Back in June I called the actions of a drug task force in Habersham County, Georgia, "Child abuse under color of law". In a botched raid, then-19-month-old Bounkham 'Bou Bou' Phonesavanh was critically injured when a flash grenade was thrown into his crib. Officers refused to allow his family access to him, instead taking him to hospital themselves and not informing his mother of his injuries for several hours. To add insult to injury, Sheriff Joey Terrell blithely informed journalists that "Our team went by the book. Given the same scenario, we'll do the same thing again. I stand behind what our team did."
Now it appears that the ongoing consequences of that raid are going to bankrupt the family.
Alecia and Bounkham Phonesavanh never imagined their family would be at the center of a controversy over the militarization of police. But that’s exactly where they found themselves when their toddler was seriously injured by a SWAT team, also leaving them with a $1 million medical bill they have no hope of paying.
. . .
At approximately 2 a.m. May 28, the family awakened to a blinding flash and loud explosion in their bedroom. A Special Response Team (aka SWAT team) from the Habersham County Sheriff's Office burst unannounced into the bedroom where they were sleeping. According to police reports, Habersham Deputy Charles Long threw a “flash-bang” grenade – a diversionary device used by police and military – into the room. It landed in Bou Bou’s pack-and-play.
“Bou Bou started screaming,” recalls Alecia Phonesavanh. “I immediately went to grab him.”
But Alecia says Habersham Deputy Jason Stribling picked up the child before she could reach him. “I kept telling him, ‘Just give me my son. He's scared. He needs me. The officer wouldn't. And then he walked out of the room with [Bou Bou] and I didn't see him again.”
. . .
It all came about because a drug task force had been looking for Bounkham Phonesavanh’s nephew, 30-year-old Wanis Thonetheva, who police suspected was selling methamphetamine. Using information from a confidential informant, drug agent Nikki Autry had secured a “no-knock” search warrant that allowed the police to enter his mother’s home unannounced.
. . .
As Bou Bou lay in the hospital, agent Nikki Autry resigned from her job with the Mountain Judicial Circuit’s drug unit. Judge James Butterworth, the chief magistrate of Habersham County, who signed the “no-knock” warrant, announced his retirement within days of the raid.
. . .
In Georgia, Habersham County’s District Attorney Brian Rickman convened a grand jury to look into the botched police raid. After six days of testimony, the grand jury found “the drug investigation that led to these events was hurried, sloppy.”
They did not recommend criminal charges against any of the officers involved, which deeply upsets Bou Bou’s mother. “They made the mistake,” claims Alecia Phonesavanh. “And we got the backlash of everything.”
“The intelligence on the front end, in this particular situation,” says District Attorney Rickman, “is how the tragedy could have been avoided.”
The drug task force that gathered that intelligence was disbanded four months after the raid that injured Bou Bou Phonesavanh. It also happened to be the day after “20/20” arrived in Habersham County to investigate.
Since the incident, the toddler has undergone surgeries to repair his face and torso. The Phonesavanh family says they are facing close to $1 million in debt from hospital costs. Habersham County officials will not pay the medical bills, citing a "gratuity" law in Georgia that prohibits them from compensating the family.
There's more at the link.
I was furiously angry when I heard of this incident, as my post at the time shows. I'm still furiously angry. How dare any honest, moral law enforcement officer or agency not only make excuses about 'going by the book', but then hide behind statutes to refuse to pay medical bills incurred by a totally innocent victim of law enforcement excess?
I think every single officer involved in this abuse of authority should either resign (if he or she has any moral courage at all - which most of them clearly don't) or be fired. They should never again be allowed to pin on a law enforcement badge. Any and every elected official, law enforcement or otherwise, who authorized, endorsed or supervised anything to do with this incident should do the same. The fact that they've attempted to hide behind the letter of the law and refused to take responsibility for their actions demonstrates clearly that they're all beneath contempt. People like that can never be trusted by anyone in their right minds, and should not be tolerated in or by any civilized society.
As I noted at the time, I speak as one who's worn a law enforcement badge myself and held statutory powers of arrest. Don't try to tell me that there really was a drug dealer known to use that address, and that the Phonesavanh family "put themselves in harm's way" by associating with riff-raff. I associated with riff-raff every day as a prison chaplain. Does that mean I can expect a flash grenade to be thrown into my bed by cops as well? People like young Bou-bou and his parents are not military targets or 'collateral damage'. As soon as law enforcement officers start treating them as if they were, they're no longer law enforcement personnel at all - they've become tyrants and jackbooted thugs. The Golden Rule applies: they have nothing coming if someone decides to treat them in the same uncaring, savage, violent way they've treated others, like Bou-bou.
The Phonesavanh family has set up a Web site to raise funds for their son's medical expenses. May I suggest that this Christmas, it wouldn't be out of place to send a dollar or two their way? I'm going to do what I can. I hope my readers will do the same.