Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell doesn’t know what could have been done differently. Neither, he says, does the GBI. Sometimes, a flashbang grenade just lands in a crib next to a toddler’s head. Bad things happen.
The child was burned when narcotics agents, assisted by members of the Habersham Special Response Team, used a distraction device as they entered a home at 182 Lakeview Heights Circle outside Cornelia . . .
“According to the confidential informant, there were no children,” Terrell said. “When they made the buy, they didn’t see any children or any evidence of children there, so we proceeded with our standard operation.”
Because of recent history with the individual involved in the alleged drug sales and knowledge of weapons in the residence, the special agent seeking the search warrant requested a “no-knock” warrant, Terrell said.
But couldn’t they have accomplished their goal without sacrificing the toddler?
“I’ve talked to the D.A., I’ve talked to the GBI,” Terrell said. “I’ve given them the whole information and they say there’s nothing else we can do. There’s nothing to investigate, there’s nothing to look at. Given the information given, GBI’s SWAT team would have done the exact same thing – they’d have used the exact same scenario to enter the house.”
Terrell said the lack of knowledge that there were children in the home contributed to the situation.
“It’s an accident that we would have avoided if we’d just had any inclination that there had a been a child in that house,” Terrell said. “We had no idea.”
Ignorance is a vastly underappreciated weapon in the law enforcement arsenal. If you allege that there are weapons present, that could mean machine guns or bazookas. But if you know the weapons consist of a slingshot and kitchen knife, it looses all its pizzazz.
When Terrell said “if we’d just had any inclination,” he made a Freudian slip. He meant “indication,” but his actual words ring truer. There was no inclination. Information limits police. Ignorance justifies more expansive breadth, force, fear for their safety. Ignorance wins.
Unsurprisingly, Terrell knows who he wants to blame for this “unfortunate incident“:
“The person I blame in this whole thing is the person selling the drugs,” Terrell said. “Wanis Thonetheva, that’s the person I blame in all this. They are no better than a domestic terrorist, because they don’t care about families – they didn’t care about the family, the children living in that household – to be selling dope out of it, to be selling methamphetamine out of it. All they care about is making money.
Indeed, the surface appeal of this argument has always had legs. The criminal is the easiest target, and there is merit to the point. But it fails to suffice, being but one factor in the calculus that ended with the toddler in critical condition.
Of the many issues raised by this horrible scenario, from the over-militarization of police to the First Rule of Policing, one piece hasn’t been given a great deal of attention in doing the math. It wasn’t that long ago that search warrants were a rare animal, used only for the most serious cases and after significant investigation. The culprit in the change is . . . technology.
Before there were computers, a search warrant had to be prepared sui generis, typed on a Selectric III, with multiple pieces of carbon paper and a bottle of white out close at hand. Someone had to sit down and draft the warrant application. Someone had to sit down and type it. It was labor intensive. It was thought intensive. It took time and effort.
Because of this, search warrants were used only for those cases where they were truly needed, justified. And before a decision to go this route was made, police had to conduct a thorough investigation to gather their evidence and information to justify such an extreme course.
Even then, the rule was that search warrants were to be “knock and announce,” a requirement taken seriously by judges, and executed during the day. The idea of no-knock and night-time executions took the rarity of a warrant down to the its most extreme iteration. Everyone, judges, cops, prosecutors, found the idea of a mid-night raid offensive.
Of course, when warrants were a rarity, judges took the time to read them, scrutinize them. When a judge was presented with a search warrant once a week, once a month, it was a big deal. The judge was being asked to approve a level of intrusiveness that was extremely serious and at the outer edge of our sensibilities. The source of information was carefully considered. Its freshness or staleness. Its level of detail, where ignorance wouldn’t be allowed to slide under the rug. And of course, there were no qualms for striking out the no-knock or night-time execution absent hard justification based on solid information.
Then came the age of cranking out paper with the push of a button. The hand-crafted warrant became a form in a computer’s hard drive. Change the name and it looked perfect in a few seconds. You only had to craft it well once, and could then create a dozen, a hundred, warrant applications in seconds.
The judges grew bored and tired. The same words, the same allegations appeared before them, over and over. The once a week rarity became a daily drudge. Then a stack a day. Judges were busy thinking judicial thoughts, and knew the content of the form warrant by heart. All the magic words were in there, generic allegations based on a detail of a drug buy plus a whole lot of ignorance.
First it’s the warrant itself. Then it’s the no-knock, because all drug dealers have weapons. And it’s the night-time because police safety is paramount. What judge can tell the police to risk their lives over nothing? He would never be able to park too close to a hydrant again.
And we became inured to the normalcy of search warrants, no-knock and night-time, because they became routine. Until a flashbang grenade landed in a toddler’s crib.