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December 5, 2002

Neighbors call tactics in drug raid militaristic

By REBECCA NOLAN 
The Register-Guard

 

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The sound of heavy machinery, exploding grenades and blaring announcements cracked the early morning silence.

Neighbors looked out their windows Oct. 17 to see an armored truck rolling down the street. They saw at least 45 officers armed with shotguns and assault rifles entering a trio of houses, standing guard at alleyways and blocking traffic lanes.

Officers wouldn't explain to startled residents what was going on.

Police pulled four people - including a nude woman and another woman wearing only underpants and a T-shirt - from their beds and kept them in handcuffs in a room of one of the houses for several hours. One woman reported that an officer covered her head with a black fabric bag and removed it only when she agreed to cooperate.

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house involved in raid

This house at 909 W. Fifth Ave. was one of several raided by police Oct. 17 in a search for illegal drugs.

Photo: PAUL CARTER / The Register-Guard

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Neighbors later learned that officers had served a search warrant at three adjacent houses near West Fifth Avenue and Adams Street, where police suspected people were growing marijuana.

The raid sparked immediate outrage among more than a dozen neighbors and friends of the property owners and in recent weeks has become a rallying point for community organizers. The fact that police found no marijuana plants or weapons has only angered neighbors further.

The Whiteaker Community Council dedicated a meeting last month to discussing the raid and plans to issue a formal statement condemning the way the operation was carried out, council President Majeska Seese-Green said. She and three other residents took their case to the Eugene Police Commission, where they questioned the wisdom and safety of such raids.

"It was completely inappropriate to have that kind of militaristic action there," Seese-Green said. "We don't want it to happen in Whiteaker again, or in any other neighborhood."

The criticism has prompted police to explain their tactics and to try to address neighbors' concerns before the Police Commission, but they say their approach that morning wasn't much different, except in magnitude, than other drug raids they regularly conduct.

Although no one tracks the exact number of drug-related search warrants served in Lane County each year, the Interagency Narcotics Task Force averages about one search warrant a week. The task force is made up of officers from Lane County police agencies and assisted in the Fifth Avenue raid.

Add in busts by other county police agencies and state police and the tally creeps close to a hundred drug warrants served a year.

In the Whiteaker case, the complexity of the properties, which included the houses, an inhabited garage and a couple of outbuildings, increased the risk and dictated how many officers participated and the kind of weapons used, said Eugene police Lt. Tom Turner, head of the Metro SWAT team.

Strong tactics are sometimes necessary in the nationwide battle against a violent drug trade as officers become targets of criminals bent on protecting their profits, said Capt. Steve Swenson, in charge of special operations for Eugene police.

And although police sympathize with residents who have complained that the Fifth Avenue raid resembled a military invasion, they aren't willing to sacrifice officer safety to stave off criticism, he said.

"We rely on the element of surprise and speed," Swenson said. "The third element is an overwhelming display of force when you come through the door.

"It sounds bad, but it prevents problems. We don't know who we're dealing with when we go through the door."

Making a strong presence

Marcella Monroe, 41, and Tam Davage, 35, own the three houses searched that day. The married couple, well-known and well-liked by their neighbors, became suspects after an August raid turned up more than 500 marijuana plants at a friend's home in Portland, according to court documents.

After a two-month investigation, members of the Eugene police Rapid Deployment Unit requested and received a warrant Oct. 16 from Lane County Circuit Judge Eveleen Henry allowing the search of the houses at 464 Adams St., 909 W. Fifth Ave. and 923 W. Fifth Ave., their outbuildings and cars.

The unit assembled a team of officers from the Interagency Narcotics Enforcement Team, the Metro SWAT team, the Springfield SWAT team and the Portland Police Bureau.

They took advantage of a National Guard counterdrug program that lends out armored vehicles for transporting officers to drug-related searches.

They tossed flash-bang grenades to distract the people inside the houses, and they announced their arrival over the armored vehicle's public address system as they converged on the neighborhood about 6:30 a.m. An ambulance waited nearby, a routine precaution in case someone gets hurt.

The officers jumped from the armored truck and other vehicles and fanned out through the properties. They didn't stop to knock, but forced open doors and wrestled the people inside to the ground. One officer briefly placed a black hood over Monroe's head.

The four people involved said they were frightened for their lives, intimidated by police and shocked by the sudden chaos in their homes.

"They came in here and scared everyone to death," Monroe said. "They trashed our houses and accused us of a crime that they have no evidence for. They found no seeds, no pot, not one single plant - nothing."

Inside the houses, police discovered several high-powered fans, fluorescent lights, plastic sheeting, timers, potting soil, fertilizer, plant food, sandwich bags, a scale, 24 electrical outlets and a shop vacuum that contained a trace of marijuana leaves, according to the affidavit filed in support of the search warrant. All are evidence of a well-organized marijuana growing operation that had recently been dismantled, police spokeswoman Pam Olshanski said.

Police gave Monroe and Davage tickets for felony manufacture of a controlled substance. Because most people jailed on nonviolent charges are soon released to make room for more dangerous offenders, Eugene police often write tickets to people who are cooperative, Olshanski said.

One of the couple's tenants was cited for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana, a misdemeanor. Police said they found marijuana residue in pipes and baggies inside the house he rents. He will appear in court next week.

More than a month after the raid, no formal charges have been filed against Davage or Monroe in Lane County Circuit Court. Police have returned the items they seized.

The case remains under investigation and won't go to the grand jury for indictment unless investigators gather additional information or evidence, according to the county district attorney's office. The district attorney can wait up to three years to file charges, after which the statute of limitations expires and the case dies.

Monroe and Davage have denied all of the allegations and repeatedly said that they don't use drugs and have never grown marijuana.

The items listed on police evidence forms weren't part of a growing lab, they said, but were used in Davage's jewelry-making shop, Monroe's landscaping businesses and renovation work being done on two of the houses, damaged by trees toppled in last February's windstorm.

Contractors helping repair the Fifth Avenue houses have been in every nook and cranny of the homes, from basement to attic, making it impossible for the couple to operate a clandestine drug operation, they said.

"We've been all through the houses and we've never seen anything - no strange activity," Lesa Fisher said. She and her father, a mason, helped rebuild a damaged chimney.

Monroe and Davage, on the advice of their lawyer, won't discuss further details of the case.

But police stand firm in their conviction that the raid was justified.

"As far as drug investigations go, some are more fruitful than others," Turner said.

He and Swenson said there's no time to be polite during a search.

"In this type of a raid, speed is paramount, along with officer safety," Swenson said. "It just takes one flush of a toilet for drugs to go down the drain. Officers have been shot on drug raids where people have had that extra few minutes to arm themselves."

One unfortunate side effect of morning raids is that people are often pulled from bed in various states of undress, police said. The two women involved in the Fifth Avenue raid said they were humiliated. Officers eventually allowed them to cover themselves.

"What everyone is supposed to do is try to uphold the dignity of everybody as much as they can," Turner said.

Police defend their actions

The day after the raid, neighbors began voicing their concerns about the search tactics. They called police and the newspaper. A few minutes of videotape shot by a neighbor was broadcast on a cable-access show.

Mildred White, a longtime Whiteaker resident, lives next to one of the houses. Upset by what happened, she was among those who went to the November meeting of the Police Commission.

"This particular invasion was called on the flimsiest of factual data," White said later. "I call it a terrorist act because it terrorized the neighborhood. It seems to me it was based on a scenario out of L.A.

"Would police use the same methods in some impeccable, upper-middle class neighborhood that they use here?"

Another neighbor, Michael Wherley, said police should differentiate between marijuana and more hard-core drugs, such as methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin. He doesn't believe that the couple were growing marijuana, but even if they were, he said the police response was "overkill."

"The police really overreacted without doing any legwork," Wherley said. "These people are living in the middle of the neighborhood. They're not going to be violent types."

But Swenson said some of the most dangerous people in the drug trade are marijuana growers, who often arm themselves against intruders looking for money and drugs.

As one example, police pointed to a July case, in which two men shot a marijuana grower in the leg during a robbery attempt at his home north of Jasper. The two shooters - one of whom kept police at bay for hours during a stand-off at a Eugene house - were arrested later on attempted murder charges.

In another recent case, officers found 162 marijuana plants - along with 51 guns, including assault rifles, revolvers, shotguns, old military weapons and dozens of magazines loaded with live ammunition - while serving a drug-related search warrant at a Fall Creek house in January 2001.

In that case, no shots were fired. But police also cite a 1982 cocaine raid when Raymond Sander Ainge shot at a Eugene police detective after mistaking police for intruders. The shot missed, and Ainge was later convicted on four drug charges and one count of attempted murder.

"You don't know when you're going in whether this is going to be a docile person or if it's going to be the hostile person," Swenson said.

"If it was a meth lab there, if it was the Hells Angels, you probably wouldn't hear any qualms about the number of officers we had there."

Nothing in the search warrant affidavit, however, indicates why police felt it necessary to arm themselves to such a degree in the Fifth Avenue case.

Neither Monroe nor Davage have any kind of criminal history in Oregon, and no one living at the house had a conviction for a violent crime within the state, court records show.

Police wouldn't discuss many details of the investigation, but Swenson and Turner both said officers had information that indicated a potential for danger at the houses.

"If you have information that one person out of five is violent, you're going to address your response to that violent person," Turner said.

It's standard to call in the SWAT team when narcotics investigators believe that a warrant service could turn violent, he said. In this case, police timed the raid for early in the morning, between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., before school buses start their routes and workers leave home for the morning commute, he said.

Once SWAT officers gain control of the scene, they hand it over to investigators who read the warrant, gather evidence and make arrests.

Interagency Narcotics Task Force agents serve about 50 drug-related search warrants a year, team supervisor Lt. Lee Thoming said. The task force calls in SWAT members on 12 to 15 of those.

Another tool available to local police is the National Guard's light armored vehicle, which has been used only a handful of times inside Eugene city limits, Swenson said. It's most often used in county warrant services.

The machine has no mounted weapons and is operated by two unarmed National Guard soldiers.

It provides cover for officers in case of gunfire, it can be used to safely transport injured people from a violent scene and it intimidates raid subjects who might otherwise consider fighting off police, National Guard Lt. Col. Rick Williams said.

The presence of the vehicle disturbed neighbors, as did news that police placed a black cloth bag over the head of one of the women detained in the raid.

Police have used the so-called "spit masks" for about 20 years, Swenson said. Designed to protect officers from saliva spewed from the mouths of suspects, they're also used to calm physically or verbally aggressive people, he said. Once the person settles down, officers remove the mask.

"I'm sure it's terrifying," Turner said. "One of the themes in law enforcement and SWAT in general is that you have to dominate your location. It's very aggressive."

Group calls for changes

Whiteaker residents are right to feel that their neighborhood was invaded that morning, said David Fidanque, executive director of the Oregon chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It was," he said.

But the raid tactics may be a sign that the national government's war on drugs has only increased the profit motive for drug dealers, who now arm themselves against thieves and competitors - rather than an indication that police are abusing their power, he said.

"My gut feeling is that this is an indication of why our drug laws are all screwed up, rather than a case of police being out of control," Fidanque said.

Police have reason to fear for their safety and they can't be blamed for wanting to avoid getting shot, he said. The tactics used by most agencies have been upheld in court, he said.

"Certainly there have been instances where police have gone into a drug raid and gotten into a gunfight," Fidanque said. "In general, going into a situation like that, unless the police have information from a very reliable source, they're going to prepare for the worst."

That doesn't give police a right, however, "to be rude, to use excessive force or to use tactics designed to terrify people," he said. "It's very, very scary for people who get caught up in that net."

The Whiteaker Community Council headed by Seese-Green plans to make the Fifth Avenue raid a topic of public debate, she said. The group wants to see policy changes addressing how such raids are carried out, she said.

In the meantime, the council will distribute its statement against the raid to the city and the media. Some members plan to attend next Thursday's Police Commission meeting. They will also present their concerns at the January meeting of the city's Neighborhood Advisory Board.

Some in the police department find the complaints ironic, particularly since the Rapid Deployment Unit, which spearheaded the investigation and Fifth Avenue raid, originally was created to combat drug use, violence and prostitution in the neighborhood.

"Now, certain people want to decide what kind of cases they do," Thoming of the Interagency Narcotics Task Force said.

But, he said, "Society at large wants us to do this, and the community at large wants us to do this."

Related:

Tanklike vehicle often intimidates


Copyright 2002 The Register-Guard
unless labeled as being from the Associated Press (AP),
in which case Copyright 2002 Associated Press


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