NYPD Storm Troopers

A Drug Bust at the Wrong House—Again

The cops ransacked the apartment. "I guess after they realized they wouldn't find anything, they got angry," Smith asserts. "They felt stupid because there were no drugs in here. And that's what I was trying to tell them point-blank when they came in."

As Smith flailed about, she began to feel claustrophobic. In her tight T-shirt and silk underwear, she grew paranoid about sleazy cops ogling her body. "I wasn't properly dressed," she reflects.

Finally, a female cop asked Smith if there were some pants she could put on. But a male cop countered, "No, leave her the way she is!" The female cop persisted. "I think we should put something on her," she said. Eventually, she found Smith's shorts and slipped them on her. The cops continued to search the apartment. "They kept asking me the same question: 'Who lives here with you?' " Smith continually responded: "Me and my grandmother stay here." (At one point she mouthed off, "Who's selling drugs? Me or my grandmother?")

No drugs here: Shameka Smith and her busted door
photo: Sandra-Lee Phipps
No drugs here: Shameka Smith and her busted door

After searching the apartment for two and a half hours, the cops gave up.

"Did you find anything?" Smith asked.

A cop told Smith the team had found a pair of brass knuckles, which Smith said belonged to an uncle who died last year. Having them constituted a felony. But the cops weren't interested in the brass knuckles. They threw them back like unwanted fish.

Drug-policy watchdogs—while not commenting directly on the Smith case—contend that the pressure to make arrests and earn overtime (in Operation Condor, for which the NYPD has budgeted $24 million) has driven some officers to use aggressive tactics that led to incidents like the recent fatal shooting of Patrick Dorismond, who was unarmed. Although the plainclothes unit involved in the drug sting that led to the Dorismond shooting allegedly wasn't being paid with Condor money, critics have said it was operating under the same pressure to produce arrests that typifies the program.

After heavily armed immigration officers forced their way into the Miami home of Elián González's relatives, Mayor Rudy Giuliani compared the INS officers to "storm troopers," saying he "couldn't imagine that something like this could happen in America." The suddenly civil libertarian mayor called the raid "unprecedented and unconscionable." Giuliani's statements provoked a strong response from an expert at the Lindesmith Center, a drug-policy institute, who noted that excessive use of force has been the hallmark of NYPD drug raids in homes.

"It's not just violent drug dealers who are targeted, but hundreds of thousands of Americans suspected of some involvement with drugs," says Ethan Nadelmann, founder and director of the Center, which is promoting the May 31 premier of Grass, the new Ron Mann film about America's war on marijuana. "The pictures we don't see are those of the tens of thousands of children exposed to paramilitary police tactics in their homes because some family member is a suspect."

Two cases, one in 1997 and the other in 1998, illustrate Nadelmann's point. In 1998, Sandra Soto of Brooklyn filed a $20 million lawsuit against the city, claiming that she and two of her four children—aged one and six—had been terrorized by cops who raided their apartment for drugs and guns by mistake.

Attorney Susan Karten says that in June 1997, 15 narcotics detectives stormed Soto's apartment, dragged the nearly naked woman from her bed, and held a gun to her head, demanding to know where her stash of guns and drugs was. When her baby began screaming, Karten says, police refused to let Soto comfort the child. She adds that while some detectives spent almost two hours ransacking the apartment, others interrogated the six-year-old, asking for information about Soto and her boyfriend. Karten says that when Soto asked the officers for a search warrant, she was ordered to "shut up."

The lawyer charges that after the cops realized they had the wrong apartment, they refused to apologize. Karten has photos of the ransacked apartment and a copy of the search warrant, which authorizes the Brooklyn Narcotics SWAT Team to search Apartment 2M at 396 New Jersey Avenue for drugs and guns. The Soto family lives in Apartment 2L at that address.

"You can't suspend the rights of minorities in the name of a drug crackdown," Karten told United Press International. On Monday, in a Voice interview, she alleged that the NYPD has blocked her attempts to obtain evidence that bolsters Soto's case. "They have stonewalled our efforts and refuse to turn over documents," Karten said.

In a similar, unrelated incident in 1998, Bronx narcotics cops mistakenly broke down the door of a wrong apartment and pumped 24 bullets into it after a terrified Ellis Elliot fired one shot at the officers when he thought he was being robbed. Elliot filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the city. "The resort to such tactics in arresting nonviolent suspects, and more generally the growing practice of making the act of arrest as humiliating as possible, needs to be reversed," says Nadelmann.

When Shameka Smith's father arrived, the police took him into a back room and showed him the warrant they had. He insisted that the cops had been given bogus information—that they had the wrong apartment.

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