Georgia SWAT Unit Responsible For Critically Injuring Baby Has A History Of Violence Toward Civilians

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Participants gather for a prayer vigil, Monday, June 2, 2014, at Grady Hospital in Atlanta for 19-month old Bounkham Phonesavanh
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By now, you’ve probably heard about the 19-month-old Georgia baby clinging to life after a local SWAT team executed an unsuccessful no-knock raid on his parents’ home and, in the process, severely injured the child when an officer threw a flashbang grenade into his playpen. But you may not have heard that the task force involved in that raid already was responsible for an innocent civilian death in the recent past.

Bounkham “Bou” Phonesavanh was critically burned when police with the Habersham County Special Response Team (SRT) attempted to enter his parents’ Cornelia, Ga. house last Wednesday to apprehend 30-year-old Wanis Thonetheva — a suspect who allegedly had sold drugs out of the same house the previous day to undercover agents with an affiliated regional drug task force.

The sheriff’s office sought and obtained a no-knock warrant, and showed up at the house the next day. Thonetheva — a suspect who officials believed had used an AK-47 in a previous drug-related altercation with another suspect — wasn’t at the home when the SRT team came calling. But baby Bou and his parents were.

SRT tried to knock in the front door with a battering ram, but officers said it felt as though someone or something was bolstering the door. So they attempted to distract the occupants by tossing a flashbang grenade, which landed right next to Bou in his playpen. The playpen turned out to be the object “blocking” the door.

Three other children were also inside the house but were out of range of the blast. Thonetheva himself was later picked up at another home in Cornelia and charged for allegedly distributing methamphetamine.

MCT/Bou’s parents and sisters attend a prayer vigil for him.

Bou suffered severe facial burns, was placed in a medically induced coma, and was scheduled for surgery Monday to allow him to breathe again on his own.

“He didn’t deserve any of this,” Alicia Phonesavanh, the child’s mother, told a local television reporter. “He’s in the burn unit. We go up to see him and his whole face is ripped open. He has a big cut on his chest.”

After the raid, police said they had no idea a child (or, say, four children) was living in the home, and even told the judge who issued the warrant they had seen no evidence that a child was present. A review by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) rapidly found no wrongdoing on the officers’ part, and Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell defended the agency’s policy for conducting SWAT-style no-knock raids.

“Here’s the problem,” The Washington Post’s Radley Balko blogged last Friday: “If your drug cops conduct a raid that ends up putting a child in the hospital with critical burns, and they did nothing that violates your department’s policy, then there’s something wrong with your policy.”

Balko may be on to something there, because, as he noted in a separate post, the Bou incident isn’t the first time the Habersham County SRT has harmed an innocent civilian in the name of drug vigilance.

Bou is fighting to live, but SRT killed its last bystander victim.

In 2009, the same unit killed pastor Jonathan Ayers, who happened to be doing ministry outreach work with a woman whom the SRT had targeted that day for a drug raid. The cops saw Ayers and the woman together in a car, and “switched their focus to him,” as Balko wrote in February.

SRT followed the pair to an ATM, where Ayers withdrew some money to give to the woman so that she could pay her outstanding motel bill and avoid eviction. Plainclothes officers (see Balko’s blog for an image of what one officer was wearing) then rushed the car, and a startled Ayers tried to flee. They shot and killed him. He was completely innocent of any crime. Nevertheless, the GBI cleared all officers of wrongdoing and the agency embarked on a deceitful and (inevitably) unsuccessful campaign to assassinate Ayers’ character.

A Federal jury awarded $2.3 million to Ayers’ wife Abigail, who was pregnant with the couple’s son when Ayers was killed. Harris County has appealed the ruling.

Personal Liberty

Ben Bullard

Reconciling the concept of individual sovereignty with conscientious participation in the modern American political process is a continuing preoccupation for staff writer Ben Bullard. A former community newspaper writer, Bullard has closely observed the manner in which well-meaning small-town politicians and policy makers often accept, unthinkingly, their increasingly marginal role in shaping the quality of their own lives, as well as those of the people whom they serve. He argues that American public policy is plagued by inscrutable and corrupt motives on a national scale, a fundamental problem which individuals, families and communities must strive to solve. This, he argues, can be achieved only as Americans rediscover the principal role each citizen plays in enriching the welfare of our Republic.

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