Hotter Than Lava
Every day, cops toss dangerous military-style grenades during raids, with little oversight and horrifying results.
It was just before dawn when 18 police officers poured out of an armored truck and an unmarked white van at the Laurel Park apartment complex on the outskirts of Atlanta. A few days earlier, a confidential informant reported seeing “a brown skinned black male” with “a small quantity of a green leafy substance.” The 22-year-old suspect, paroled for forging a check, lived in a small ground floor apartment with easy access. But the police didn’t plan on taking any chances.
Jason Ward and his high-school sweetheart Treneshia Dukes were asleep, naked, in the apartment when an explosion went off and their bedroom window shattered. Ward leapt up toward the broken glass. Dukes started running. In the dark, she crashed into a closet door before stumbling into the bathroom and balling up in the tub. “I just started crying and I’m praying like, ‘I’m not going to die like this, this is not how I want to die,’” she later testified. Seconds later, a man wearing a mask stormed the bathroom and held a gun to her face, instructing her to lie on the floor. “If you move I’m going to blow your fucking brains out,’” Dukes recalled him saying. It was then she noticed skin hanging off her arm and blistering patches of pink flesh on her brown legs.
The masked man noticed her skin, too. He told Dukes to sit up and signaled to a man in plainclothes to inspect her. “The guy came in there,” recalled Dukes, just starting to realize she was dealing with the police, not armed assailants, “and he looked at me and he looked back at the other guy and was like, ‘Y’all done fucked up.’”
Dukes had been hit by a flashbang, a $50 device used by the police to disorient suspects, often during drug raids. First designed nearly 40 years ago to help military special forces rescue hostages, flashbangs create a stunningly bright burst of light and an ear-splitting boom that temporarily blind and deafen anyone standing within a few feet of them. Last week, French special forces used flashbangs as part of a dramatic operation to free hostages held at a kosher supermarket in Paris. But when these modified hand grenades explode on the human body, they can cause severe injury or death. The flash powder burns hotter than lava. Dukes suffered second-degree burns across her body. When later asked to describe the pain she felt that morning on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the absolute greatest, Dukes said 100.
The military-style assault on the Laurel Park apartment the morning of July 21, 2010, did not uncover a violent criminal’s drug lair. Although Dukes’ boyfriend grabbed a handgun when the window shattered, he tossed it aside as soon as he realized that the intruders were police. He threw himself down on the ground and surrendered immediately. In the end, after storming the apartment and throwing three flashbangs, the police found about a tenth of an ounce of marijuana.
Such aggressive use of flashbangs has become common among today’s militarized police forces. The Clayton County police, who burned Dukes, deployed flashbangs on about 80 percent of their raids in the year prior to her injury, according to police records. Police argue that flashbangs save lives because they stun criminals who might otherwise shoot. But flashbangs have also severed hands and fingers, induced heart attacks, burned down homes, and killed pets. A ProPublica investigation has found that at least 50 Americans, including police officers, have been seriously injured, maimed, or killed by flashbangs since 2000. That is likely a fraction of the total since there are few records kept on flashbang deployment.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit wrote in 2000 that “police cannot automatically throw bombs into drug dealers’ houses, even if the bomb goes by the euphemism ‘flash-bang device.’” In practice, however, there are few checks on officers who want to use them. Once a police department registers its inventory with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, it is accountable only to itself for how it uses the stockpile. ProPublica’s review of flashbang injuries found no criminal convictions against police officers who injured citizens with the devices.
After Dukes filed a formal complaint, a Clayton County Police Department internal investigators wrote in their report that officers had done “nothing wrong” the morning of her injury. In fact, the team commander was promoted. Outraged by the inaction, Dukes filed a civil lawsuit against the police in July 2012, alleging excessive use of force. “No one has ever apologized,” Dukes said in an interview. “It’s not right to feel like you can just hurt someone, and it’s OK.”
On a warm day this fall, we traveled to northeast Arkansas to throw flashbangs with one of the first Americans to make them, a ruddy-faced explosives manufacturer named Bill Nixon. He operates from two low-slung buildings off a rural highway not far from Memphis. “Cover your ears,” he said as we positioned ourselves behind earthen bunkers near the buildings. Nixon pulled the pin, and as he threw the grenade, a lever called the spoon released. A second later, the device deflagrated. Even at a distance of 30 feet, the bang was so loud that both of us involuntarily screamed when it went off.
Nixon stumbled into the flashbang business. Trained as a mechanical engineer, he got an explosives license in the 1980s and started selling blasting caps and other explosives to local police departments. In 1988, the head of the SWAT team at the Memphis Police Department told him he was having troubling finding flashbangs. Police departments across the nation were starting their own SWAT teams to rescue hostages and storm barricaded houses. But an industry had not yet arisen to provide military-style weapons for the police. Even the Los Angeles Police Department, which founded the nation’s first SWAT team in 1966, was building flashbangs for itself by modifying military hand-grenade simulators.
Sensing a need, Nixon decided to try his hand at building a flashbang. By 1990, he had patented a device that he called the Omni Blast. He marketed his device as having less smoke than its competitors and a more spherical explosion. Pretty soon, he had customers all across the nation.
But, as flashbangs became ubiquitous, Nixon worried that departments weren’t training officers to use them properly. Reports of accidents started to trickle in. A prison guard in Nevada lost her hand when a flashbang exploded during a training exercise. And then, in 2002, an officer closer to Nixon’s home in Arkansas was injured. An Omni Blast exploded in the hand of Brandt Carmical, a North Little Rock police officer, as he conducted a flashbang demonstration for a local Boy Scout troop. It pulverized his right hand, blew out his right eardrum and perforated his left eardrum. “I saw all this flesh,” Carmical recalled. “I couldn’t hear anything.” At the hospital, Carmical’s hand was amputated at the wrist. Later, he had to go back for further surgery because black powder from the flashbang was causing his skin to rot.
Carmical sued Nixon, arguing that the Omni Blast was defective and exploded too quickly. Nixon said that although it is possible that his device was faulty, he suspects that the accident occurred because the spoon was prematurely released. The dispute was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount (which Carmical said allows him to forgo a second job), and no judicial determination was made about the cause of the accident.
Nixon said he stopped selling flashbangs two years after Carmical’s accident, concerned that police officers are not sufficiently trained to use them. “I realized that, let’s say this is the perfect device,” Nixon said, “it’s still going to hurt people.” In Nixon’s opinion, the police are wrong to treat flashbangs like less destructive weapons such as tear gas and sound cannons. “It boggles my mind,” he said.
Carmical, a former Marine, returned to work wearing a prosthetic with a U.S. Marine Corps logo and rejoined the SWAT team. He said the North Little Rock police have become “more selective” about flashbang deployment since his injury. Often, he said, they will set off a flashbang outside a home as a distraction, allowing officers to enter from another side of the house. When flashbangs are needed, Carmical prefers to let his teammates throw them. Being near an exploding flashbang can cause Carmical to freeze up. “It’s almost like unplugging myself for just a second,” he recalled, grateful that his fellow officers “kind of pat me on the shoulder and plug me back in.”
Across the river, in Little Rock, Arkansas, the police department is still using flashbangs on nearly every raid, according to ProPublica’s analysis. Police department records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, as part of its nationwide survey of police militarization, showed that between 2011 and 2013, Little Rock police tossed flashbangs into homes on 112 occasions, or 84 percent of raids—nearly all of them in predominantly black neighborhoods.
Little Rock Police Department spokesman Sidney Allen defended the practice, saying, “You may see a large number of flashbang deployments, but what we see is a large service of warrants without gunfire." But no weapons were found at three-quarters of the homes during this period, according to department records obtained by ProPublica. Most searches yielded drug paraphernalia such as small baggies of marijuana and glass pipes. Others just turned up bottles of beer.
One Sunday afternoon in 2012, Sharon Kay Harris, a diminutive 54-year-old grandmother, was still in her church clothes getting a soda out of the fridge when police officers threw a flashbang into her kitchen. “It was very scary,” Harris said. “It’s real loud, it sounds like a gun going off.” Other officers broke down her front door with a battering ram and threw a flashbang into the living room, igniting a pile of clothing. A few weeks earlier, Harris had sold a plate of food and six cans of beer without a license, a misdemeanor in Arkansas, to an undercover officer. The officer returned on a second occasion to catch Harris in another offense: selling liquor on a Sunday. During their raid on Harris’ house, the police confiscated several cases of beer, which she freely admitted to selling along with hot dogs, nachos, and fajitas.
Afterward, the city of Little Rock sued Harris, alleging that her property should be declared a nuisance and “abated”—or razed—since it was being used to facilitate criminal violations. The Pulaski County Circuit Court dismissed the city’s lawsuit, but Harris was still fined $950. She could not afford the bill, so she cut grass and picked up trash at the county jail instead.
Little Rock Police Department spokesman Allen said he does not consider the force used on Harris’ home to be excessive. “If she hadn’t been selling illegal items out of the home, no warrant would have been served,” he said. “What you call extreme, we call safe.”
If there was ever a flashbang injury that might have warranted criminal charges against an officer, it would be the case of Bou Bou Phonesavanh, a 19-month-old baby who last May was nearly killed by a flashbang during a drug raid in Georgia. The case garnered national attention.
Bou Bou was sleeping in a portable playpen at the foot of his parents’ bed when the Habersham County Special Response Team broke down the door to the room and threw a flashbang. The grenade landed on a pillow next to Bou Bou’s face. The blast blew a hole in his chest, severed his nose, and tore apart his lips and mouth. The SWAT team was looking for the boy’s cousin, Wanis Thonetheva, who a day earlier had allegedly sold a bag of methamphetamine to a confidential informant on the property. But Thonetheva wasn’t there, and no drugs or weapons were found. Hours later, Thonetheva surrendered peacefully when officers knocked on the door at a nearby house where he was staying.
At the hospital, Bou Bou was placed in a medically induced coma for almost a month. He has had eight reconstructive surgeries, including skin grafts, and racked up $1.6 million of medical bills that his family cannot afford to pay. In the next few months, he will need surgery to remove black flashbang powder that embedded in his face, arms and chest before it gets infected. And because his skin grafts won’t grow as he grows, Bou Bou will need reconstructive surgery every two years for the next 20 years. His mother, Alecia Phonesavanh, said that she and her husband plan to donate their own skin for the future grafts. Bou Bou often wakes up in the middle of the night screaming and shaking and holding his mouth. “It almost seems like he’s remembering what happened,” said Alecia Phonesavanh, who has been unable to hold down a job since the accident because of the demands of caring for her son.
In October, a Habersham County grand jury declined to indict the officers involved. “Some of what contributed to this tragedy can be attributed to well-intentioned people getting in too big a hurry,” the grand jury wrote in its findings. The grand jury instead recommended that officers receive better training and that policy makers consider restricting the use of “no-knock” warrants, which allow police to burst into homes unannounced, often using battering rams and flashbangs. The Phonesavanhs plan to file a civil lawsuit to recover their medical expenses, which the county has refused to pay, and are hoping federal prosecutors will bring charges against the officers involved. “For us, justice won’t mean money,” Alecia Phonesavanh said. “Justice means actual consequences for the officers who caused this nightmare for my family.”
Georgia State Senator Vincent Fort hopes the case will renew momentum for a bill he’s been pushing since 2008 that would require a higher legal standard to issue no-knock search warrants. “The likelihood of something passing has increased,” he said, acknowledging that strengthening no-knock requirements would not necessarily prevent police from throwing flashbangs after a brief knock on the door. Fort said he is also considering adding requirements for flashbang training and restricting their use to daytime hours.
Currently, there are no binding national requirements for police to be trained in the use of flashbangs. The National Tactical Officers Association, the trade group for SWAT teams, strongly advises that untrained officers not be allowed to use flashbangs. The trade group conducts its own training sessions that officers can attend (if their department can afford to send them). Most flashbang manufacturers also offer instruction for a fee. David Pearson, who runs flashbang training sessions for the trade group, said in an interview that he urges caution. “Flashbangs do have their place,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s on every mission or in every room.”
The scope of police flashbang training is sharply contested in the Treneshia Dukes case. Clayton County Police Department records obtained by Dukes’ attorney Mario Williams indicate that the department hadn’t held flashbang training in the three years prior to her injury. The manufacturers’ training manual used by Clayton County police—which devotes an equal number of pages to deploying the devices as it does to deploying legal defenses—advises officers in no uncertain terms: “Sound policy, documented training, and looking before you throw a device are the best defenses against civil or criminal claims.” Department officers testified that their general SWAT training included work with flashbangs even though it wasn’t formally recorded in department training logs.
In a deposition, Williams asked Clayton County Sgt. Scott Malette, who deployed one of the flashbangs in the apartment where Dukes and her boyfriend slept, about a previous raid that resulted in a flashbang injury. In that 2009 raid, his team encountered a closed door. As a colleague kicked it open, Malette threw a flashbang into the room. “The room was dark, and I did not identify any room occupants,” Malette had written in the police report. The flashbang landed on the bed where a man and woman were sleeping, and it burned the man’s legs and feet.
“Everyone carries a flashbang,” Malette testified. “Any time we encounter locked doors, we have an unknown, we have to gain back that initiative.”
“Were you aiming the flashbang over the bed?” Williams asked.
“Yeah, on the other side of the bed,” Malette replied.
Aim is very important in flashbang legal cases. This standard was established in 1987 when the California Supreme Court ruled that throwing a flashbang could be considered a reasonable use of force when officers “have seen fully into a targeted room.” This legal precedent means that Dukes’ case will likely turn on a narrow thread of argument. Did the police wildly throw a flashbang into her bedroom without looking, or did Dukes unwittingly run into the path of a flashbang that they had carefully aimed?
Dukes testified she was lying in bed when a circular object flew in through the window, landed on her thigh and exploded. Her account is supported by her boyfriend’s brother, who visited shortly after the raid, and the maintenance man for the apartment complex. Both testified that they saw black flashbang residue on the wall above the bed. Also on her side is a powerful piece of physical evidence: a burned red-and-black comforter under which Dukes slept at the moment of the raid.
Clayton County officials admit that at least three flashbangs were deployed during the raid that injured Dukes. SWAT commander Stephen Branham, who is a defendant in the case, testified that he was standing within view of Dukes’ bedroom window and that his team indeed broke it in an operation known as a “break and rake.” Branham said that on a previous raid his team had thrown a flashbang through a window it had broken. But during the Laurel Park raid, he testified, “I was standing there the whole time. Nobody threw a bang through that window.” According to Branham, his team deployed two flashbangs outside the apartment, and Sergeant Malette threw a third one into the front hallway after the front door had been breached. Malette testified that Dukes must have run into his flashbang. “From where she ended up and where the flashbang was and the marks and stuff on the door, with the evidence, I surmised that it was—it was actually the bang that I deployed that would be responsible for burning her in that area,” Malette said.
However, Malette also testified that the description of Dukes’ burns likely fit a scenario in which a person was hit by a flashbang while lying down.
“I would have to assume that that person was prone,” Malette said under oath.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia will soon decide whether to allow Dukes’ case to proceed. Dukes, now 26, has had two children with Ward and works as a package handler at a warehouse.
At the time she was burned, Dukes was pregnant but didn’t know it. When she found out, she immediately stopped taking the powerful painkillers she had been prescribed in the hospital. But sometimes she worries that her son, who turns 4 in March, could have been affected by the medicine she took. Today, it bothers her that her skin is darker in the patches where she was burned. “My skin is ugly, and I feel like I’m ugly,” she said in an interview. “When I talk about it, I just get angry.”
Sometimes loud noises trigger memories of the event. One summer night after the accident, Dukes woke up in a panic. A storm was raging outside and, in her sleepy state, she confused the thunder and lightning for flashbang explosions. She ran into the bathroom once again and curled up on the floor, rocking and saying, “They’re coming, they’re coming.” Her mother found her and asked who was coming. “I said, ‘Them. Please don’t burn me again.’”
This article appears courtesy of ProPublica.