Criticism grows over police use of flash-bang grenades

Dec 15 2011 - 4:24pm

Long before a Minneapolis police "flash-bang" grenade burned Rickia Russell during a botched drug raid last year, the devices had sparked unintentional fires and caused injuries and deaths, even among officers trained to use them.

The $1 million settlement awarded last week to Russell by the Minneapolis City Council follows lawsuits and payouts for people injured or killed by the devices in California, Michigan, New York and other states.

The devices came into widespread use in the 1980s, and law enforcement agencies say they help save lives during drug raids and similar high-risk operations. But watchdog groups and defense attorneys say they're a menace.

"These things are dangerous," said Clay Conrad, a lawyer in Houston who has handled several cases involving flash-bang grenades. "If you were to toss one at a cop, you would be indicted for attempted murder."

Often used by SWAT teams to disorient suspects with deafening booms and bright lights, the flash-bangs, once activated, can burn at almost 4,900 degrees, the city of Minneapolis' training manual indicates.

The grenades are considered basic equipment for almost all of the country's 4,000 tactical teams, said Don Whitson, a police sergeant in Fort Collins, Colo., and chairman of the Less Lethal section for the National Tactical Officers Association.

During the training sessions that he leads nationwide, Whitson presents slide shows of officer and civilian injuries that resulted from flash-bang use.

"The incidences in injury is very low compared to the number of times they are deployed," Whitson said. "They're not toys and they should be respected."

Last week, Minneapolis officials called Russell's injuries an accident and said they were reviewing the incident. In a statement, City Attorney Susan Segal said that since the raid, "the manufacturer of the (device) has changed the design to reduce the risk that the device will roll after being deployed."

Russell suffered third-degree burns to her legs in February 2010 when city police knocked down the door of her boyfriend's apartment and set off a flash-bang.

While officers handcuffed Russell, her legs caught fire, nearly burning to the bone.

Police had a search warrant for a drug dealer, narcotics and weapons, but found nothing.

Since the devices debuted in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, their use by police officers has led to at least seven deaths nationwide, including a Charlotte SWAT team member killed in January while he secured the equipment in the trunk of his squad car, according to a 2003 University of Georgia study and subsequent press reports.

"It's nonlethal only in the sense that it's not intended to inflict death," said Donald E. Wilkes Jr., a University of Georgia law professor who did the study.

"Police ... using bombs as a search and seizure technique is completely inappropriate," Wilkes said. "They use them so recklessly."

Last fall, the city of Oakland paid $1.2 million to settle a lawsuit filed by a woman who, like Russell, suffered third-degree burns when a flash-bang grenade exploded near her during a raid. The incident left her permanently disfigured.

In January, Rogelio "Roger" Serrato was consumed by flames and died after SWAT officers tossed a flash-bang into a home in Greenfield, Calif. The police agency involved maintains that a drug suspect was inside the house at the time.

Charles "Sid" Heal, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff's department commander and National Tactical Officers Association member, credits the devices with saving the lives of suspects who would have otherwise been shot during a raid. The flash-bangs often give officers a six- to eight-second window to subdue suspects, he said, because it overwhelms their senses.

"They couldn't bring the guns to bear," Heal said. "(The flash-bang grenades) can be godsends."

But the opportunity for abuse remains, Heal said.

"They work so well that the novice tends to overuse it," Heal said. "It's the same with a Taser or pepper spray."

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Distributed by MCT Information Services


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