Accountability is only for the little people.
October 23, 2014
The New Haven SWAT team must have been pretty amped up: It was midnight, and they were getting ready to bust down the door of a man wanted on charges involving weapons violations, robbery — and murder. They were not sure how many people were in the house, or how they’d react. After a volley of flash grenades that set fire to the carpet and a sofa, they moved in, guns drawn. A minute later, they had their man zip-tied on the floor.
If only they’d double-checked the address first.
Bobby Griffin Jr. was wanted on murder charges. His next-door neighbor on Peck Street, Joseph Adams, wasn’t. But that didn’t stop the SWAT team from knocking down his door, setting his home on fire, roughing him up, keeping him tied up in his underwear for nearly three hours, and treating the New Haven man, who is gay, to a nance show as officers taunted him with flamboyantly effeminate mannerisms. If the events detailed in Mr. Adams’s recently filed lawsuit are even remotely accurate, the episode was a moral violation and, arguably, a crime.
And when Mr. Adams showed up at the New Haven police department the next day to fill out paperwork requesting that the authorities reimburse him for the wanton destruction of his property — never mind the gross violation of his rights — the story turned Kafkaesque, as interactions with American government agencies at all levels tend to do. The police — who that same night had managed to take in the murder suspect next door without the use of flash grenades or other theatrics after his mother suggested that they were probably there for her son — denied having any record of the incident at Mr. Adams’s home ever having happened.
This sort of thing happens with disturbing regularity. The New York Police Department killed an older woman in Harlem when they mistakenly raided her home in 2003. In that case, too, “flash-bang” grenades were deployed, and the concussions sent 57-year-old Alberta Spruiell into cardiac arrest, killing her. The NYPD was acting on information given to them by a local lowlife drug dealer they were leaning on. It was the first information he’d given them as an informant, and based on nothing more than that they went in hard — no-knock raid, grenades, the whole circus. As it turns out, New York dope-slingers turned rat are not entirely trustworthy.
In Miami’s Coconut Grove, police struck a child in the head with their rifle butts after a no-knock SWAT raid. The address of the home was not the address on the warrant — that was two blocks away – but police insist they were in the right, warrant be damned. “They broke every single flat-screen TV, they broke the PlayStation 4, they broke every single picture frame, for whatever reason. Every single thing they could possibly break, they broke,” the homeowner said. The police insisted that they had meant to hit that house, in which there was no one other than the children, and that they had seized “narcotics” — a trivial amount of marijuana — and “weapons” — a handgun, which is perfectly legal to own in Florida.
The stories get grisly: In Habersham County, Ga., police looking for a drug dealer — at a home in which he did not reside — broke down the doors thinking they’d find drugs and guns, which of course they didn’t. But they did manage to toss a flash grenade into a baby’s playpen, burning part of the child’s face off. The family was left with nearly $1 million in medical bills, and the kid will need surgery every few years until he stops growing. The police insist they did nothing wrong. And as in New Haven, when they found the drug dealer for whom they were searching, the Georgia authorities brought him in without incident, without kicking down any doors or throwing any stun grenades.
The disfigurement of a child is horrific to contemplate. (“If you’ve never wept and want to, have a child,” David Foster Wallace wrote in “Incarnations of Burned Children.”) But the image that really hooks me is that of Joseph Adams schlepping up to the New Haven police department to endure some bureaucracy and to fill out some paperwork — because no matter how badly government screws up, fixing what’s gone wrong is always your problem. I can picture his situation precisely — every police department, driver’s-license office, tax bureau, and city licensing agency exhibits the same distinctive blind of slowly simmering hostility, smugness, contempt, and complete immunity from accountability. We are ruled by criminals, and their alibi is: “There’s no record of that in the system.” That, or: “The computer won’t let me do that.”
In a sane world, the New Haven authorities would have shown up at Adams’s house with a check, flowers, and an apology, and a certificate exempting him from taxes for the rest of his life. In this world, people in his situation get treated by the government like they are the ones who have screwed up. And of course they’d say they had no record of the episode — getting information about your situation from any government agency, especially from one that is persecuting you, requires an agonizing effort. Keeping people in the dark is part of how they maintain their power. For fun sometime, call the comical New York State tax department and note the intentionally garbled phone numbers on the recording about how to get in touch with a tax agent’s superior to complain or ask a question.
The strange flip-side — the second half of Samuel Francis’s “anarcho-tyranny” — is that the brunt of government abuse falls on the law-abiding. Illinois, for example, makes it difficult for an ordinary citizen to legally carry a gun for self defense — up until a couple of years ago, doing so was categorically prohibited. But Illinois police seize thousands of illegal guns from criminals each year, and the state prosecutes practically none of those weapons cases. The law-abiding — by definition law-abiding — citizens applying for concealed-carry permits get treated like criminals, and the actual criminals do not. If you follow the law and inform Illinois authorities that you have a gun in the home, you invite all sorts of intrusion and oversight. If you don’t, nobody’s really looking. Meanwhile, the streets of Chicago are full of blood, going on 1,600 shootings this year and it’s not even Halloween. Nobody is held responsible for that carnage, but if you put an eleventh round in your legally owned rifle in Oak Park, you’re looking at jail time.
It’s perverse: If an ordinary citizen makes a typo on his 1040EZ, he could be on the hook for untold sums of money, fines, even jail time. When the IRS abuses its power to harass political enemies, nothing happens. A few years ago, an employer of mine entered the wrong Social Security number on my paperwork — I have barbaric handwriting — and the error took months of telephone calls and mail to fix, a period of time over which I was threatened with all sorts of nasty consequences by the Social Security Administration and the IRS. But when the Social Security Administration oversees the payment of millions of dollars in benefits to Nazi war criminals summering on Croatian beaches, nothing happens. If you’re an ordinary schmo, a typo can land you in jail. If you work for the government, you can burn the face off a baby and walk.
Even in medieval times, the distinction between lords and serfs was not so pronounced.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.