A Tale of Two Drug Raids

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. For those who wore the badge, they could do no wrong. For the “badge-nots,” they could do no right.

I only wish this was a work of fiction but it is not. When it comes to drug raids (often no-knock raids), suspects (whether guilty or innocent) are treated with a different standard when a life is taken by mistake. Cory Maye was convicted for defending his home whenever the slain intruder turned out to be Officer Ron Jones who was serving a warrant.

But what happens when the police shoot the wrong person?

The AP reported on August 5, 2008 that Sgt. Joseph Chavalia was found “not guilty” on counts of negligent homicide and negligent assault which resulted in the death of Tarika Wilson and the loss of a finger of her year-old son. Wilson was carrying her son and was unarmed. The death of Tarika Wilson would have meant that a wrongful death claim against Sgt. Joseph Chavalia could have happened. A wrongful death claim is when a law firm is told that this person is liable for another person’s death. However, in this instance, as started about Sgt. Joseph Chavalia was foudn “not guilty”.

Wilson’s boyfriend was the target of the raid as he was a suspected drug dealer.

The AP article Officers cheer police shooting verdict in Lima* demonstrates this double standard and is ripe for a thorough fisking.

A jury verdict that cleared a police officer in the drug-raid shooting death of an unarmed woman will allow other officers to do their job without hesitation, police union officials said.

Is the police union advocating a “shoot now, ask questions later” policy? If this is the lesson the Lima Police Department is getting from this verdict, then I am very frightened for the residents of Lima (or residents anywhere in the U.S. for that matter). I thought that the police were supposed to identify their target before shooting; this would necessarily require some hesitation.

Officers throughout the state closely watched the trial, fearing that a guilty judgment would have changed how they react in the line of fire.

If police officers are afraid of being in this situation here’s an idea: how about not raiding a person’s home whenever there is no immediate threat of danger to others? (such as a hostage situation). Also, before police officers “react in the line of fire” there ought to be “a line of fire.” In this instance, no shots were ever fired by anyone other than the police.

Jurors on Monday acquitted Sgt. Joseph Chavalia on charges of negligent homicide and negligent assault in the death of Tarika Wilson seven months ago. Her year-old son also was injured.

Compare the charges against Sgt. Joseph Chavalia versus the charges against Cory Maye**. For the police officer, the death penalty or life in prison wasn’t even on the table. Had Chavalia been convicted on both counts, he would have served a maximum of eight months in jail. For Cory Maye (a civilian), a person who just as Sgt. Chavalia did, shot someone who he thought was a threat when he pulled the trigger, received the death penalty!***

According to the prosecution in Maye’s case, an individual cannot claim self defense unless s/he has identified the target. Here’s an excerpt from the State’s closing argument in the case:

“If you take everything he [Cory Maye] said as being true, he’s at least guilty of murder. He just shoots in the direction of the noise without looking, without calling out, without doing anything. I submit to you that’s totally unreasonable. But if you take what he says to be true, he’s at the very least guilty of murder.”

When a citizen “just shoots” “without looking” its murder but when a police officer shoots because s/he is “reacting in the line of fire” its “Oh well, shit happens” (as his/her fellow police officer cheer when the verdict reads “not guilty.”)

The article continues:

Chavalia had testified that he thought his life was in danger when he fired the shots. He said he saw a shadow coming from behind the partially open bedroom door and heard gunshots that he thought were aimed at him.

It turned out that Wilson didn’t have a weapon and that the gunfire Chavalia heard was coming from downstairs, where officers shot two charging pit bulls.

I wonder what would happen if a citizen shot a police dog if s/he were threatened?

Prosecutor Jeffrey Strausbaugh repeatedly pointed out during the trial that Wilson was shot even though she didn’t have a gun.

But jurors were told by visiting Judge Richard Knepper during jury instructions that they could not consider the fact that she was unarmed because that was known only after the shooting.

Citing a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that set guidelines for use of force by police, the jurors were told they could only judge Chavalia’s actions based on what he was aware of when he fired into the bedroom where Wilson was with her six children.

Once again: one standard for the police and one for the citizen. If the Judge in Cory Maye’s case had given similar instructions to that jury, we probably wouldn’t even know Cory Maye’s name.

“It was an important distinction and one that had to be upheld,” said Michael Watkins, president of the Fraternal Order of Police in Lima.

“If the rules are changed, officers are going to react later,” Watkins said. “You’re going to have them hesitating, and there are more who are going to be injured or killed.”

Ugh. What can I say that I haven’t already? All I am asking is that the rules are the same for the citizen as the police. Is that really too much to ask?

During the trial, a Columbus SWAT officer and a retired FBI agent both testified that Chavalia had no choice but to shoot because he thought his life was in danger. They also said Chavalia should have fired sooner.

“Thank God it wasn’t me there and every officer feels the same way,” said James Scanlon, who has been with the Columbus police since 1978.

Watkins, who joined the Lima department a year before Chavalia in 1976, said he understands why Chavalia shot after hearing the gunfire.

“I knew there had to be more to it,” he said. “Joe isn’t a trigger happy officer.”

And I am sure that those who shoot police officers attempting to defend their homes aren’t trigger happy either. It seems to me that it doesn’t much matter if the intruder is a police officer or a violent criminal busting down your door. Either way, your life is in grave danger.

The verdict further angered Wilson’s family and others in Lima’s black community.

“The message I got out of all this is that it’s OK for police to go and kill in a drug raid,” said Arnold Manley, pastor of Pilgrim Rescue Missionary Baptist Church.

That message couldn’t be clearer if it was up in neon lights in Times Square.

In the lawsuit filed in federal court in Toledo, Wilson’s mother said police could have waited until the woman and her children were out of the house to try and arrest Wilson’s boyfriend, Anthony Terry, the target of the raid.

No they couldn’t. That would make too much sense. If they would have chosen a more peaceful method, they wouldn’t have been able to wear their spiffy paramilitary SWAT gear.

The shooting on Jan. 4 led to protests about how police treat minorities in the city where one in four residents is black. Chavalia is white and Wilson was black.

Chavalia’s lead attorney, Bill Kluge, said he thinks the only reason the officer was charged was because of the reaction within the community.

I’m not quite sure what to do with that. I’m not one to play the race card but how in the hell did Chavalia get a jury in 2008 without a single black person serving?

“Had this case waited two or three months going to the grand jury, it might have been different,” he said.

I know that the public has a short attention span but this is insulting. The citizens of Lima are outraged because of this double standard I’ve described here.

Chavalia’s career with the city’s police department is essentially over despite the verdict, Kluge said. He would not say what the officer planned to do next.

I should hope so! Whatever Chavalia decides to do next, it shouldn’t have anything at all to do with law enforcement.

Related by others:

Reason TV’s Drew Carey Project “Mississippi Drug War Blues

The Agitator “Police Militarization

* The title of the article in itself is disgusting

**I am aware that these cases happened in different parts of the country but I have no doubts that the criminal justice system of Lima would treat a citizen with a different standard than a police officer.

***Maye’s sentence was reduced from the death penalty to a life sentence on appeal.