SWAT Tragedy that Burned an Infant Could Have Been Avoided

As unintended consequences go, it doesn’t get much worse than this.  A 19-month-old boy is in critical condition in a Georgia hospital after a flash-bang grenade tossed by a police officer exploded in his crib.   Officers in Habersham County were serving a no-knock search warrant at 3 a.m. at a home where an informant had earlier purchased methamphetamine.  The alleged seller, Wanis Thometheva, was not at home at the time of the raid but was arrested at another location later.  The injured toddler and his parents and three sisters were visiting the home after their own home was damaged in a fire.  The family has no apparent connection with drug trafficking.

The police account of the incident runs as follows: On Tuesday night, an informant made a purchase of methamphetamine from Thometheva at the home in Cornelia, about 70 miles northeast of Atlanta.  Police had some prior knowledge of Thometheva: in a previous drug arrest he was found to have weapons, including an AK-47.  The officers obtained a search warrant for the home, including judicial approval for a “no-knock” entry.  (Officers are ordinarily required to knock and announce themselves prior to entering a location they intend to search, but the U.S. Supreme Court, in Richards v. Wisconsin and United States v. Banks, has held that a judge can waive this requirement if officers offer sufficient justification in their affidavit.)

The search warrant team went to the same doorway where the drug purchase had occurred and breached the door.  The door opened partially but something was preventing it from opening further.  An officer tossed in a flash-bang grenade, a device that gives off a combination of bright light and loud explosion intended to temporarily disorient occupants in the room.  But when the officers finally entered, they found it was a crib that had been blocking the door, and that the grenade had landed in it, severely injuring the little boy. Medics on the warrant team attended to the boy immediately, and he was rushed to a hospital by an ambulance that had been staged nearby.

And now the obvious question: Could this have been avoided?

The simple answer is yes, it could have been, in a number of ways.  First of all, Mr. Thometheva might have engaged in a livelihood other than selling methamphetamine, say, one that did not invite the attention of police officers.  Or the police could have ignored the illegal activity and allowed it, and all  the social ills that accompany methamphetamine abuse, to continue unmolested and poison the community.

I offer these two alternatives in jest, of course.  If police allegations are true, Mr. Thometheva is a drug dealer, and as such, is unlikely to choose a different walk of life without intervention in the form of arrest and imprisonment.  And Habersham County, Georgia, is not the kind of place where the citizenry encourages the police to look the other way when there’s meth dealing going on.  They want it stopped.  But they want it stopped without the cost of toddlers having grenades tossed in their cribs.

So, what options did the police have after making the drug purchase from Mr. Thometheva?   Search warrants can be served in a number of ways, from a low-key visit from a pair of police officers to a full-scale SWAT raid.  Clearly, given Mr. Thometheva’s history, the low-key option was off the table.  The police felt they had ample justification for a SWAT raid, including a no-knock entry, and the issuing magistrate agreed.  It has to be emphasized here that this is not a case of police corruption or cutting corners.  (For a grotesque example of police corruption with tragic results, see here.)  These officers were authorized to do what they did, and they were trained in the use of flash-bang grenades.  And still there was an unacceptable outcome.  Why?