News & Politics

NYPD Storm Troopers


A violent banging jolted Shameka Smith from her midday snooze. To the frightened 23-year-old onetime engineering major, it sounded like a roto-rooter snake being drilled into one of the day-glo orange steel doors in the Riverside Park Community Apartments, the sprawling high-rise at 3333 Broadway in upper Harlem where she lives.

As smith was jarred awake on April 19, the bedlam seemed to be occurring right outside of the three-bedroom apartment on the 23rd floor that she shares with her grandmother, Viola. Her grandmother was not at home at the time. As Smith dashed toward her front door, it became clear that someone was using a power drill to rip into the bottom lock. And the banging was the sound of a battering ram crashing against the door.

“Who is it?” asked Smith, trying to quell a nauseating feeling. No one answered. She peered through the peephole and saw about 15 people—mostly white men—wearing what appeared to be bulletproof vests, scurrying about in the hallway.

“Who is it?” Smith demanded again.

“Police!” responded a chorus of voices.

Smith says the confusion left her dazed. Instead of opening the door, she ran back to her bedroom. “I had on a T-shirt and my panties,” she recalls. “I was going back to my room to put on some shorts.” But Smith didn’t reach for her shorts. Instead, she grabbed a cordless phone and called her father, Kenneth Smith.

“Daddy! Daddy!” she screamed over the continuing racket at her now bulging and crumpling front door. “Somebody is trying to break in!”

“Who’s trying to break in?” he asked.

“I don’t know!” she cried. “I guess it’s the police, and I don’t know why they’re trying to break down the door.” She was hysterical.

“Cops?” her old man inquired. “Breaking in? For what?”

Suddenly the door swung open, and the intruders barged in with guns drawn, barking commands. They found Smith trembling in her bedroom, still pleading with her father to come to her apartment. Someone snatched the phone from Smith and threw it on the bed.

“Put your hands in the air!” he snarled. “Get on the floor!”

Only then did Smith believe that the men were cops. Four of them surrounded her, aiming their weapons at her menacingly. One stuck his 9mm Glock at the back of her head while another jammed the muzzle of his handgun in her back. The plainclothes cops wrenched Smith’s arms behind her back, and ordered her to lie on the floor. “It was hard because I had cuffs on, so they pushed me down,” she remembers.

Smith lay face down, at times tossing her head, trying to see what was going on. At this point one of the cops, using a tactic adopted by SWAT teams to prevent suspects from observing controversial aspects of illegal searches, threw a bedspread over Smith’s head.

“Shut up and lay down!” he yelled. “This is a drug bust!”

Although absolutely no drugs were found during the raid, the NYPD, which rarely admits that it has gotten a bad tip and smashed down the wrong door, was combative in its response. “You know, there is no guarantee that there is going to be a recovery of any kind of material there,” says Detective Walter Burnes, a police spokesman. “And we all know that materials—anything that could be put in a house—can easily be moved.” Burnes insists that Smith’s apartment was the cops’ target. “I’m telling you,” he argues, “the apartment the search warrant was executed in is the apartment the search warrant was got for.”

Shameka Smith struggled on the floor like Houdini trying to escape from a body bag. The declaration that the cops had broken in to search for drugs resounded in her mind. “A drug bust? A drug bust? Where? What apartment are you looking for?”

Smith started crying. She was hoping it was a nightmare that soon would be over, if only she could wake up. Then the cops grabbed her from the floor, took her into the kitchen, and cuffed her to a chair. “I could hear them breaking things up, throwing the beds around, turning them upside down, going through the closets,” she recalls.

Smith says she tried to tell the cops she had no criminal record and that no drugs were being dealt out of her apartment.

“Shut up!” a cop shouted. “We have a warrant to search this apartment. There’re drugs here!”

Another officer explained that an undercover cop had bought drugs from an individual selling out of Smith’s apartment. The cop said the suspect wore a leather jacket with the initials “J.D.” emblazoned on it. “I told him no one with that jacket lives here, but they just kept looking at me like I’m lying—like I’m trying to cover myself. They said the drugs were in a plastic bag, maybe it was weed or cocaine,” Smith adds. “They never told me [what it was].”

Detective Burnes told the Voice, “It doesn’t really matter what the police told [Smith],” adding that he would neither confirm nor deny the raiding party’s story about the mysterious J.D. “That is information that has been gathered by the department, which we are not at liberty to [disclose]—information that is gathered in an undercover operation is not going to be revealed.” Burnes also refused to say whether 3333 Broadway has been on the department’s list of drug locations to watch. “I’m not gonna tell you about the location because you’re trying to get into what we’re doing in terms of our operation,” he scoffs. “We’re not gonna talk about that nor are we gonna thrash this out in the media.”

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?”)

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.

“Watch your daughter and who she hangs out with,” one officer warned the father. “I think she is innocent, but somebody is selling drugs out of the apartment and she just doesn’t know.” Upon leaving the apartment, another officer asked Smith if she had any questions.

“Why?” she responded.

“Just cause!” was the gruff reply. The cops, Smith realized, were “being themselves. Rude.” According to Smith, when the cops uncuffed her, one said he was sorry. Later that night, Smith, her grandmother, her father, and an aunt tried to file a complaint at the 30th Precinct station house. “I saw the cops who were in my apartment, and I froze,” Smith says. She plans to file a lawsuit to force the NYPD to review its procedures and pay for damages and civil rights violations.

“If that young lady is interested in pursuing something, she [should not] do that through you,” Burnes told the Voice. “She needs to . . . get the Department of Buildings [to] seal up her door [or] the police department would come and do that. The Village Voice doesn’t do that. You’re not the person that she needs to be talking with.”

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