Monday, July 05, 2010

Flash-Bang Grenades Ignite Legal Battles in Michigan, Aiyana Stanley-Jones Case

Posted: July 5, 2010

Flash-bang grenades ignite legal battles in Michigan, Aiyana Stanley-Jones case

Originally for the military, use by police departments has grown


When Leonid and Arlene Marmelshtein heard someone on the front porch of their small Southfield ranch house that cold winter night, they thought one of their adult sons had come home to enjoy Hanukkah dinner with them.

But within seconds, Southfield police broke the door down -- looking for a suspected marijuana dealing operation -- and threw flash-bang grenades, filling the small house with deafening noise, blinding light and smoke.

"I thought they were here to kill us," Leonid Marmelshtein, 74, said of the police officers, who wore black hoods hiding their faces and had their guns drawn.

Arlene Marmelshtein, 58, ran terrified out the back door in her stocking feet.

Police found no evidence of drug trafficking, but they did find a tiny amount of marijuana belonging to a grown son in a sock drawer. He pleaded to a misdemeanor possession charge and was placed on probation.

The 2004 raid on the Marmelshteins' home is now the subject of a lawsuit winding its way through U.S. District Court in Detroit. It is one of several civil suits in Michigan and dozens across the country charging that the increasing use of such grenades by police is dangerous and excessive force.

Flash-bang grenades ignite legal battles

Jurors will decide in a civil case what went wrong when a Detroit police officer shot and killed 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones during an early-morning raid on May 16 in search of a murder suspect.

A central question they will grapple with: Should officers have tossed a flash-bang grenade into the duplex?

Police contend the grenade was necessary for the safety of officers and those inside in order to surprise and distract a suspect considered armed and dangerous. But critics, including Southfield attorney Geoffrey Fieger, who is representing Aiyana's family, and the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality contend the use of the grenades is a military-style tactic that is an excessive use of force.

"The grenade was totally inappropriate," Fieger said. He added that its loud concussion may have caused a police officer, with his finger already on the trigger, to discharge the deadly shot.

"I think the grenade contributed to it. There was nothing under the circumstances that would condone the use of a grenade," he said.

The suspect was eventually arrested in the upstairs unit of the duplex, and the shooting has been handed over to the Michigan State Police for investigation.

The use of flash-bang grenades, with their blinding light, deafening noise and smoke, has grown increasingly popular with law enforcement the last 20 years, police experts say. They have also come under harsh criticism from civil libertarians, and are the focus of lawsuits nationwide alleging death, serious injury, emotional distress and property damage.

The New York City Police Department announced a ban on the grenades earlier this year after a woman died of a heart attack when police tossed a grenade into the wrong apartment.

In metro Detroit, the lawsuit on behalf of Aiyana's family is among at least three filed against police departments charging that flash-bang grenades helped cause damage, injury or -- in Aiyana's case -- death.

Terror in Southfield

"We thought we were going to die," Arlene Marmelshtein said of a 2004 raid on their ranch home.

Leonid Marmelshtein, 74, said that an officer put a gun to his head during the raid. He was bruised in the scuffle, and the couple's carpet was scorched in two rooms from the grenades.

"There was absolutely no excuse for what the Southfield police did to these people," said attorney William Goodman, who is representing the Marmelshteins in their suit before federal Judge Julian Cook. "They have no written policy on how or when to use these bombs.

"They tore the place to shreds."

Cook, disturbed by the use of the grenades, has so far resisted Southfield's attempt to have the case tossed on grounds of governmental immunity, ruling that "the officers are not entitled to qualified immunity because the particular type of force which is alleged to have been utilized in this case was excessive."

Three days after the raid, Southfield police arrested Marmelshtein and jailed him on a charge of assaulting a police officer during the raid. On the advice of an attorney, he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge. A judge delayed sentencing for 90 days, essentially placing him on court supervision, then sentenced him to no time.

Attorneys representing the city and the police department did not return numerous phone calls and an e-mail requesting comment. Southfield Police Chief Joseph Thomas declined to discuss the case except to say his officers, who are part of a countywide narcotics team, are trained in the proper use of flash-bang grenades and were following protocol.

Started with the military but what is the protocol?

That answer has changed over the years, and not necessarily in a good way, say experts who study law enforcement techniques.

"When police started using these things several years ago, they said we need this for the most heinous offenders," said Donald E. Wilkes Jr., a law professor at the University of Georgia who has been tracking the use of flash-bang grenades nationwide in the last decade. The grenades, which make a deafening roar and such a bright flash that they temporary blind those nearby, were originally used solely by the military, but police began using them in cases of barricaded gunmen, the grenades providing enough of a distraction that police could storm the building while the gunman was disoriented.

But soon police began using them to conduct searches and on drug raids, even in cases where there is no evidence anyone in the house is armed or dangerous. Southfield police, in depositions, admit that they had no indication that there were weapons in the Marmelshteins' home. Instead, they say that they believed guns were "a possibility" since they had found traces of marijuana in the Marmelshteins' trash, and note one of their sons had a misdemeanor marijuana conviction from 2001.

Wilkes said that is not enough to throw grenades -- particularly since the officers had no idea who was in the house.

"It is inconceivable that this has become routine practice, but it has," Wilkes said. "It should be a mandatory practice that before they throw these bombs -- and that's what they are because they explode and can hurt somebody -- that police are required to know who's in there, what the situation is, and to be certain innocent people aren't going to get hurt."

Deaths and injuries

There have been other cases where use of the grenades ended in death, including a 2002 Minneapolis case where two elderly people died of smoke inhalation after police tossed a flash grenade into the home and the furniture caught fire.

And there are numerous lawsuits around the country claiming serious injury. In a 2009 Las Vegas case now in federal court in Nevada, an inmate in the Clark County jail was seriously burned.

Jailers, who had decided to move him from his one-man cell because he had been making threats days earlier, tossed a flash grenade into the cell. The inmate, Sergio Ramirez, was burned on his torso and eventually hospitalized.

Las Vegas attorney E. Brent Bryson is seeking $3 million for Ramirez, who is serving 14 years in prison for a gang-related murder. "We don't treat animals like that," he said. "These things are very dangerous."

Local use varies

Law enforcement officials say that -- if used properly in the right circumstances -- flash grenades can prevent officer injuries and protect those that they are trying to arrest. A disoriented suspect is more likely to be compliant and less likely to require force for an arrest.

"We use them judiciously," said Michael McCabe, undersheriff in Oakland County. He declined to say what their written protocol is and what the circumstances were when the grenades were used 10 times in 2008 and 17 times in 2009. But none resulted in lawsuits or injuries. "They can be considered a safety device for everybody involved."

Macomb County Sheriff Mark Hackel's office reported fewer than 10 uses for both years, and no injuries.

Despite numerous requests and e-mails, the Wayne County Sheriff's Office did not provide numbers for use of flash-bang grenades and Detroit police have not responded to a request for similar information sought in the wake of Aiyana's death.

But even without physical injuries or death, some who have experienced a surprise flash-bang grenade say they can cause long-term emotional distress. Carla Walker, an Oak Park woman, is suing the Detroit Police Department, first in state court to get police records, and then in federal court on a civil rights violation, after police tossed a grenade through her front window March 2 as she lay sleeping.

Police have declined to comment other than reporting they were looking for a murder suspect. He was not in the house.

"It is unthinkable what they did to this woman," said her attorney, Thomas Loeb. "There is just no excuse."

Contact L.L. BRASIER: 248-858-2262 or

July 2, 2010 | Updated: 11:57 a.m. July 2, 2010

Southfield cops shoot, kill fleeing armed robber


Southfield police officers fatally shot a 34-year-old Novi man late Thursday night after a car chase following an armed robbery, Southfield police said this morning.

At approximately 11:15 p.m., the car Novi police officers were pursuing drove into Southfield and officers from there joined the chase, Southfield Police Lt. Nick Loussia said this morning. Southfield cops were informed that a shotgun had been used in the robbery.

The man is a suspect in a Walled Lake armed robbery on Wednesday, Novi Police Chief David Molloy said. When officers tried to arrest him at the apartment complex where he lives in Novi, he fled.

As the man was driving southbound on the Lodge Freeway near Mt. Vernon, he lost control of his car, crashed and then tried to run away, according to police.

He “fled from the vehicle on foot and he was shot by officers,” Loussia said. “He was transported to Providence Hospital, where he died.”

The Oakland County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the shooting.

No comments: