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House Burnt Down In Drug Raid In St. Petersburg

GORSKI-CENAPS Web Publications
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Published On: July 15, 2001          Updated On: August 07, 2001
© Terence T. Gorski, 2001

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BURNING QUESTION

A team of 10 police tactical teamed officers approached the house at 1341 19th St. S., St. Petersburg, to execute a search warrant just the way they practiced it. Officer Brian Taylor was assigned to be third in the door.  After hearing a teammate knock and announce, "Police, Search Warrant," Taylor and other officers heard what sounded like footsteps coming from inside the house. They concluded that it was probably the suspects inside running downstairs. When Taylor entered the home he stood at the top of those stairs behind another officer with a bulletproof shield.

Though he hadn't heard any gunfire, been attacked, or even seen any suspects at this point, Taylor decided that a bulletproof shield wasn't enough protection to investigate the lower floor of the apartment. He would have to use a distraction device that emits an intense burst of light and a loud bang to disorient suspects.

"For safety reasons it was discussed about utilizing a distraction device prior to team members going down into the bottom floor area, if the team was jeopardized prior to entering the bottom floor," he stated in a report  following the mission.

Whether the hazard was obvious is up for debate, but no one is debating what happened next. Taylor lobbed the device. It exploded, caused a fire and burned the house down.  Judging by the tactics it would seem that the officers were entering the home to search for a stockpile of unlicensed weapons. Or maybe amounts of cocaine so vast the officers would put it in a big pile and take pictures standing next to it, showing the press and the public how hundreds of drug users wouldn't be getting high thanks to them.

Appearances can be deceiving.

The search was supposed to result in the seizure of some marijuana, and likely not in an amount worthy of photographs. What the search actually resulted in was embarrassment for the St. Petersburg Police Department. The house was destroyed and no one was arrested as the hypothetical evidence went up in smoke.

The incident could almost be funny. Picture the police "tactical" or TAC team exploding into the house like commandos then rushing back out, much like Keystone Kops, moments later when the fire they set raged quickly out of controlled.

What's not funny is that it didn't happen in some slapstick movie. It happened in a house where real people lived and worked, and it happened in the black community where police work too often resembles military occupation.

The police department defends itself by saying that it raided the house on legitimate police business. The fire is termed "unfortunate."

That doesn't play well with police critics. Chimurenga Waller, president of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement called the incident an outrage. "Our whole community was attacked when they attacked that house," he said.

Kevin Zeese, president of Common Sense for Drug Policy, a Washington, D.C., group fighting for saner drug laws, said this attack is neither surprising nor is it uncommon. Police departments target poorer minority communities and use stronger tactics because it's relatively easy and consequence free, Zeese said. "It's less risky to go out to the poor communities, they don't have as much money for lawyers."

National statistics prove that in the war on drugs the black community is the top law enforcement battleground. According to research done by Human Rights Watch in 1996, blacks make up about 62 percent of prisoners incarcerated on drug charges, compared with 36 percent who are white. Black men are admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate about 13 times that of white men, the study said. On average, 482 of every 100,000 black men sentenced to prison are sent there on drug charges, compared with just 36 of every 100,000 white men.

Even if they can get a lawyer, Zeese said, prosecutors and judges harbor racist attitudes -- just like cops. Because more minorities are targeted than whites, more of them are arrested. This makes for a system that is harsher for minorities because the law enforcement players at every stage think black or brown skin is synonymous with criminal behavior.

The U.S. Department of Justice found that of the drug offenders appearing in state court 37 percent are white and 61 percent are black. The percentage of whites given probation or non-incarceration is 32 percent compared with 25 percent of blacks. The percentage of black drug felons sentenced to state prison is 43 percent compared with just 27 percent of whites.

This injustice caused by faulty perceptions is not likely to change under the Bush administration. President Bush's proposed drug czar, John Waters, was quoted in the Weekly Standard saying, "What really drives the battle against law enforcement and punishment however, is not a commitment to treatment, but the widely held view that 1. We are imprisoning too many people for merely possessing illegal drugs, 2. Drug and other criminal sentences are too long and harsh and 3. The criminal justice system is unjustly punishing young black men. These are the great urban myths of our time."

Waters has access to plenty of data that would show that the real urban myth of our time is that the war on drugs is effective and equitable. He just doesn't want to accept that reality.

The reality is that whites use drugs at a higher per capita rate than blacks, said Zeese, and they tend to buy from other whites. College kids sell and use marijuana in their dorm rooms and wealthy whites sell and use marijuana in their homes or at their place of business.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the chances of a white person ever trying an illicit drug is 42 percent compared with 37.7 percent of blacks. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control conclude that the number of white high school students currently using cocaine in the U.S. is 4.1 percent compared to 1.1 percent of black high school students.

That last statistic is worth repeating: White high school kids are almost four times more likely to use cocaine than black youths.

Waller wants to create an outcry about police tactics in St. Petersburg. He wants an apology from the city of St. Petersburg and a commitment to deal with the problem. "I think it (the apology) would send a signal that the city of St. Petersburg is interested in economic development and not in criminalizing a community and carrying out military activities in a community that has been traditionally oppressed, not just in St. Petersburg but in this country."

By remaining silent, Waller said, the message is that the answer to oppression is a full-scale raid by a SWAT team on an alleged search for marijuana. "And then the police just say, "Oops we made a mistake, we can't arrest anybody because we burned up the evidence.'"There are a lot of theories about why so many more blacks are arrested on drug charges than whites, but one that few dispute is that it's because the police can use heavy-handed tactics in poorer black communities that they wouldn't dream of using in more affluent white communities. The result is that prisons fill with low-level drug dealers and users, while the flow of drugs into the minority community continues virtually unchecked.

The St. Petersburg police claim they employ the same tactics in the black community that they do in the white community. Since many of their tactics are not available for public scrutiny, it's hard to say whether that's true. But it's difficult to imagine a SWAT team showing up in Coffeepot Bayou looking for relatively small amounts of marijuana -- as the police did on 19th Street South.

The investigation that led to the search warrant at 1341 19th St. was typical of the way drug investigations are handled in most minority communities, said Zeese. Poor minorities tend to take more risks, selling drugs on the streets and in other open areas. Because they're visible, they get arrested more often and are persuaded to turn informant. Who do they inform on. Typically the only people they know, said Zeese, other blacks. This is one reason why it's easier to arrest people -- even ones who aren't selling drugs openly -- in minority communities. It's much harder to get into that college dorm room or into that Bayshore Boulevard mansion.

According to police reports, a confidential informant purchased $40 worth of marijuana from Craig Johnson, a resident at the house on 19th Street, on three separate occasions. The identity of the informant is, of course, under wraps but he or she reported seeing "several cigar boxes" and a paper bag containing weed. Marijuana is illegal in any amount but this was hardly the mother lode. The police used these buys to obtain a search warrant of Johnson's house. The informant did not indicate that there were any weapons visible or that there were any hostages tied up in the living room, but the search was considered "high risk." For police, high risk is supposed to mean dangerous, but it often means black. Ultimately what it meant was that a tactical team of 10 officers would be deployed to execute the search. They arrived armed with bulletproof shields and flash-bang devices the manufacturer claims are " designed to be deployed by tactical teams during high-risk warrants, hostage rescues and barricaded-subject situations."

After the spark given off by the flash-bang turned into an inferno, two men fleeing the house were stopped by the police. The interviews were also typical of the kinds of liberties cops can take with minority suspects. Police asked the dreadlocked men irrelevant questions like, "Are you a Rastafarian." Rastafarians are a religious group out of Jamaica that claim late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie as a spiritual leader and are generally stereotyped as marijuana users. Asking a suspected marijuana user if they're Rastafarian is like asking a suspected drunken driver if they're Irish -- it plays to a negative stereotype and doesn't prove anything one way or the other.

Even if the two had smoked marijuana, and one man admitted that he had before coming to the house that evening, it doesn't mean that he was selling it or that he would possess quantities it would take an army to confiscate.

More than $300 in cash was taken from another man as evidence, even though he was never arrested for anything.

It's possible that the police did have a valid reason for using a 10-man team and a distraction device meant for crisis situations to subdue two men suspected of selling $40 bags of weed. We'd all like to hear it. Probably nobody more than Craig Johnson and the group called Lion Face who lost their investment of reportedly more than $100,000 in recording equipment and master recordings of more than 300 songs, intellectual property that's irreplaceable and could have been worth millions.

Police spokesman Rick Stelgis said he is unable to comment on matters of police tactics. He did however comment on the fire. "It's very unfortunate that this occurred," he said. "But I don't think we should lose sight of the fact that the officers were there in a legitimate capacity."

Members of the group have retained an attorney, Waller said, and are refusing interviews while the incident is still under investigation. Waller is not a spokesman for the group. However, he has spoken with them and said that members of the group are fearful of the police. They fear that the police will want to file charges that are just as heavy-handed as their tactics.

"I think they fear that the police and the city of St. Petersburg want out of this situation. This was a terrible situation that the police created and they want out of that. And there are a number of ways that the police may feel that the way out is," said Waller.

One way is through intimidation. Waller claimed that a resident of the house is being followed by police. "I don't understand the reason for that, if you burned up his house, why are you following him."Stelgis contended that while investigation of the incident is still ongoing, there's no intimidation going on.

Waller is not asserting that the rap group was made up of choirboys. They're a group of young men with some interesting motivations for making music. "There was a young man named Marcus Toots. He was killed four or five years ago and he was a very good friend of Craig Johnson. That was the turning point for them," says Waller.

The group was involved in "some things" that weren't correct, Waller said, and with the death of their friend they decided to turn their lives around and do music. They pooled their money and saved for years to accomplish their goal.

"I think that that should be rewarded but apparently the city of St. Petersburg doesn't feel that way," said Waller.  According to the police department, both the owner of the residence and the renters have filed claims seeking reparations. As for an apology from the city or the police department, Stelgis said it's just too early to speculate on whether that will happen. The police department is being cautious in its statements probably due to pending legal issues, but the department's silence on its tactics in black neighborhoods is upsetting some members of the community. Following the incident about 60 people from various neighborhood groups protested outside the police department. A similar demonstration was held at the burned-out house.

By demonstrating, Waller said, protestors are trying to show the community that what happened was wrong and encourage citizens to speak out against heavy-handed police tactics. "If you want to serve a warrant and search the property you knock on the door and say, "I want to search the house.' That's what they do in the white community," he said. Waller and others in the community would like to see the police department lose what critics feel is a look-down-the-nose attitude toward blacks. According to Randall Marshall, state legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Miami, it's this superiority bias that causes most problems in the first place. "What people are offended by are the disrespectful attitudes that officers can bring into a minority community." It's been nearly five years since riots were sparked by the police slaying of TyRon Lewis. Riots don't occur because of a single police action. Rather, the police action is a spark that ignites to a long fuse. The fuse is made up of a string of incidents: the traffic stop that turns into harassment, the questioning of a black man's right to drive a nice car, the fear and resentment of hostile police presence and leadership that refuses to address the minority community's concerns.

For that reason, someone has to be accountable for the charred remains of Craig Johnson's home and dreams on 19th Street. People are waiting for the city to step up to the plate. The incident occurred in the city's District 6, but the area's council member Earnest Williams hasn't made a public statement about a situation that many find appalling and frightening.   Williams is concerned about the incident, he said, but he's waiting for the investigation to be complete before he makes any comment.

"I'm concerned about whether the (distraction) device should be used any further," he said.

Williams claims he hasn't gotten a single call from the community about the fire, not even from Waller. "But I'm sure there are people out there who are concerned just like I'm concerned." At a recent City Council meeting community members who spoke up on the issue were met with an attitude varying from indifference to boredom. Some were upset that Williams left the meeting before his constituents even got up to speak. He had returned from vacation at 3 a.m. and was at the meeting until 10 p.m., he said. He left because he was ill.

Williams said he does not agree that the police unfairly target those in his district. In fact, he believes that what's needed is more enforcement.   He thinks that more community members should report drug activity in their neighborhoods, more drug marches should be done, and more drug prevention programs should be targeted at the city's youth.

When it comes to drug sales and use, Williams said that money isn't an issue. "What do economics have to do with drugs." he asks. "For some, they make it an economic issue."

People have a choice to get an education and avoid the pitfalls of the drug trade, he said.

Waller doesn't believe it's that simple and would like to see departing Police Chief Goliath Davis replaced with someone who can take a more community-sensitive approach to enforcing drug laws.

"The people are being terrorized and this can't go on," Waller said.

The Uhuru group intends to hold a public meeting to discuss the way that the new police chief will be chosen and to consider how the community can influence the process. They feel it's important that the new chief see the importance of economic development in high-crime areas. The activists contend that crime flourishes in poverty and the solution to poverty is not to build more jails so that police can arrest more poor people.

The new chief should also continue to enforce Davis' edict that officers treat everyone in every community with respect. Davis' attitude has gone a long way to improve tension between the black community and the police, said department spokesman Stelgis, and few in the community would dispute that. Most would like to see that progress continue.

"Davis went a long way into cutting off some of the kinds of activities that he's now saying is OK," Waller said, referring to statements Davis made to the press supporting the police in the house torching. "I think he's in a difficult position because the police have done something wrong and he is the police." 

 

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