At least two US citizens were killed in their own homes by American police enforcing the war on drugs in a 48-hour period late last week.
One was a 52-year-old white grandmother; the other was a 43-year-old black man. Both allegedly confronted home-invading officers with weapons; both were shot to death. No police officers were injured.
The combination of widespread gun ownership in the US with aggressive drug war policing is a recipe for tragedy, one that is repeated on a regular basis. Gun owners commonly cite protecting themselves from home-invading robbers as a reason for arming themselves, while police cite widespread gun ownership as a reason they need to use SWAT-style tactics, breaking down doors and using overwhelming force against potential shooters. That homeowners would pick up a weapon upon hearing their doors broken down is not surprising, nor is it surprising that police are quick to shoot to kill “suspects” who may pose a threat to them.
The first killing came Thursday morning in North Memphis, when a Bartlett, Tennessee, police narcotics squad serving a search warrant for drug possession — not sales, manufacture, or possession with intent to sell — shot and killed Malcolm Shaw, 43, after breaking into his home. Police said they knocked on Shaw’s door several times and identified themselves as police before entering the home.
Police said Shaw emerged from a room and pointed a gun at plainclothes officer Patrick Cicci. Cicci fired once, killing Shaw. Cicci is on administrative leave pending an internal investigation.
While the Bartlett Police investigation is ongoing, that didn’t stop the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office from announcing Monday that Cicci will not be prosecuted. Cicci’s killing of the homeowner was “apparent justifiable use of deadly force in self defense,” a spokesman said.
Bartlett police said that while the Bartlett narcs conducting the raid were not in uniform, their gear clearly identified them as law enforcement. They wore “high-visibility vests” marked “POLICE” in several spots, police said.
The killing of the well-known neighborhood handyman led to the formation of a crowd hostile to police outside his home. Bartlett police on the scene had to call Memphis police to do crowd control.
Memphis police complained that the Bartlett narcs had not followed law enforcement protocols requiring them to notify the local agency when they were operating in its jurisdiction. They said they were notified only as the raid commenced, and that moments later, they got a request for an ambulance at the address, and moments after that, they got a request that they send a couple of police cruisers for crowd control.
Timothy Miers, who said he was Shaw’s brother accused police of being trigger-happy. “How you gonna go in serving a warrant and shoot somebody?” Miers asked. “They already had their finger on the trigger.”
The sense of disbelief over the killing was shared by members of the crowd gathered outside Shaw’s home. Many complained about the officers’ actions.
“My heart fell to the ground,” one neighbor said.
“We can’t believe it,” said another. “Malcolm out of all people.”
Family members expressed confusion about the shooting, saying Shaw was not a person they would have expected to threaten officers. “They say he had a gun,” said Miers. “My brother doesn’t have no gun.”
Friends of Shaw said the same thing. “I ain’t never seen him with no gun,” said Arvette Thomas, a friend of Shaw.
Shaw never bothered anyone, neighbors said. “I think it’s wrong to just kill him like they did,” said a neighbor, “because he wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
Less than 48 hours later, members of a Broward County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team and its Selective Enforcement Team in Pompano Beach, Florida, shot and killed Brenda Van Zweiten, 52, during a drug raid on her home. Police had developed evidence that drugs were being sold from the residence, and obtained a search warrant. After allegedly identifying themselves as police, they broke through a sliding glass door to a bedroom and arrested Van Zweiten’s boyfriend, Gary Nunnemacher, 47, on charges of possessing less than 20 grams of marijuana. Van Zweiten was in a different bedroom, and was shot and killed by deputies when she emerged holding a handgun. According to police, she refused to put down her weapon, so they shot her.
Police reported finding one gram of heroin, four grams of crack cocaine, marijuana, marijuana plants, 40 generic Xanax tablets, $550 cash, two shotguns, and a rifle. Family members said Van Zweiten had a prescription for Xanax, but was not a drug dealer. But police had earlier in the day arrested three people leaving the home who they say had bought drugs there — although police did not say from whom.
After Van Zweiten’s killing, police were unrepentant. “When you approach a police officer with a loaded weapon and don’t put the weapon down, there’s going to be consequences,” sheriff’s spokesman Mike Jachles said. “It’s unfortunate, but I’d rather be talking about a dead suspect than a dead cop.”
Van Zweiten’s brother, Bill George, said his sister had recently received threats and was afraid of break-ins. “It was an unlawful shooting,” he said. “She’s 98 pounds. She was just trying to protect herself. I would come out of my room with a gun too.”
As news of Van Zweiten’s death spread, friends, neighbors, and family members expressed dismay and disbelief. They called the incident a “set up” and said the blonde grandmother was affectionately called “Mom” by many who knew her for using her home as a neighborhood hangout to keep kids off the streets. Dozens of people gathered in her yard near a flower-bedecked cross put up as a memorial.
“Look at these people,” said George. “She helped so many of these young people.”
“She was like a second mom to me,” said Michael Miller, 18. “She would take in anybody.”
“There was no reason for this,” said son Rob Singleton, 32.
Van Zwieten had no criminal history involving drugs or violence, state records show.
George said that Van Zweiten had reason to fear intruders because she had been threatened recently by a man accused of stealing watches and rings that were part of a shrine to two of her four sons, who had died within the past three years, one in a traffic accident, one of a drug overdose. She had just installed an alarm system last week, George said. “She was scared.”
Singleton showed reporters inside the house, including the small bedroom where she was shot. A large puddle of blood remained on the floor, and the walls and ceiling were splattered with blood — from his mother’s head, he said. “She was probably running into the closet and trying to hide,” he said.
As is all too typical in such raid, police also totally trashed the house. As the Sun-Sentinel reported: “Much of the interior of the three-bedroom house looked as if it had been hit by a tornado… Drawers were pulled from dressers, clothes were scattered, a bed was overturned, food and crockery had been knocked from kitchen cabinets.” The shrine to her dead sons was also destroyed, Singleton said.
Two Broward County Sheriff’s Office detectives are on administrative leave pending an internal investigation. They have not been named.
– Article from Stop the Drug War (DRCNet).