P.G. County Police: Overkill as the Default Setting

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Back in the early '90s, during my sophomore year of college, I worked part time at the university's physical plant, which was the hub of all package shipment to and from the school. I was responsible for everything from loading and unloading cargo and tracking inventory, to stocking the shelves of the warehouse and making deliveries across campus. In short, if the university received a shipment, I knew about it because I most likely handled it.

Interestingly enough, this fact was not lost on a couple guys who lived down the hall in my dormitory; apparently jobs of this sort tend to bring the scam artists out of the woodwork. One of them said he knew some people "back home" who had access to stolen credit card numbers, which he suggested we use to order ourselves some fancy stereo equipment and the like. All I'd have to do, you see, is make sure I was working the day the shipments arrived and we'd be good to go!

For all I knew, their plan was brilliant. Unfortunately for these fellas, however, I had to inform them I didn't really consider myself a thief, and that I was actually looking forward to graduating from college before going to prison on multiple felony convictions.

The point of this story is simple: Where there is opportunity to take advantage of someone, there usually is someone willing to take advantage of the opportunity.

Enter Berwyn Heights, Md., Mayor Cheye Calvo, whose home was raided on Tuesday, July 29 by a Prince George's County SWAT team after he picked up a 32-pound package of marijuana from his doorstep that was addressed to his wife, Trinity Tomsic. In an investigation that reportedly began in Arizona, where a police dog identified the package as containing contraband, P.G. County officers posing as deliverymen placed the package on Calvo's porch and waited for someone to take possession.

According to the Washington Post, Calvo came home from work early that day, took his two black Labs for a walk, and upon returning home spotted the package. He brought it inside the house, set it unopened on a table, and went upstairs to change. Calvo barely had a chance to remove his clothes before he heard his mother-in-law screaming; SWAT officers conducting a "no-knock" raid stormed the house, thundering through the front door and shooting immediately, killing the family's dogs, one of which was running away as it was shot.

Handcuffed and terrified, Calvo and his mother-in-law were forced to sit amid the dogs' bloody corpses as they were harassed and interrogated for hours by the State's stormtroopers, who evidently found this family to be such an acute threat to the community that they didn't even make an arrest following the gruesome invasion. Instead, Calvo, along with his wife and mother-in-law, are merely deemed "persons of interest," which tends to indicate the police were aware that anyone can receive a delivery unwittingly, unaware of what's inside. But the department decided to conduct a violent home invasion anyway, single-handedly escalating an otherwise peaceful situation into an ultimately deadly one.

"My government blew through my doors and killed my dogs," said Calvo. "They thought we were drug dealers, and we were treated as such. I don’t think they really ever considered that we weren’t."

Mayor Calvo and his family most certainly were treated as if they were drug dealers, but we probably would be mistaken to assume nonchalantly that the police never considered that they were not.

Just as I was approached years ago by college kids hoping I would agree to intercept stolen goods on their behalf, did Prince George's County officers not entertain the possibility that someone in Arizona just happened to use the Calvos' address as a marker so the intended recipient — say, a postal clerk or deliveryman — could identify his clandestine package while it was en route? Did they believe it implausible that a disgruntled citizen or political opponent simply could have set up the mayor?

If this actually were the case, then my work here is already done; reasonable people likely would agree that every officer involved in this outrageous debacle should be fired on grounds of idiocy alone. The sad fact of the matter, however, is that the State and its armed, costumed band of tax collectors are indifferent to their targets' presumption of innocence; the police get to play judge, jury, and (far too often) executioner by assuming our guilt nowadays, especially if they can claim "self-defense" along with the right to destroy private property under the guise of waging the venerable "war on plants."

After all, just consult the ramblings of P.G. County spokesmen, who, as if routine, "expressed regret" that the mayor's dogs were gunned down. Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Mario Ellis was quick to excuse the actions of his comrades, citing the popular refrain that deputies "apparently felt threatened" by the dogs.

"We’re not in the habit of going to homes and shooting peoples' dogs," Ellis blathered. "If we were, there would be a lot more dead dogs around the county." Actually, Sgt. Ellis, man's best friend virtually is an automatic casualty of these ridiculous drug raids, even when the cops get the wrong house or fail to find any drugs at all.

As tragic as it is that the police casually executed Cheye Calvo's dogs, things could have been much worse. Should Calvo have had the temerity to defend his property from the intruders, it's very likely that his wife would have returned home from work last Tuesday to find her husband and mother lying in their own pools of blood along with her dogs. All because of a box of weed she may or may not have known about.

Which brings us to the entire point of using heavily-armed police squads to serve drug warrants in the first place, where these paramilitary units violently force themselves upon homeowners when they least expect it. Ever since the Supreme Court's Hudson vs. Michigan (.pdf) case, in which the court ruled (unconstitutionally) that evidence obtained in "no-knock" raids is admissible in court, police essentially have been given the green light from on high to violate our property rights at their discretion — increasing the likelihood of botched raids, which likewise result not only in an increase in needless deaths of innocent, nonviolent citizens, but also of police officers themselves.

Alas, as Cheye Calvo learned the hard way, your home is no longer your castle. Leaving aside my belief that all drugs should be legal — or, more specifically, that no state should exist to regulate them at all — there was absolutely no justification for sending in SWAT even if Trinity Tomsic was expecting a package of marijuana to be shipped straight to her front door. Indeed, as infuriated Berwyn Heights Police Chief Patrick Murphy explained, "You can’t tell me the chief of police of a municipality wouldn't have been able to knock on the door of the mayor of that municipality, gain his confidence and enter the residence."

Of course he could have, Chief, but overkill is the default setting for many, if not most, police departments today. As I reported on my personal blog back in April, southern Maryland police units have in recent years turned an otherwise peaceful annual spring party into a police state orgy, intimidating the populace by preemptively patrolling Solomons Island with local, state, and federal paramilitary-type machinery; so of course our benevolent officers will take any opportunity to break out their toys in the name of a federally-sanctioned war on Americans. After all, they have to put all that homeland security funding to use somehow, right?

If it sounds like I don't put one bit of stock in the government's allegations against Cheye Calvo and his family, it's because I don't (in fairness, the police have admitted — no doubt in the attempt to stave off a well-earned lawsuit — that it's "possible" the mayor was an unsuspecting recipient of the marijuana).

The P.G. County Police Department has a long, troubled history of brutality, corruption, and insider crime. Television reporter Andrea McCarren told her story of how county officers ordered her at gunpoint to drop her very dangerous video camera before one of them dislocated her shoulder during her arrest; seven-year department veteran Jermaine Ayala was convicted of insurance fraud; Cpl. Sheldon Vessels was convicted on charges of assaulting four teenagers; for seven years, the sheriff's office hid from auditors $45,000 it seized from a drug dealer while it lobbied for new laws allowing the department to keep the money; a federal jury sentenced K-9 cop Stephanie Mohr to 10 years in prison for violating the civil rights of a homeless man when she released her police dog to attack him after he surrendered; Howard University student Prince C. Jones was shot in the back five times and killed by undercover cop Carlton Jones; and Keith Washington, who landed a job as P.G. County's homeland security deputy director because County Executive Jack Johnson thought he was "mentally tough," was sentenced to 45 years in jail this past May for shooting two deliverymen at his home, killing one.

Perhaps most disturbing, however, is the death of 19-year-old suspected cop-killer Ronnie Lionel White, who was strangled in his cell in June — sadly unsurprising given that at least a dozen P.G. County jail officers are criminals themselves.

Given the aforementioned malfeasance by Prince George's County officers, it should come as no surprise, then, that authorities didn't even have a "no-knock" warrant when they raided Cheye Calvo's house, despite claims to the contrary by department spokesmen at the time of the incident. In fact, according to the Washington Post, "a review of the warrant indicates that police neither sought nor received permission from Circuit Court Judge Albert W. Northrup to enter without knocking," and that "Northrup found probable cause to suspect that drugs might be in the house and granted police a standard search warrant."

That's right; not only was the assault on the mayor's house immoral, it was also illegal.

Under Maryland law, judges can grant a "no-knock" warrant in the event police believe evidence will be destroyed or their lives will be endangered by announcing themselves. To be sure, these caveats appear to be ripe for exploitation, but they're nevertheless perverse; police chiefs, cheered on by self-righteous politicians and a credulous public, are willing to put lives in jeopardy — including, apparently, their own officers' — all basically to prevent casual drug users from getting high.

It's at least reassuring to know that many Berwyn Heights residents have already flocked to Mayor Calvo's side to express their support for his family and to protest their county's thuggery. If you'd like to do the same, you can begin by writing or calling any of the Prince George's County assistant or deputy chiefs of police listed here.

Well, any but Police Chief Melvin High, that is; he mysteriously resigned two days after the raid on Calvo's home. Of course, he didn't have the testicular fortitude to admit that he was wrong to authorize a SWAT raid on a peaceable town mayor or to continuously absolve his officers of any wrongdoing during the past five years; he just said, "five years is a good time," and that he "want[s] to move forward," claiming during the press conference that "the community today is a safer place."

Only if the rest of the department follows you out the door, pal.

August 9, 2008