    Granted, tear gassing a crowd is less lethal than using, say, VX gas. But there’s still one hell of a difference between less-lethal and non-lethal.

    There is no such thing as a non-lethal weapon. Anything which can render enough harm to someone to dissuade them from not doing something can, under the right circumstances, be fatal. Even if we invent gas that makes people fall to the ground giggling like school girls, some people will die from allergies or hitting their heads on the concrete.

  8. #8 |  george cotz | 

    Excellent point. I doubt that anyone in any sort of position of authority will respond.

  9. #9 |  Brandon | 

    So is that flashbang an undercover operative in the war on cops?

  10. #10 |  reņģis | 

    Hey, Radley, maybe you’ve written about it before, but how do you cope with writing about, let’s face it, evil most of the time? Ever since I’ve developed a concrete interest in these topics, I find that I need to specifically will myself to feel “normal” instead of shouting “THE WORLD IS ON FIRE”, because that’s what it feels like.

  11. #11 |  The Mossy Spaniard | 

    I was wondering when you were going to jump on this story. It’s pretty dominated the local news in Charlotte and it seemed like it had ‘Radley Balko’ written all over it.

  12. #12 |  The Mossy Spaniard | 

    Pretty much, that is.

  13. #13 |  kant | 

    But radley,
    The police neeeeed these things. For all the police know the people on the other side could be carrying full machine guns with depleted uranium rounds and rocket propelled grenades!

  14. #14 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    “Non-lethal”

    Inigo Montoya has something he’d like to say about this.

  15. #15 |  André | 

    rengis:

    Daddy drinks because he reads Radley’s blog.

    See also: xkcd.com/14/

  16. #16 |  Victoria@Israel | 

    I think that’s the issue where no unanimous decision can be ever found. Certainly, if people who are innocent suffer they should be forgiven. But on the other hand there’re so many crimes and criminals around us that sometimes police may have no choice. The only solution is probably to try to make these grenades less harmful, using some new materials which will be taken by surprise but not hurt.

  17. #17 |  Yizmo Gizmo | 

    Happened again yesterday, in a Town Called Alice.
    Coincidence?

    Flash Grenade Malfunction Injures Alice Officer

    Posted: Mar 8, 2011 4:49 PM by Ben Lloyd – blloyd@kristv.com

    ALICE, TX – The City of Alice confirmed Tuesday afternoon that a police officer was injured in the deparment’s parking lot when a flash-bang grenade went off unexpectedly.

    The flash-bang seriously injured the officer’s hand, but he was wearing body armor at the time and escaped further injury. The officer’s police cruiser was also damaged in the explosion. The city says the grenade malfunctioned. He was flown to Christus Spohn Memorial Hospital by Halo Flight.

  18. #18 |  SJE | 

    Y’know, if a PRIVATE corporation would be sued for everything if it were using anything with as much danger, so indiscriminately.

  19. #19 |  Cornellian | 

    “Hey, Radley, maybe you’ve written about it before, but how do you cope with writing about, let’s face it, evil most of the time?”

    I’m guessing it’s Daisy’s job to help Radley out with that.

  20. #20 |  random guy | 

    I may be confusing interviews, but didn’t Clay Conrad get an expert to say it would be safe to show a demonstration of the flashbang, but only in an open field with the audience 50 yards away?

    Wasn’t the whole issue that the state was claiming they were harmless, but they could only be demonstrated safely to the jury in the manner above? I’m pretty sure the judge vetoed the would be field trip. But, it gets kind of hard to buy the lie thats its safe to toss these things into people’s living rooms when you can only safely watch it detonate from half a football field away.

  21. #21 |  Mrs. C | 

    We should be asking why, we permit the government to routinely use the same devices against U.S. citizens.

    Indeed we should be asking why…but I doubt we would ever get a reasonable answer.

    Devices that are used blindly…as suggested…and loaded weapons that are permitted to be drawn to “ready gun” by SWAT officers…and then pointed at the center mass of unarmed and compliant persons…because of over the top policies…protocols…and practices that allow for them to be…while disregarding those who are being put at risk and in harm’s way…are at the very least…an indictment of those in a chain of command…that attests to their unconscionable and shameful decision making.

    I am truly sorry for the loss of this officer and the FBI agents…all of it so unnecessary…and very sad for the families that will have to go on without them.

    http://www.justiceforsal.com

  22. #22 |  Mark Matis | 

    Quite frankly, I am NOT the least bit sorry for the officer or the FBI agents. Instead, I thank God for being so just. Unlike our “Legal” system. Praise the Lord!

  23. #23 |  Dan | 

    In “Waco: Rules of Engagement”, Sen. Schumer went on and on about flash bang grenades as harmless and that they should not even be called grenades. Even then I knew the guy was lying through his teeth.

  24. #24 |  supercat | 

    #16 | Victoria@Israel | “I think that’s the issue where no unanimous decision can be ever found.”

    Actually, the proper Constitutional policy is simple. Recognize that the “reasonableness” of a searches, probable cause, and related issues, are factual matters, and defendants have the right to put them before a jury.

    While it’s good to have judges refuse warrant requests that lack probable cause, the fact that a judge issued a warrant does not imply that probable cause actually existed. Suppose, for example, a cop were to testify that he routinely saw the people carrying bags of white powder out of someone’s house, but neglected to mention that (1) the guy has a business selling art supplies, including plaster of Paris, and (2) on numerous occasions, cops had stopped people leaving the guy’s house, taken samples of the material in their bags, and discovered that it was indeed plaster of Paris. A warrant judge could not be faulted for issuing a warrant in such a case, but that wouldn’t mean the warrant was illegitimate. Since no real probable cause existed, the warrant would be illegitimate.

    Likewise, for a search to be legitimate, it must be reasonable. While the Constitution doesn’t explicitly specify what that means, it does note that the government is forbidden from denying people’s right to life, liberty, or property without due process of law. While the fact that a person’s property might accidentally get damaged by some government action does not necessarily imply the action was illegitimate, it does imply that government has a duty to avoid causing unnecessary danger or harm to persons or property; agents are required to act in a manner consistent with a reasonable person honoring such duty. Attempting to force a lock in the least destructive way possible to serve a warrant on unoccupied premises whose owner cannot be located would probably be reasonable. Smashing in the door of someone who’s at home, however, is grossly unreasonable unless the government can demonstrate (and convince a jury of) some reason such conduct was necessary.

    If cops knew that juries would be instructed to not to construe against a defendant any evidence which they personally found to have been obtained illegitimately, I suspect they’d be far less eager to act in ways that would make any decent person cringe. I’m unaware of any legitimate reason not to allow defendants to contest the legitimacy of warrant service and put the question before a jury. Obviously the government doesn’t want juries to consider such issues, since it wouldn’t get the convictions it wants, but the only way to really uphold the Constitution is to regard the requirements for valid searches to be factual matters subject to jury consideration. Too bad I lack the temperament to be a judge, since even one lowly trial court judge taking such a stance could probably set the ball rolling toward legitimate government.

  25. #25 |  Dedicated_Dad | 

    All this is a simple consequence of the “WAR” mentality bred among cops.

    Anyone else remember “Peace Officers” instead of “Law Enforcement”?

    Remember “Officer Friendly” whose job was “To Serve and Protect”?

    Remember when kids were taught “Police are your FRIEND!” – and it was TRUE? I don’t know about you, but MY kids have now been taught “NEVER talk to the police!” – and watched the YT videos by that title until they know them inside-out.

    If cops REALLY want to tear down the wall they’ve built between themselves and “civilians”, the first steps would be to tear down “the blue wall of silence”, eliminate the criminals in their midst, and remember they’re our SERVANTS – not some occupying army!

    Of course, that would also mean decriminalizing private, victimless behavior, and giving up the armored ninja-suits and all their cool military toys…

    It could happen — but I’m not holding my breath…

    All that said, can anyone tell me of a place in our Republic whose police still act like the Peace Officers of my youth? I’m looking to move away from Behind Enemy Lines and would very much appreciate if you’d pass along any potential destinations you may know…

  26. #26 |  perlhaqr | 

    Thanks for keep on keepin’ on, Radley. No one else seems to make these points as loudly and clearly and with as much of a public forum as you do. Seriously, we’re letting the cops toss grenades into houses. Where the fuck did we go so wrong that this is now a common accepted practice?

    We should wrap the founding fathers in copper wire and put them in magnetic coffins. They must be spinning in their graves so fast at this point we could eliminate the need for coal fired power plants in one fell swoop.

    I mean, can you even imagine having that conversation with them, ~235 years ago? “Yeah, thanks for fighting off the British. Now we let our constabulary throw explosives into the houses of people who are suspected of having hemp in their possession.”

    Aaaand, I think I’m just going to go weep for a while. *sigh*

  27. #27 |  croaker | 

    If only incidents like this would discourage people from joining SWAT teams…

  28. #28 |  The Johnny Appleseed Of Crack | 

    It is worth pointing out, since the police spokesperson never will, that there is a possibility that this accident occurred because the police officer was playing around with the flashbang grenade, and pulled the pin himself, rather than due to a malfunction of the device.

  29. #29 |  Whim | 

    A “flash-bang” grenade is basically a blast grenade without the metal shrapnel shroud of pre-perforated steel wire.

    If a flash-bang grenade lands close to a suspect or their family, they will be seriously injured.

    And, the police who hurl them do NOT know where and next to whom the grenade will land. Nor, apparently, do they even care.

    I am looking forward to a future Youtube video of the police officer pulling a flash bang grenade from his pocket, and only the arming PIN coming out of his pocket…….and armed grenade stays behind….

    Detonation in 4….3….2….1

    Flash-BANG!

  30. #30 |  supercat | 

    #20 | random guy | “I may be confusing interviews, but didn’t Clay Conrad get an expert to say it would be safe to show a demonstration of the flashbang, but only in an open field with the audience 50 yards away?”

    So could the defense ask “What would one have to do to reasonably safely set off a flash-bang closer to that, to someone without hearing protection, upon whom one did not wish permanent injury?” If it can’t reasonably be done, then any “search” using such techniques would either be unreasonable, or would demonstrate a that there was little or no interest in avoiding injury to innocents.

  31. #31 |  Some Texan | 

    Past neighbor’s son got killed leading a no knock entry a number of years back.

    Small amount of traces of drugs found but when he went to break in the door of the trailer the guy inside didn’t know he was a cop. Caught a round in the armpit past the vest and died. Round was fired through the closed door. Guy honestly didn’t know it was a cop.

    I said to his father, you know how I feel about using SWAT teams when there’s no cause. They should have gone back to knocking on doors first and announcing themselves.

    Might have been rude but he seemed to partially agree with me about that. He knew his policeman son wouldn’t likely have been dead if he had announced himself. Fellow that shot the son had no history of violence, just minor drug trafficking.

    Play with fire and get burned.

  32. #32 |  Barnes | 

    Cops have never been friendly peace officers of some golden era. They were caving in the heads of hobos at the turn of the century. They got fancier toys to play soldier with and drug laws that make them slightly more likely to turn their attention towards you or somebody you know now, that’s the only difference.

  33. #33 |  demize! | 

    #32 An accurate analysis.

  34. #34 |  Some Texan | 

    Barnes, mostly but not always. My grandpa was a small town cop (400-500 population over the years) and he never smacked anybody around or went out of his way to bother people. Hell, they twisted his arm into getting another officer and making it a two man department and the new guy kept writing parking and speeding tickets to farmers on Saturdays. Grandpa said to him “there’s a lot of other towns about equal distance to here for those farmers that have stores and restaurants too and if you keep doing that they’ll stop coming here to shop.” Youngster kept doing it, grandpa fired him, and they never had two cops again while grandpa was alive. Still find that attitude in some small town cops that don’t have a hard on to become big city cops.

  35. #35 |  Justthisguy | 

    rengis at #10 makes me think about what C. S. Lewis said about having written “The Screwtape Letters.” IIRC, writing that book messed with his mind, because thinking himself into the mind of a thoroughly evil demon was definitely bad for his head.

    As they say, when you sup with the Devil, you should use a long spoon.

  36. #36 |  Whim | 

    Wonder if there are any medical statistics on the trauma caused by exposure to Flash-Bang grenades?

    Concussions?

    Traumatic eye injuries?

    Permanent deafness?

    Burns?

    If the injured even receive any medical treatment, it would be in a jail setting….however, many jails have a firm policy of refusing custody of any prisoner that shows obvious injuries.

    Otherwise, the jailers are liable for the resulting medical treatment, and the associated costs.

  37. #37 |  Whim | 

    An Oakland woman settled a Federal lawsuit sgainst police for $1.2 million. She was burned over 11% of her body, suffered permanent disfigurement, and incurred $400K in hospital bills when police fired a flash-bang grenade into her residence. She was sleeping, not the suspect, and was never charged.

    http://www.policeone.com/legal/articles/2773046-Calif-police-settle-flash-bang-grenade-lawsuit/

  38. #38 |  perlhaqr | 

    Whim: Jesus fuck. The comments on that article are just… WTF.

    “Since when are flash bangs an “extreme level of force?” Next time toss a frag. “

  39. #39 |  Hope Springs | Truth and Justice For All | 

    [...] hand and subdue bad guys with no loss of life.  Flashbangs are different in real life.  Read Radley Balko’s post from [...]

  40. #40 |  hellferbreakfast | 

    Premature detonation always spoils the fun.

  41. #41 |  Mannie | 

    #38 | perlhaqr | March 10th, 2011 at 10:59 am
    Whim: Jesus fuck. The comments on that article are just… WTF.

    “Since when are flash bangs an “extreme level of force?” Next time toss a frag.

    OK, we’ll put you in a 10 x 10 foot closed room and toss in a flash bang.

    At least, in this incident, no one was hurt.

  42. #42 |  Canibal Shorties – Bridget Magnus Shows the World as Seen from 4'11" | 

    [...] Potentially deadly against cops, deadly against suspects, deadly against the [...]

  43. #43 |  perlhaqr | 

    Mannie: Oh, well, y’know, if we did it to the cop that said that, that would be wrong, somehow. But it’s cool when they do it to us.

  44. #44 |  Flashbang no more | 

    [...] out Radley Balko’s article on flashbang grenades. Color me ignorant, but I had no idea they were this dangerous: Charlotte, North Carolina, SWAT [...]

  45. #45 |  bloo | 

    Non-lethal simply means that the purpose and design is not to cause “lethal” damage and/or kill a person. A flash bang grenade is suppose to cause SOME harm but not lethal harm so as to incapacitate suspects long enough for officers to rush in and take down targets with less risks of taking damage themselves. Also flash bangs allows for officers that rush in to take that extra time given by the grenade to more accurately discern whether or not actual lethal force, such as a gun, is required. Cops do not have the luxury to assume that possible suspects are unarmed and pose no threat because all it takes is one pull of a trigger and that’s their life or the life of a fellow officer. As such cops will either have to put themselves in a greater deal of danger or use weapons such as a flash bang grenade.

    So without the benefit of a flash bang grenade, cops will have to go in with a greater “readiness” to use lethal force since they won’t have the extra time to accurately discern actual threats and an innocent actions made by innocent people that are judged in the split second a cop will have could be misconstrued as dangerous and thus be “lethally” incapacitated by an officer. The few accounts of flash bangs accidentally resulting in more than intended injury does not discredit the benefits of it. I’m sure people would rather have a cop who rushes in thinking that he has a few seconds to decide whether he should pull the trigger or not as opposed to one that goes in thinking he needs to shoot fast or he might die.

    That said, there are cops that irresponsibly and abusively use weapons given to them in ways not intended. And perhaps flash bangs could be further developed to be less prone to unintended damages. All of the incidents mentioned here are either due to accident or due to the handlers of the weapon i.e. cops; who made mistakes, engaged in blatant police misconduct, were just incompetent and/or ill trained due to many possible factors.

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