A mother in Huntsville, Alabama, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against police alleging that they were responsible for killing her son during a drug sting.
The lawsuit claims that Huntsville police in civilian clothes violently threw Nancy Smith’s 17-year-old son to the ground. He was handcuffed and pepper sprayed. While lying motionless on the ground, the officers allegedly shoved their knees into his back making it difficult for him to breathe. The officers later shoved a “sharp instrument” into his throat while he was choking and also broke his ribs.
As the lawsuit argues, the actions of police were “so extreme and outrageous in nature as to shock the conscience of the community.” They were “willful, malicious and intentional as to inflict terror and trauma upon a Huntsville citizen.”
The teen was hospitalized for five days with severe injuries before he died on June 18, 2013.
On June 13, police allegedly “set up” an 18-year-old confidential informant to purchase drugs from this teen at his parents’ home. The teen’s mother had no idea that police in civilian clothes would surround her house ready to pounce on her son to make an arrest.
Without any warning or “lawful command,” a female police officer allegedly ran toward the teen, who was unarmed. He was thrown to the ground, handcuffed and pepper sprayed in the face. He was “choking uncontrollably” and an officer eventually called the paramedics.
The teen apparently lost “consciousness” while choking as officers “refused to remove” the handcuffs so he could “sit upright to attempt to breathe.”
Officers claimed to have tried to “retrieve” the bag before paramedics arrived. “Without proper training or expertise,” officers next “shoved a sharp oblong object into” the teen’s throat.
Officers allegedly told the paramedics the teen had “swallowed a bag of drugs” when he was thrown to the ground. That caused him to choke. At the hospital, the paramedics informed the doctor the teen “appeared lifeless and had no pulse.”
“No bag was found or recovered from the scene nor was a bag found or retrieved from the hospital” where the teen was treated. He died there five days later.
The teen’s mother requested a copy of the autopsy report, but, according to the lawsuit, she was denied. However, according to local news media, who obtained a copy, the cause of death was “undetermined.” Blood samples were thrown out before the autopsy was performed. So all the report indicates is that he could have died from an “asphyxial event,” a “foreign object in his throat,” or “from the way he was restrained.”
The alleged conduct of police is stunning. That a police officer would allegedly tell what was a lie to paramedics—that he swallowed a bag of drugs—and then it turns out shoved something sharp into his throat while he is choking as a way to cover up police brutality is sadistic behavior. But it is representative of how the War on Drugs is waged in America.
In 2006, police in Atlanta executed a “no knock” search warrant on 92 year-old Kathryn Johnston’s home. She thought her home was being invaded and fired a shot. The police shot her 39 times and then planted marijuana in her home to help justify the violence. They raided the woman’s home on the basis of “falsified paperwork.”
On June 11, 2010, Las Vegas police allegedly set up a drug raid on Trevon Cole’s home as part of a reality television series. Cole allegedly sold an eighth ounce of marijuana to an undercover officer, which led officers to raid his apartment where he was living with his nine months pregnant fiancee. They found him in the bathroom and believed he was flushing marijuana down the toilet. He allegedly made some kind of movement and was fatally shot by police.
Pastor Jonathan Paul Ayers was killed by police involved in an undercover sting operation. An unmarked black SUV with armed men dressed in street clothes, who turned out to be agents in Georgia’s drug task force, pulled up behind Ayers’ vehicle. He tried to escape what he likely thought was a car jacking. An agent shot and killed him. He became a target because he was ministering a woman who was being pursued by the drug task force. (For more examples, Students for Sensible Drug Policy compiled a list of victims in the War on Drugs here.)
This kind of brutality and vigilantism is part of the culture of the War on Drugs among police, federal agents and other public and private security officers. No matter how many times the culture is brought out into the open and challenged through lawsuits or Justice Department investigations, officers involved often escape jail time and avoid having to take responsibility for their actions.
The culture survives as a feature of a War on Drugs that disproportionately targets people of color but can ultimately kill anyone, regardless of color, who gets in the way.