More Than a “Bou Bou”: Why The Recent Flash Bomb Incident Demands Action

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Content Note: This article discusses horrific child injury and SWAT-style paramilitary raids.

People want to believe that law enforcement officers’ sole objective is to protect and serve the citizens of the municipalities and jurisdictions they serve. Unfortunately, over the last decade, there has been a drastic shift in the nature of the police force in this country. Thanks to Federal funding policies, it makes far more sense for a local police department to focus on drug offenses, which can bring in both federal funds and gains from asset forfeiture.  It now seems like they are working hard to protect their job security and serve special interests.

If you need any proof of that claim, just look at the official response to the recent flash bomb accident in Georgia which left a 19-month old boy in a medically-induced coma. According to media reports, the district attorney of the county in question, Brian Rickman, has essentially moved to sweep the incident under the rug. He has made public statements that images of injured children are always terrible, but gosh darnit, they still have to do their jobs, and he has already cleared the task force of any wrongdoing (awfully quick investigation, taking only a few business days to complete).

He isn’t the only local official making public assertions about the raid. According to local sheriff Joey Terrell, his officers and their on-site decisions weren’t questionable at all:

The person I blame in this whole thing is the person selling the drugs. Wanis Thonetheva, that’s the person I blame in all this.  They are no better than a domestic terrorist, because they don’t care about families – they didn’t care about the family, the children living in that household – to be selling dope out of it, to be selling methamphetamine out of it. All they care about is making money.

Ironic, isn’t it?  After all, the purpose of law enforcement should be the safety of their community, not the constant policing of adults for consensual crimes for departmental profit. Unfortunately, the current system of law enforcement rewards departments for drug arrests and convictions (though people don’t even need to be charged to have their stuff stolen) much more than it does for arrests and convictions of violent criminals. Much of the financial incentives are a result of federal drug polices that prioritize the number of arrests and successful convictions above all else. Because it pays to go after drug crimes, enforcement is targeted there. In order to justify their budgets, departments invest in paramilitary SWAT and narcotics teams, who then get to show off their super-cool taxpayer-funded door-kicking skills when they go terrorize folks at 3 am. It’s all about money and display of power.

Why else would an entire task force be sent out to take down one man who reportedly had made a single $40 meth sale to an informant? And why on earth would an armed SWAT team need to use shock-and-awe tactics to subdue one man? Official statements indicate they thought he was armed and that they had reason to think armed men were guarding the home, but those claims just reinforce the fact that they relied on a single informant’s story instead of having officers investigate and independently verify the situation at the home.

Police were looking for Wanis Thonethev, the 30-year-old son of the homeowner who had allegedly sold $40 worth of meth to a local narcotics informant. He also had a previous weapons charge (which officials claim was also drug-related). Law enforcement officials claim they thought he had an AK-47, which apparently is all they needed to justify a no-knock entry into the home (gun owners, take note). Somehow, they didn’t know he wasn’t staying at that address anymore because his mother had told him to go, or that the  Phonesavanh family, who had recently relocated to Georgia when their home in Wisconsin burned down, was staying there.

What they claim they did notice was that the door didn’t open when they tried it. The brilliant solution was to toss a flash bomb through the door and try again. The problem was that in the official version of the story, the thing blocking the door was 19-month old Bounkham Phonesavanh’s playpen. His family’s attorney has said his pen was several feet from the door. In either case, Little Bou Bou, as his family calls him, has been in a medically-induced coma ever since. He is currently fighting off a fever and waiting for the next in a long string of surgeries.

The Phonesavanh family has hired a private investigator to gather and record evidence. They are also asking for  an investigation at the federal level, claiming (rightfully so) that local law enforcement should have verified who was at the residence before knocking down the door in the middle of the night. At the very least, this case should call into question what sort of conditions must be present for a no-knock warrant to be issued.

And while we’re on the topic, let’s just discuss the fact that no-knock warrants to “protect evidence and prevent its destruction” are a joke. They’re unnecessary. The second law enforcement officers hear a shredder, or a toilet flushing, or a garbage disposal turning on, they can kick in the door and be totally justified.

The United States Supreme Court basically gutted 4th Amendment protections back in 2011 when they ruled (8-1) that police were justified in entering an apartment without a warrant because they heard a toilet flushing and thought evidence was being destroyed. (Technically, they ruled that the evidence gathered as a result of said warrantless entry could be used in a court of law and sent it back to the local courts).  This ruling, which is a massive blow to the right to privacy and private property, should also make this kind of “evidence protecting” no-knock warrant obsolete. When law enforcement arrives to serve a traditional warrant and search a building, they can immediately enter if they hear anything that makes them think evidence is being destroyed.

Theoretically, no-knock warrants (and paramilitary teams) should only be used in cases were there are civilians at risk, especially if we are talking about the arrest of someone who has not even been charged with, let alone convicted of, a drug-related crime. Paramilitary raids on drug offenders (especially those without ties to organized crime or militias) are almost universally an unnecessary display of force.

As citizens of the nation with the most people incarcerated, we need to call on our leaders to put an end to the war on the citizenry. We need to call for sanity in law enforcement, even if that means we have to have some very uncomfortable conversations as a country. If keeping meth illegal is leading  police officers to feel like this kind of raid is their only option, then perhaps it is time we rethink the legal status of methamphetamine and other drugs, as prohibition is only causing an arms race between law enforcement and those supplying the black market with products for which demand never drops.

It will be many days, if not weeks, before it is known if Bou Bou will recover and what that recovery will mean. His family, who had already lost most everything in a house fire, does not have insurance. They are taking donations at a funding page, which they are also updating regularly to keep supporters aware of Bou Bou’s medical status.

Keep the Phonesavanh family, especially their young son and three daughters, in your thoughts.  Demand change. If the record of the team that conducted this investigation and raid tells us anything, it’s that the police and law enforcement communities will not change if we don’t make them.