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?
Another method that might have been considered would be to place the duplex under surveillance in the hope that the suspect could be arrested when he came outside and walked to the store or what have you. This too would have minimized the risk to others in the duplex, but in any such operation there is the danger that the suspect will detect the surveillance, allowing him to escape or, as in the above scenario, take hostages or shoot it out with the police. And if the suspect gets into a car, there is also the chance of a pursuit and all the risks that go with it. And there is the danger that someone else leaving the location will be mistaken for the suspect and lead officers away on the wrong trail, again offering the suspect the chance to escape. If Detroit police had employed this method and Owens escaped, perhaps to kill again, what would the reaction have been then?
In my experience, any indications that there may be children present in a target location would preclude the use of a dynamic entry as was employed by the police in this case. The Detroit Free Press published a photograph, taken after the incident, in which a tricycle and other children’s toys can be seen to the left of the duplex’s front stairs. (I distinguish these items from the stuffed animals and other toys placed as a memorial to Aiyana at the right of the stairs.) Officers presumably scouted the building in preparation for serving the warrant, raising the question of whether these items were undetected at that time, perhaps due to darkness, or were observed but disregarded.
In any event, the officers chose to make a rapid entry into the duplex, utilizing at least one flash-bang grenade as they did so. These grenades are used to disorient a building’s occupants while officers enter, and are generally not employed when children are known to be present. The use of such a device in this case is something that will no doubt be addressed in the coming investigation and litigation.
And of course there will be litigation; the lawsuit has already been filed. Aiyana’s parents are represented by Geoffrey Fieger, who is known to try cases as much in the media as in the courtroom. (In 1999, Fieger was the defense attorney for Jack “Dr. Death” Kevorkian, who was convicted of second-degree murder for his role in one of his many “assisted suicides.”) So unfortunately there will be something of a circus atmosphere attending the aftermath of Aiyana’s tragic death. If you doubt this, you may reconsider when you learn that Al Sharpton will deliver the eulogy at her funeral on Saturday.
The funeral will surely lead the news in Detroit that day, which I suppose is only right. But if current statistics are any guide, some resident of the city will hear Sharpton’s eulogy Saturday morning and then be himself murdered Saturday night. Whoever that unlucky soul may be, he’ll be no more remembered next week than Jerean Mack is today. And neither Geoffrey Fieger nor Al Sharpton will have much to say about either of them.