Blog of Rights

Officer Acquitted in Fatal Shooting of Unarmed Woman and Baby

By Jag Davies, Drug Law Reform Project at 5:18pm

Over the past generation, routine police work in the U.S. has become radically militarized in the name of the "War on Drugs." One frightening expression of this trend is the approximately 40,000 paramilitary-style SWAT raids that take place each year in the U.S. — most commonly to serve drug warrants, and often for misdemeanor, nonviolent offenses. SWAT raids are usually forced, aggressive, unannounced entry by heavily armed policemen dressed as soldiers, and are often accompanied by flash-bang grenades and major damage to the residence or business. (For more on the rise of paramilitary police raids, see Radley Balko's report, Overkill.)

When you combine this disturbing trend with a concurrent shift over the past decades away from prosecutorial and judicial oversight of policing practices, you get lots and lots of tragic "isolated incidents" — resulting in preventable deaths of not just drug offenders, but also innocent suspects, bystanders, and police officers.

One of these isolated incidents occurred in the small city of Lima, Ohio, on January 4, 2008, when Sergeant Joseph Chavalia shot blindly into a room where unarmed 26-year-old Tarika Wilson was presumably hiding behind a closed door with her six children, including her one-year-old son Sincere Wilson. Tarika was killed immediately, and Sincere had a finger amputated after being shot in the shoulder and hand. Tarika was not even the target of the raid — rather, the officers had a warrant for Anthony Terry, her boyfriend.

During the raid, one of Chavalia's fellow officers shot and killed two dogs that belonged to Terry. Chavalia testified that when his fellow officers shot the dogs, he mistakenly presumed that hostile gunfire was coming from the Wilson's bedroom. Chavalia then shot blindly in the direction of the bedroom, without first attempting to identify the Wilson and her six children.

On Monday, a jury in Lima ruled that Chavalia didn't show a "substantial lapse of due care" and acquitted him of misdemeanor charges of negligent homicide and negligent assault.

It's a shame that the same considerations aren't made when officers are shot by innocent drug suspects who reasonably mistake unannounced intruders for illegal home invaders (such as in the prosecutions of Tracy Ingle and Corey Maye, as I described in this recent DailyKos post.)

Since Wilson was biracial and Chavalia is white, many have seen the shooting as representative of the disproportionate enforcement of drug laws in African-American and economically disadvantaged communities. (I posted last week on a new report detailing shocking racial disparities in drug enforcement in nearby Cuyahoga County, Ohio).

The shooting even prompted Jesse Jackson, Sr. to pay a visit to Lima to meet with protesters, community members, and city leaders last February. Jackson called the shooting "unnecessary force, excessive, and illegal," and urged prosecution of Lima police.

The fact that all eight members of the jury that acquitted Chavalia were white — even though one-quarter of Lima's residents are black — has only added fuel to the fire.

"We've got to do better. We've given people the license to kill," Jason Upthegrove, president of the Lima chapter of the NAACP, was quoted as saying in the Toledo Blade.

As negligent as Chavalia may have been in shooting Wilson and her son, it's hard to chalk up responsibility to just one trigger-happy officer. Officers are often given little or no background information before taking part in SWAT raids, and thrown into dangerous situations unnecessarily by sloppy or disingenuous work on the part of their colleagues.

It's shocking that more people are not urging their government officials to return SWAT policing to its intended purpose — neutralizing the rare, crisis situations when there is substantiated evidence that someone's life is urgently threatened.

By merely tightening search warrant standards and implementing basic safeguards and regulations that ensure ample oversight and corroboration of informant testimony, we could begin to rebuild the broken trust between police and the communities they aspire to serve and protect. Until then, count on the steady parade of drug raids resulting in needless death and destruction to continue.

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