Could the SWAT-Related Death of a 7-Year-Old Have Been Avoided in Detroit?

In police work, mistakes can be deadly. And heartbreaking.

Early Sunday morning, officers from the Detroit Police Department went to a duplex on the city’s east side looking for Chauncey Louis Owens, who they believed had shot and killed a 17-year-old boy on Friday. The officers had a search warrant that covered both the upstairs and downstairs units in the duplex.

Because of the violent nature of the crime, service of the warrant was assigned to the Special Response Team, Detroit’s version of a SWAT unit.  Seeking to surprise the suspect as he slept, officers threw a “flash-bang” grenade through a front window of the lower unit, then made a rapid entry through the front door. What happened next is the subject of debate, but the tragic results are these: An officer fired his weapon, and the bullet struck 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who had been sleeping on a couch in the living room. She was taken to a hospital but died from the wound. Owens was arrested in the raid, though he apparently was found in the upstairs unit.

And now come the questions, the most obvious of which of course is, could Aiyana’s death have been avoided? It almost certainly could have, but not necessarily for the reasons you might suspect. The gunshot that struck Aiyana in the neck was but the most tragic in a series of events that began with the murder of Jerean Mack, the boy who was gunned down outside a liquor store on Friday. This is not to excuse any mistakes the police may have made that led to Aiyana’s death, but in reading the news reports and opinion pieces about the tragedy it seems all but forgotten that if not for Mack’s murder, the police would have had no reason to look for Chauncey Owens in the first place.

Still, police officers have a duty to pursue lawbreakers, no matter how violent, with due regard for the safety of others. After determining that Owens could be found at the duplex, officers had to choose from among several options in deciding what means of arresting him would be the safest for themselves, for other occupants in the building, and even for Owens.

The dangers of the method they chose, a late-night “dynamic entry,” are many and now tragically self-evident. But the other options the police most likely considered were not without their own inherent risks. The officers might have employed the “surround-and-call-out” method, in which they form a perimeter around the building and then, by telephone or public address system, direct the occupants to exit with their hands up. If the wanted suspect does not walk out with the others, a team of officers would then go in and attempt to find him. In this method the risk to innocent parties is minimized, but it opens the possibility that the suspect will take hostages. This would be followed by negotiations, but if the suspect refused to give up it would remain for officers to go in and get him, exposing the hostages to a potential gunfight. Would there be any less furor over Aiyana’s death if it had come under these circumstances?