Pubdate: Mon, 5 Jul 2010
Source: Detroit Free Press (MI)
Copyright: 2010 Detroit Free Press
Author: L.L. Brasier, Free Press Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Drug Raids)
Bookmark: (Policing - United States)


Originally for the Military, Use by Police Departments Has Grown

When Leonid and Arlene Marmelshtein heard someone on the front porch 
of their small Southfield ranch house that cold winter night, they 
thought one of their adult sons had come home to enjoy Hanukkah 
dinner with them.

But within seconds, Southfield police broke the door down -- looking 
for a suspected marijuana dealing operation -- and threw flash-bang 
grenades, filling the small house with deafening noise, blinding 
light and smoke.

"I thought they were here to kill us," Leonid Marmelshtein, 74, said 
of the police officers, who wore black hoods hiding their faces and 
had their guns drawn.

Arlene Marmelshtein, 58, ran terrified out the back door in her stocking feet.

Police found no evidence of drug trafficking, but they did find a 
tiny amount of marijuana belonging to a grown son in a sock drawer. 
He pleaded to a misdemeanor possession charge and was placed on probation.

The 2004 raid on the Marmelshteins' home is now the subject of a 
lawsuit winding its way through U.S. District Court in Detroit. It is 
one of several civil suits in Michigan and dozens across the country 
charging that the increasing use of such grenades by police is 
dangerous and excessive force.

Flash-Bang Grenades Ignite Legal Battles

Jurors will decide in a civil case what went wrong when a Detroit 
police officer shot and killed 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones during 
an early-morning raid on May 16 in search of a murder suspect.

A central question they will grapple with: Should officers have 
tossed a flash-bang grenade into the duplex?

Police contend the grenade was necessary for the safety of officers 
and those inside in order to surprise and distract a suspect 
considered armed and dangerous. But critics, including Southfield 
attorney Geoffrey Fieger, who is representing Aiyana's family, and 
the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality contend the use of the 
grenades is a military-style tactic that is an excessive use of force.

"The grenade was totally inappropriate," Fieger said. He added that 
its loud concussion may have caused a police officer, with his finger 
already on the trigger, to discharge the deadly shot.

"I think the grenade contributed to it. There was nothing under the 
circumstances that would condone the use of a grenade," he said.

The suspect was eventually arrested in the upstairs unit of the 
duplex, and the shooting has been handed over to the Michigan State 
Police for investigation.

The use of flash-bang grenades, with their blinding light, deafening 
noise and smoke, has grown increasingly popular with law enforcement 
the last 20 years, police experts say. They have also come under 
harsh criticism from civil libertarians, and are the focus of 
lawsuits nationwide alleging death, serious injury, emotional 
distress and property damage.

The New York City Police Department announced a ban on the grenades 
earlier this year after a woman died of a heart attack when police 
tossed a grenade into the wrong apartment.

In metro Detroit, the lawsuit on behalf of Aiyana's family is among 
at least three filed against police departments charging that 
flash-bang grenades helped cause damage, injury or -- in Aiyana's 
case -- death.

Terror in Southfield

"We thought we were going to die," Arlene Marmelshtein said of a 2004 
raid on their ranch home.

Leonid Marmelshtein, 74, said that an officer put a gun to his head 
during the raid. He was bruised in the scuffle, and the couple's 
carpet was scorched in two rooms from the grenades.

"There was absolutely no excuse for what the Southfield police did to 
these people," said attorney William Goodman, who is representing the 
Marmelshteins in their suit before federal Judge Julian Cook. "They 
have no written policy on how or when to use these bombs.

"They tore the place to shreds."

Cook, disturbed by the use of the grenades, has so far resisted 
Southfield's attempt to have the case tossed on grounds of 
governmental immunity, ruling that "the officers are not entitled to 
qualified immunity because the particular type of force which is 
alleged to have been utilized in this case was excessive."

Three days after the raid, Southfield police arrested Marmelshtein 
and jailed him on a charge of assaulting a police officer during the 
raid. On the advice of an attorney, he pleaded no contest to a 
misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge. A judge delayed sentencing for 
90 days, essentially placing him on court supervision, then sentenced 
him to no time.

Attorneys representing the city and the police department did not 
return numerous phone calls and an e-mail requesting comment. 
Southfield Police Chief Joseph Thomas declined to discuss the case 
except to say his officers, who are part of a countywide narcotics 
team, are trained in the proper use of flash-bang grenades and were 
following protocol.

Started With the Military

But what is the protocol?

That answer has changed over the years, and not necessarily in a good 
way, say experts who study law enforcement techniques.

"When police started using these things several years ago, they said 
we need this for the most heinous offenders," said Donald E. Wilkes 
Jr., a law professor at the University of Georgia who has been 
tracking the use of flash-bang grenades nationwide in the last 
decade. The grenades, which make a deafening roar and such a bright 
flash that they temporary blind those nearby, were originally used 
solely by the military, but police began using them in cases of 
barricaded gunmen, the grenades providing enough of a distraction 
that police could storm the building while the gunman was disoriented.

But soon police began using them to conduct searches and on drug 
raids, even in cases where there is no evidence anyone in the house 
is armed or dangerous. Southfield police, in depositions, admit that 
they had no indication that there were weapons in the Marmelshteins' 
home. Instead, they say that they believed guns were "a possibility" 
since they had found traces of marijuana in the Marmelshteins' trash, 
and note one of their sons had a misdemeanor marijuana conviction from 2001.

Wilkes said that is not enough to throw grenades -- particularly 
since the officers had no idea who was in the house.

"It is inconceivable that this has become routine practice, but it 
has," Wilkes said. "It should be a mandatory practice that before 
they throw these bombs -- and that's what they are because they 
explode and can hurt somebody -- that police are required to know 
who's in there, what the situation is, and to be certain innocent 
people aren't going to get hurt."

Deaths and Injuries

There have been other cases where use of the grenades ended in death, 
including a 2002 Minneapolis case where two elderly people died of 
smoke inhalation after police tossed a flash grenade into the home 
and the furniture caught fire.

And there are numerous lawsuits around the country claiming serious 
injury. In a 2009 Las Vegas case now in federal court in Nevada, an 
inmate in the Clark County jail was seriously burned.

Jailers, who had decided to move him from his one-man cell because he 
had been making threats days earlier, tossed a flash grenade into the 
cell. The inmate, Sergio Ramirez, was burned on his torso and 
eventually hospitalized.

Las Vegas attorney E. Brent Bryson is seeking $3 million for Ramirez, 
who is serving 14 years in prison for a gang-related murder. "We 
don't treat animals like that," he said. "These things are very dangerous."

Local Use Varies

Law enforcement officials say that -- if used properly in the right 
circumstances -- flash grenades can prevent officer injuries and 
protect those that they are trying to arrest. A disoriented suspect 
is more likely to be compliant and less likely to require force for an arrest.

"We use them judiciously," said Michael McCabe, undersheriff in 
Oakland County. He declined to say what their written protocol is and 
what the circumstances were when the grenades were used 10 times in 
2008 and 17 times in 2009. But none resulted in lawsuits or injuries. 
"They can be considered a safety device for everybody involved."

Macomb County Sheriff Mark Hackel's office reported fewer than 10 
uses for both years, and no injuries.

Despite numerous requests and e-mails, the Wayne County Sheriff's 
Office did not provide numbers for use of flash-bang grenades and 
Detroit police have not responded to a request for similar 
information sought in the wake of Aiyana's death.

But even without physical injuries or death, some who have 
experienced a surprise flash-bang grenade say they can cause 
long-term emotional distress. Carla Walker, an Oak Park woman, is 
suing the Detroit Police Department, first in state court to get 
police records, and then in federal court on a civil rights 
violation, after police tossed a grenade through her front window 
March 2 as she lay sleeping.

Police have declined to comment other than reporting they were 
looking for a murder suspect. He was not in the house.

"It is unthinkable what they did to this woman," said her attorney, 
Thomas Loeb. "There is just no excuse." 
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