Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Justified awards - or a slap in the face?

I'm rather worried at the message being sent by the Minneapolis Police Department in a recent awards ceremony.

First, the city apologized. Then it gave awards.

Eight Minneapolis officers received medals in City Hall Monday for their valor in a botched raid that the city apologized for last year. That isn't sitting well with the family shot at multiple times by the officers.

"I'm shocked that they're receiving awards for that night," said Yee Moua. "My family is a mess right now. My [9-year-old] son, who saw the shooting, still has nightmares and has needed therapy. They've ruined a life, and I don't understand why they would get rewarded for that."

The awards stemmed from a high-risk search in December. The eight officers -- who had SWAT training -- entered the house expecting to find a violent gang member. Instead, they found Vang Khang, a 35-year-old homeowner who thought he was being robbed. Khang shot through his bedroom door at the officers until he understood who they were.

In the midst of the shootout were Moua, who is Khang's wife, and their six children, who range in age from 3 to 15. Moua said her family has since abandoned the house and can no longer afford to keep it.

Minneapolis police spokesman Sgt. William Palmer said Tuesday the department has acknowledged the raid was a mistake and has apologized to the family. But he said the officers "performed very bravely under gunfire and made smart decisions."

Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan said that he knew giving the award might get negative attention but that "we've never not recognized an officer shot in the line of duty."

. . .

The raid was part of an investigation by the department's Violent Offender Task Force, which typically goes after the most violent gang members and drug dealers. Officers had retrieved guns in searches connected with the case before the raid.

According to police, officers entered the home without knocking -- a standard procedure in cases where officers expected to find weapons -- and called out, "Police!" as they searched the home's first floor. They didn't find anybody, so went to the second floor. At a small landing at the top of the stairs, they again shouted, "Police!"

Shots then came through the walls and doors as officers searched two bedrooms, police said. It was Khang shooting from a third bedroom.

Authorities said there were children in the other bedrooms, and the officers quickly realized there was a language barrier. The older children were able to communicate to their father that police were in the house and to stop shooting.

"As soon as they started taking fire, [officers] got in front of the kids and used their body as a shield," Palmer said. "They used great restraint and shot precisely at where the bullets were coming back from."

Moua disputed the police account.

"They never identified themselves; we thought they were a whole bunch of drunk, crazy guys," she said. "We didn't know anything until my oldest son yelled, 'Dad, it's the police!'"

She also said the officers did not try to protect her children, but rather hid themselves behind furniture and shot back indiscriminately. She said officers treated her and her husband roughly, and did not explain the situation after the two surrendered.

. . .

The family's lawyer, Thomas Heffelfinger, said that he has had ongoing conversations with the city attorney's office and that there will be a lawsuit if they cannot reach a resolution.

"They fired 22 rounds with 9 millimeter automatic weapons into a room with two adults and four children," Heffelfinger said. "That's not protecting kids. They were firing at a room they couldn't see into. They fired with the intent to kill the person on the other side of the door.

"To give these men awards for that behavior is nothing more than an attempt to sanitize their conduct."

Heffelfinger also said the family had lived at the house for four years and had no history of wrongdoing. He said police "failed to do their homework" and "acted outrageously once they got there."

Courage under fire should, indeed, be recognized: but if that courage was mistaken and unnecessary in the first place, should it be recognized in this way? A public awarding of medals seems to me to be a slap in the face to the family who was terrorized unnecessarily and unjustifiably. If I were in that family's shoes, I'd be . . . well, "irritated" is a very mild way to put it! Could the courage of the officers not have been recognized in a more discreet way, such as a letter of commendation on their files?

There's also the issue of who did what. We have two very different accounts of events. The award of medals seems to me to be an attempt to set an official seal of approval on the police account, and to publicly disregard (even, perhaps, denigrate) the family's perspective. Surely, even if the awards were appropriate, their presentation could have been delayed until the legal dispute (and any lawsuit) were settled?

This must also be seen in the context of the growing militarization of US police forces (particularly SWAT teams and similar organizations), and the growing number of "mistakes" that such teams are making in raiding innocent persons. It's a growing problem, and I don't see any real effort by law enforcement authorities - at least, not publicly - to deal with it. Innocent people have already died in such mistaken raids. How many more must die, or be terrorized, before such measures are brought under control?

What's your take, readers? Should these awards have been made? And, if so, should they have been made now, rather than after everything's been sorted out?



Sevesteen said...

It isn't reasonable to expect the people with the proper temperament to be police to avoid using all the tools at their disposal, even when some of those tools are really meant only for extreme circumstances. The problem to a great extent lies with the judges who approve these warrants--They are supposed to be the ones worried about being fair, and avoiding excess.

I think giving medals out at this point is tacky, and it seems to be maneuvering to deflect blame.

Peter (NOGH) said...

No medals. Not now, not ever. No commendation letters, either.

They raided the wrong bloody house, FFS! And put children in mortal danger.

They had better be grateful they didn't raid my house by mistake. I don't have any pansy-@ss shotgun. I have 150 grain FMJ. A lot of them.

Crucis said...

Sevesteen. you're wrong. It's the police attitude that they are the law and above it. Same situation happened here in KC some years ago---twice! In both cases innocence people were killed by police and NOTHING happened to those officers.

In the first case, police broke into the wrong house (didn't validate the address) and killed the homeowner when he attempted to protect his 12-year old daughter. In the second, they were tracking a man but went to the wrong apartment, broke in and when the resident sat up in bed being waken by the noise, shot him.

If these crimes had been committed by anyone else, they'd be in prison or on death row.

Don Gwinn said...

The way you handle something like that is behind closed doors. After you're done tearing the guy in charge a new orifice, you tell the whole bunch that the only bright spot was the way they handled themselves once the shooting started and you're glad nobody got hurt.

That's it. You don't hold a public awards ceremony, and I'm surprised they all accepted the medals. You'd think, out of eight men, one would say "I appreciate it, but I can't accept it."

AaronE said...

good thing that wasn't my house...120 00 buckshot (15/round x 8 rounds) accompanied by at least 30 rounds of 165 grain .30 softpoints. Anything still moving after that gets tapped with a .45 or a .38. DON'T want to do that to someone who has survived a home invasion once....

Sevesteen said...

I don't think most police think they are above the law. I also don't think there are too many who do, and SWAT teams are very likely to have a higher concentration of the bad attitude types.

Something needs to be done about overuse of these sorts of raids. Preservation of evidence isn't enough justification. Breaking into an innocent house should be likely career-ending for everyone involved, barring an extraordinary (and independently verified) reason.

Maureen said...

I'm also surprised that anyone would accept such a medal. Wouldn't it just bring back that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realized you had attacked the wrong man, and that little kids were in danger?

Maybe this police department hands out razorblades and pamphlets on "How to Commit Suicide" as Christmas presents, too. 'Cause they've got an odd idea how to support their officers.

Jim said...

In aviation it goes like this:

A superior pilot is one who uses his superior judgement to avoid situations where a demonstration of his superior skills is necessary.

I don't envy the police in having to deal with violent, well armed criminals, in a multi-cultural society where many home (and firearm) owners don't speak English as a first language.

Anonymous said...

I don't feel that the medals are deserved in this case. And, even if they were, it still looks very bad on everyone involved for them to be handing the officers medals -while still in the middle of legal proceedings about the incident-.

As already mentioned, it reeks of ass-covering, and it makes me feel less inclined to believe the officers' story over the family's.

After all, if they were telling the truth, they'd have the bloody good taste to wait until the dust had settled on its own, rather than dump gasoline on it to try and settle it faster, no?