6 Things You Learn After Shooting A Cop (In Self-Defense)
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Let's see if we can spot the problem here:
Much of America fiercely believes that A) every citizen should have the right to defend their own home with deadly force, and B) that police should kick in the door of any residence that might have drugs inside. You know, to keep our children safe.
This means that raids occur in predawn hours, with police sometimes swarming disoriented, paranoid armed suspects who often have no idea what's going on. If you're about to say that it's a miracle these people don't wind up shooting the cops in a blind panic, well, we have two stories to tell you.
You're Awakened By An Explosion And The Sound Of Someone Smashing Through Your Door. What Do You Do?
First, let's talk about Ray Rosas. Up until 2015, he had never been arrested in his life. He was a law-abiding 42-year-old man who took care of his elderly mother and mentally ill older brother. He lived in Corpus Christi, Texas, and generally did nothing that would ever get him into a Cracked article. However, he did let his nephew crash with him, and he turned to out be a low-level drug dealer. Then, one night, this happened:
"Ray was asleep in his bed by the window on the morning of the raid. He was watching TV. A flashbang grenade came in through the window and hit him in the face, or at least the explosives sent window shards into his face. We don't know what hit him in the face, because nobody took him to get medical care."
That's from Rosas' lawyer, Lisa Greenberg. We'll admit she has a bias, but you should know that a jury wound up agreeing with most of what she's going to say here. The police stormed the home, but, like roughly half of Texans, Rosas was a legal gun owner. He responded to his window exploding by opening fire on the source of said explosion. If that response sounds crazy to you, it should be noted that Rosas had been the victim of drive-by shootings before. It was that kind of neighborhood, and he had previously testified against a local gangbanger (meaning he had been expecting retaliation). Rosas hit three police officers -- Steven Brown, Andrew Jordan, and Steven Ruebelmann. All would survive their injuries.
That was not true in the case of Henry "Hank" Magee, another Texan. Unlike Rosas, he was guilty of a crime -- he owned a couple of tiny (six-inch-tall) marijuana plants, and several more seedlings. An informant had told police that Magee ran a sizable grow operation and was armed to the teeth. A Burleson judge issued a warrant, and his trailer was raided. Magee woke up to a terrifying noise, and like Rosas, he had no way of knowing the dark shapes storming through his door were cops and not home invaders there to murder him and his pregnant girlfriend.
We talked to his attorney, DeGuerin (he's a big-time lawyer whose past clients include the Branch Davidians and Robert Durst). "He and his girlfriend say [they] didn't hear anything before there's this large explosion and a guy dressed in black ran inside." Magee went to his bedroom and grabbed his gun. "[His girlfriend] actually got burned on her neck from the muzzle flash from Hank's gun. She could very easily have been shot herself." Magee shot and killed a deputy, 31-year-old Adam Sowders.
The combined amount of drugs seized in these cases could fit in your pockets. And this biggest question is: Have we as a society lost our minds?
Dogs And Cameras Can Paint You As A Dangerous Criminal
As we mentioned, in Rosas' case, he wasn't the target at all. The police were serving a warrant against his nephew, who wasn't even home at the time of the raid. Some drugs were found in the nephew's room, and by "some drugs" we mean "roughly half of what you'd bring for a long weekend at Burning Man."
Wondering what's with the webcam? Well, Rosas had it on the exterior of his house, and the police decided that was the marker of a drug den (rather than of someone who lived in a dangerous neighborhood). See, no-knock warrants require a certain amount of "points" to be granted in advance. The police have to be able to make a case that the person they're raiding is so dangerous that it's simply not safe for them to announce themselves first. And what are the standards for issuing a no-knock warrant? It's hard to say. It took Greenberg two years in court to get the department to admit some of the things that factored into their decision.
"Nobody wanted to give me that info. But if you have a dog and they call it a dangerous dog, you get like 20 points on this scale. And you need like 30 to get a no-knock warrant. I asked the officer what's a dangerous dog. 'A barking dog.' I asked, 'Well what kind of dog doesn't bark?' If you have a gun in your house, you get like five. Everybody in Texas has a gun."
We talked about this to Chris Gebhardt, a 15-year veteran SWAT officer from Utah. He explained that the point system is called a "Risk Matrix" (a search of IMDb shows that, tragically, there has never been a Steven Seagal film with that title), and it's different in every department. "I can see how they justified. Covered windows [are] obstructive, a loud dog, [since] because he barks he gives alert, again taking away this element of surprise. So you've got to think about it in those terms ... There are some places where they'll actually take out a BB gun to take out the lights ... It's about: How do you preserve that element of surprise?"
We also asked Grant Whitus, who led the first SWAT team into Columbine. He spent 25 years on the job, and he was adamant that no-knock warrants were the way to go, claiming that they reduce the risk of violence. "Honestly, everybody prefers a no-knock warrant, just because of the time it takes to get up there, it's very fast and fluid once you get in there, and it doesn't allow the bad guy to have time to react to what's happened. So it's much safer for law enforcement to use no-knock warrants. Believe me, I'd get 'em all the time if I had to."
But if a suspect happens to be exercising their Second Amendment rights and is able to get to their gun, tragedy seems inevitable. Not because the suspect doesn't want to be arrested, but because they don't want to die. And believe it or not, juries sometimes agree.
Police Often Act On Incomplete Or Bad Information
Gebhardt and Whitus were both insistent that no raid should ever occur without a huge amount of homework. According to Whitus: "We're going to go and look at the house, we're going to watch the house for a number of hours ... we're going to do background checks on who lives there and then we're going to develop a plan ... we basically set up a mock area where we practice around two or three times, to make sure everybody was on the exact same page, in terms of who is where and doing what."
In Rosas' case, they didn't properly surveil the home or make sure the actual subject of the warrant was even there. In Magee's case, the police drove around the trailer once. Otherwise, they were working off the information given to them by the informant, and no real steps were taken to verify the story of a guy who was, again, trying to reduce his own criminal charges by acting like he was giving up a kingpin.
"[The informant] told them that Hank had said he wasn't afraid to use a gun in case there was a raid. Well that was whole cloth too," says DeGuerin. The police even had some indication that was fishy. They'd been to Magee's home before, responding to a noise complaint due to him shooting off his guns for fun (we understand that in many parts of Texas, if neighbors don't hear gunfire, they assume you're either on vacation or have fallen into a deep depression). On that occasion, Magee spoke to the officers and cooperated without any issues. There was no indication that the man was willing to go down shooting to avoid jail, aside from the word of their terrible informant.
It's hard to say exactly how frequently the police under-prepare for dangerous forced-entry raids, but it's probably worth noting that the vast majority of these raids turn up nothing. The ACLU found that only 35 percent of SWAT drug raids produced anything illegal. In forced-entry raids, like both the cases in this article, the police "hit" rate is a mere 25 percent. The other thing to remember is that a lot of so-called SWAT teams are in fact groups of normal cops with fancy gear. The DA of Burleson described the training of the team that raided Henry Magee as "minimal." That's great for a movie about a rag tag group of scoundrels and farm boys trying to save a princess from Darth Vader, but not for real life.
"They'll put together these ad-hoc tactical operations," says Gebhardt. "They've done some training ... they wear the gear, they look like a SWAT team ... they play one on TV, so to speak, and that's where the danger comes in." For example, in both cases in this article, there were questions about whether or not the flashbang grenades were used properly, or at what point in the process the officers announced themselves as police. But even if you don't want to get bogged down in procedure, it seems like the risk of tragedy is high even if it goes perfectly.
In Rosas' case, he says that if they yelled "Police!" as they stormed in, he didn't hear it. This was a man who had been sound asleep and then awakened by an explosion, suddenly bleeding from the head. He assumed he'd been shot. Remember, his elderly mother was in the house, too -- it wasn't only his own life he thought he was fighting for.
In Magee's case, he had been asleep next to his pregnant girlfriend, Kori White, on the living room sofa. The officers threw the flashbang into the wrong end of the trailer, and the couple didn't even wake up until they heard somebody banging on their front door, trying to break in. They insist that they even asked who was there, and got no answer before Hank ran to get his gun. A figure burst through the door, and Magee opened fire.
It was a perfect recipe for disaster, and for that, Adam Sowders paid with his life. He wasn't a jackbooted agent of the state; he was a guy doing his job. It's just that his job was to put himself and his co-workers into an extremely dangerous situation in order to seize a bunch of hypothetical marijuana plants before, god forbid, someone rolled them up and smoked them while watching animal bloopers on YouTube all night.
Police Are Forgiven For Mistakes, While Civilians Are Expected To Act With Perfect Discipline
Henry Magee is kind of a legal unicorn, in that a grand jury refused to even indict him for killing a police officer (they would still get him with the marijuana charge). Ray Rosas was eventually declared not guilty for firing at and wounding the three officers, but had to go to trial and spent nearly two years in jail before being exonerated. He lost pretty much everything.
And here's the thing that makes all of that especially hard to swallow: In the chaos during Rosas's raid, one of the officers outside the window (Steve Ruebelmann) shot back and grazed Ross Murray, another officer who was already in the house. Then Rosas was charged with assault for the officer getting hit by the stray bullet. "Ray was charged with six different counts," says Greenberg. "Three of attempted murder on a police officer, and three of aggravated assault. He was also charged with shooting at the second officer in [Murray]."
Rosas spent 22 months in jail during his trial. Officer Ruebelmann, who also shot and wounded a cop, was given an award for valor. Everyone understood he'd made a mistake in a tense and chaotic situation -- he's only human, after all. But why wouldn't that same standard apply to Rosas, who didn't have Ruebelmann's training, or the advantage of knowing what was even happening?
Greenberg brought this up during the trial. "I said to [Ruebelmann], 'Did you feel fear? Did you smell gunpowder? Did you not know what was happening? Did you shoot to try to protect your brothers in blue? Did you shoot to try to protect yourself?' He said yes. I said, 'How is that different from Rosas? How is that any different? Why aren't you sitting here? You hit Ross Murray. Why aren't you sitting here for attempted capital murder?'"
And it's not like it would have been better if Ruebelmann's bullet had found its intended target -- that being Rosas, a terrified, half-asleep man who thought he was fighting for his life. In fact, according to a New York Times investigation, civilians appear to die much more often than officers in these kinds of raids. But our data here isn't very good, because departments aren't required to report about any of this.
Getting Off Doesn't Mean You Don't Get Punished
By the way, this is Ray Rosas:
Or that's how he looks now. Here's how he looked after his arrest:
His attorney says that some of those injuries are from the flashbang, while some were delivered by police during the arrest. Yes, Rosas eventually was found not guilty, but the events of that night ruined his life. "He's this cop shooter, right?" says Greenberg. "So after they arrested everybody, they took his elderly mother and called protective services on her. Ray had two animals, two dogs, we never knew what happened to one. We think they killed [it]. Because we heard on the tapes, the dog barking and then shots, and then nothing. The home, they condemned the home and then sold it. The city sold it. This is his family home. And it's by no means beautiful, but it's what they owned. I think they got, like, $17k for the family home."
Rosas' mother attempted to use that money to bond her son out of jail and spare him almost two years of incarceration. Yeah, that wasn't happening. "[A]t the bond hearing, there were at least 70 cops in that room staring the judge down, like, 'If you reduce this bond' ... and glaring at us, and the judge raised his bond. So it was like $2 million." Rosas was put in solitary confinement for the entirety of his time in jail, which can mess with your brain so badly that the effects can last a lifetime.
"The saddest part of it all to me is I can't make him whole. I can win the case but I can't make this man whole again. I check in with him and he's had a hard time adjusting. He was in isolation for two years."
Hank Magee, after being charged with capital murder, was only found guilty of the crime of possessing more than four ounces of marijuana (4.4, in fact) while using a deadly weapon. He pleaded guilty and got 18 months in jail. He and Kori White split up; their relationship didn't survive the ordeal.
It's All A Big, Dumb Machine That Eats Fear And Spits Out Tragedy
In detailing all of the consequences, we have gone too long without mentioning Adam Sowders, a guy who had wanted to be a cop since he was a teenager (before that, he was a firefighter), and who was awarded Officer of the Year in 2011. Maybe the other players in these two cases will recover, maybe they won't, but Sowders is gone forever. He didn't pass the laws or write the department's procedures. Both Sowders and the man who shot him dead were just a couple of guys. Two human beings, only a few years apart in age, set on a lethal collision course by generations of crass politicians and scared voters.
This will happen again.
In the 1980s, the U.S. saw roughly 3,000 SWAT raids per year. Now we're at 50-80,000 raids per year (that's the whole "militarization of police" thing you've been hearing about). This means that in the U.S., a couple of hundred homes are raided every single day, in a country with 300 million privately owned guns. All because this fierce cultural defense of one freedom (to own a firearm) doesn't seem to translate to any other. It wasn't Magee's ownership of an AR-10 assault that made him dangerous to the state, but his growing of several plants.
If you don't care about the lives of drug users or dealers (and we know for a fact that lots of people don't), then what about the lives of police officers? Or bystanders? How easily could this have ended tragically for Rosas' mother, or Kori White, or her unborn baby? Or are their lives also worthless due to proximity?
If you think so, can you please stop and ask yourself the same question we raised earlier: Have we lost our minds?
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