Over a three-day period in June 2007, heavily armed SWAT teams, supported by tanks and helicopters, descended on Detroit’s Eight Mile Road. The massive operation involved police and agents from 21 different local, state and federal branches of law enforcement, and was intended to rid the notoriously crime-ridden area of drug houses, prostitutes and wanted fugitives.
After conducting hundreds of raids, the authorities made 122 arrests, according to The Detroit News, and seized about 50 ounces of marijuana, 6.5 ounces of cocaine and 19 guns.
When Caroline Burley, now 51, first heard the boom around 5:30 on the evening of June 13, it sounded like it had come from outside her bedroom window. She rushed to investigate, and as she came out of the room, a man with a gun confronted her, threw her into a wall and then hurled her to the floor. A SWAT team had burst through her front door. Wearing only her nightgown, she asked for mercy. She recently had back surgery, she explained. Instead, one officer, then another kept her close to the floor by putting a boot in her back, according to court filings.
Caroline’s mother, Geraldine Burley, was sitting at her computer in the basement when she heard a loud thud overhead, followed by a scream from her daughter and a man’s voice ordering Caroline Burley to the floor. When she ascended the stairs, she too found a gun pointed at her head, and a man ordered her to get on the floor as well. She thought at first that she was being robbed.
Geraldine, now 70, pleaded with the man to let her move to the floor slowly, explaining to him that she’d had both of her knees replaced. Instead, another officer approached, grabbed her by the face, demanded that she “get the fuck on the floor,” then threw her into a table. She tumbled to the ground. At that point, she said later in a deposition, everything turned to “a fire, white and ringing in my ear.” Another officer came up from the basement with her grandson, stepping on her knees in the process. She cried out again in pain.
The officers searched the home but found no drugs, weapons or any other contraband. (They arrested Geraldine’s grandson on an unrelated misdemeanor warrant.)
Since the 1980s, SWAT teams have become an increasingly common tool in the war on crime. By one estimate, more than 100 times per day in America, police teams break down doors to serve search warrants on people suspected of drug crimes. Innocent citizens like the Burleys often become the victims of violent law enforcement tactics.
In the wake of the raid on their home, the two women have tried to navigate a disorienting labyrinth of police bureaucracies and court filings to secure damages for the injuries they sustained during the raid and for violations of their Fourth Amendment rights. More than six years later, however, the government agencies involved still won’t tell the women the names of the officers and agents who raided their home — a key piece of information necessary in lawsuits like this one. It isn’t enough merely to show that the government violated the plaintiffs’ rights; by federal law, the victims must be able to show that a specific officer or group of officers was responsible. This burden is something of a double standard, given that individual officers are rarely required to pay damages. The government pays the award.
As the drug war continues to encourage the use of aggressive police tactics, the Burleys’ frustrations with the court system punctuate just how difficult it can be for innocent victims, who become collateral damage in the war against drugs, to get redress for the harm done to them.
“Team 11 appears to have been a name given just for that operation,” Stanley Okoli, an attorney for the Burleys, told The Huffington Post. “Or just a name to confuse them. It wasn’t a designation that gave them any meaningful way to obtain the officers’ identities.”
Joe Key, a retired police officer with 24 years of experience, founded the SWAT team in Baltimore, and now consults for police agencies and testifies as an expert witness. He criticized the idea of officers refusing to identify themselves. “Accountability of the police officer to the public is absolute,” he told The Huffington Post.
“If there are undercover officers whose identities need to be protected — and I don’t know that that was the case here — then you send different officers in to conduct the raid. If this is really what happened, there’s no excuse for it.”
According to press accounts, Operation Eight Mile was coordinated by the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office, but in response to the Burleys’ initial requests for information, Wayne County claimed to have no record of the raid. Instead, the county directed the women to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
That, too, proved fruitless. The DEA told the Burleys that the agency was “experiencing a transition,” and promised to provide information on the raid at a later date. That never happened. It wasn’t until the Burleys filed a lawsuit in state court that Wayne County finally released documents related to the raid, which included a DEA report with the names of the agents.
Neither the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office, nor the DEA, would comment for this article.
According to the report, the agents who conducted the raid at the Burleys belonged to a DEA team called Group 6. For Operation Eight Mile, members of Group 6 were paired with officers from state and local agencies, and renamed Team 11, the name the officers gave the Burleys.
In response to questionnaires from the Burleys’ attorneys, the officers involved in the raid denied violating the Burleys’ civil rights. But none of them at the time denied being on the team that raided the house.
During depositions of the defendants, however, attorneys for the Burleys were in for a surprise. The DEA agents denied they were ever in the Burley home. They claimed that Group 6 had been split in two, with half the agents raiding the Burleys’ house, and the other half raiding a nearby house at the same time.
Each of the agents named in the DEA report claimed that they were in the other home, not the Burleys’. Each told a story about one officer’s erroneous deployment of an explosive distraction device during that raid. The vivid memory, each of them claimed, explained why they were able to recall their whereabouts so specifically. They testified that the fact that they were named in the DEA report must have been a clerical error.
Attorneys for the Burleys then deposed other members of Group 6 not named in the DEA report. If indeed the raids had been conducted simultaneously, and a clerical error had misidentified which team went where, then these other members of the team must have been the ones in the Burleys’ home. But they too denied ever being there.
There’s no question that the Burleys were raided. But every officer who could have plausibly been involved claimed to be somewhere else at the time. Deputies from Wayne County were also part of the raid team, but each of them claimed to have been outside of the house, guarding the perimeter. None could recall which agents were with them, however, or where their fellow officers were when the raid took place.
“It’s one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen,” Okoli said. “I asked, ‘which amongst you went to one address?’ and they said they couldn’t remember. So I asked, ‘which amongst you went to the other address?’ and they said they couldn’t remember.”
In June 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Bernard Friedman first dismissed the Burleys’ claims against Wayne County, then preempted a jury verdict in the trial against the federal agents. He ruled that, given the evidence, no reasonable jury could find in the plaintiffs’ favor, and in addition ordered the Burleys to pay the DEA agents $5,000 to compensate them for court costs.
“These women are destitute,” Okoli told HuffPost. “That was completely discretionary. He didn’t have to do that.” Because the women couldn’t pay, the government moved to garnish their Social Security disability checks to cover the fine.
The Burleys appealed, and earlier this month, a panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the dismissal of Wayne County officials from the lawsuit, but reinstated the suit against the federal agents. The court found that “the agents’ intent to conceal contributed to the plaintiffs’ impaired ability to identify them.” The court also vacated the order for the Burleys to pay court costs.
But the court still stopped short of ordering the government to produce the names of the agents who conducted the raid. The Burleys and their attorneys will need to fight the government’s lawyers and Friedman, who will preside over the new trial as well.
Okoli welcomes the Sixth Circuit’s decision. But he said that, in addition to having to go before Friedman — who appeared hostile to his clients’ case — again, the Burleys are at even more of a disadvantage than they were in the first trial. The agents and their attorneys are now aware of inconsistencies the first trial exposed in their stories, and can attempt to explain them away. “We lost that element of surprise,” Okoli said.
The Burleys’ failure to win compensation for the raid on their home is hardly unusual. And while this case may be particularly egregious, the tendency of police agencies to be stingy with information following a mistaken raid is also common. Police officers enjoy qualified immunity, so it isn’t enough to show that police made a clear mistake, or even that they were negligent, no matter how much harm has been done.
But wading into the legal weeds about what police agencies can and can’t do in these cases overlooks the fact that what they can do isn’t necessarily what they ought to do. When confronted with these cases, political leaders and police officials could choose one of two routes. They can show some contrition, admit they made mistakes, move to make the victims whole again and look to ensure that the same mistakes don’t happen again. Or they can hunker down, cut off the flow of information and engage in every bit of bureaucratic chicanery and legal maneuvering they can in order to escape accountability.
“What happened in the house, whether the women were violated or whether their account is overblown, that’s up to a jury to decide,” Joe Key says. “But the government must make itself accountable and transparent. This kind of stonewalling goes against everything the Fourth Amendment is supposed to represent.”
HuffPost writer and investigative reporter Radley Balko is also the author of the new book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.