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Untitled Document

September 20, 2009 -- Washington Post (DC)

The Day the SWAT Team Came Crashing Through My Door

By Cheye M. Calvo, Mayor of Berwyn Heights, MD


I remember thinking, as I kneeled at gunpoint with my hands bound on my living room floor, that there had been a terrible, terrible mistake.

An errant Prince George's County SWAT team had just forced its way into our home, shot dead our two black Labradors, Payton and Chase, and started ransacking our belongings as part of what would become a four-hour ordeal.

The police found nothing, of course, to connect my family and me to a box of drugs that they had been tracking and had delivered to our front door. The community -- of which I am mayor -- rallied to our side. A FedEx driver and accomplice were arrested in a drug trafficking scheme. Ultimately, we were cleared of any wrongdoing, but not before the incident drew international outrage.

This was 14 months ago. We have since filed suit, and I am confident that we will find justice more quickly than most.

Yet, I remain captured by the broader implications of the incident. Namely, that my initial take was wrong: It was no accident but rather business as usual that brought the police to -- and through -- our front door.

In the words of Prince George's County Sheriff Michael Jackson, whose deputies carried out the assault, "the guys did what they were supposed to do" -- acknowledging, almost as an afterthought, that terrorizing innocent citizens in Prince George's is standard fare. The only difference this time seems to be that the victim was a clean-cut white mayor with community support, resources and a story to tell the media.

What confounds me is the unmitigated refusal of county leaders to challenge law enforcement and to demand better -- as if civil rights are somehow rendered secondary by the war on drugs.

Let me give you three specific concerns underscored by our case.

First, the Prince George's Police Department's internal affairs division is broken. When the Justice Department released the county police from federal supervision in February, the internal affairs function was the one area that was not cleared. Internal affairs division (IAD) investigations were required to take no longer than 90 days. More than a year after our ordeal, my family awaits the IAD report on what happened at our home. The statute of limitations for officer misconduct is 12 months, which means that any wrongdoers are off the hook.

Next, there is significant evidence that the county is broadly violating the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure. After initially claiming a "no-knock" warrant to forcibly enter our home, county police acknowledged that they did not have one. But they went on to contend that there is no such thing as a "no-knock" warrant in Maryland. But this isn't true. A statewide "no-knock" warrant statute was passed in 2005. Effectively, the county is denying the existence of state law. We can't get the county to say whether it has ever followed the law or, at a minimum, even acknowledges it.

Finally, and perhaps most disturbing of all, county police may be lying to cover up their civil rights violations. A county officer on the scene told Berwyn Heights police a fabricated tale to justify the warrantless entry of our home. The lie disappeared after they learned that I was the mayor. Charges of a police coverup are hardly unusual, but there is significant evidence that county law enforcement engaged in a conspiracy on our lawn to justify an illegal entry. Nothing strikes at the heart of police credibility like creative report writing and false testimony to cover up a lie or even put innocent people behind bars. Swift and serious consequences are the best deterrent.

In fairness, some good has come from the incident. State leaders have passed legislation that will provide statewide oversight of SWAT teams -- a first-in-the-nation law that will shine a light on the troubling trend of paramilitary policing.

Yet, the wagons have circled in Upper Marlboro. The response is textbook: Law enforcement stands its ground and concedes no wrongdoing -- and elected officials burrow their heads in the sand.

As an imperfect elected official myself, I can understand a mistake -- even a terrible one. But a pattern and practice of police abuse treated with utter indifference rips at the fabric of our social compact and virtually guarantees more of the same.

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