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Friday, May 4, 2012

Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the Botched SWAT Raid

     Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona since 1993, has become a TV and news celebrity. The controversial, combative, and flamboyant 79-year-old law enforcement officer, billed as America's toughest cop, has been the subject of a Department of Justice civil rights investigation since 2009. He is accused of practicing systematic discrimination against Hispanics. Arpaio has called this investigation a political witch hunt. On the local level, he has feuded with other sheriffs, police chiefs, and state law enforcement administrators. The highly political sheriff has also been accused of public corruption, selective law enforcement, and poor job performance. Over the years, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, and Arpaio, have been involved in numerous controversial cases and law enforcement scandals. (While I don't necessarily disagree with the Sheriff's politics, I am not a fan of his heavy-handed, politically motivated style of law enforcement. I present examples of the sheriff's failings in my book, SWAT Madness.)

     In March 2012, Sheriff Arpaio announced that his posse of volunteer cold-case investigators have uncovered evidence that President Obama's birth certificate, the one made public in 2011, is a computer-generated fake. Several of Arpaio's former supporters have asked him not to seek re-election. Although America's toughest cop has lost a lot of political support, he has shrugged off demands that he resign from office, and insists he is ready to do battle in court with the federal government. (On this issue, I'm pulling for the sheriff. Still, I would prefer that he didn't run for re-election.)

The Bungled SWAT Raid

     In July 2004, Sheriff Arpaio's detectives suspected that Gabrial Gordon, a 28-year-old ex-felon on probation for armed robbery, had stolen a cache of automatic weapons and armor-piercing bullets from a gun dealer in Las Vegas. Gordon lived with 26-year-old Eric Kush, and 22-year-old Andrea Barber in a house in Ahwatukee, an upscale bedroom community that had been annexed by the city of Phoenix. Barber's daughter and Kush's 10-month-old puppy also lived in the $250,000 home nestled in the quiet, gated neighborhood called Fairway Hills. Neither Barber nor Kush had criminal records.

     Maricopa County detectives arranged to have Gordon's probation officer lure him to his office, where, on July 23, 2004, they took him into custody. According to Gordon, Kush was the one who possessed the weapons cache. According the a version of the story told by the police, Kush warned them that Mr. Gordon had been acting in an erratic way, and always carried a gun.

     Just before noon on the day of Gordon's arrest, a SWAT tank and an unmarked white GMC Suburban van full of county SWAT officers rolled into the neighborhood and parked on the street in front of the house rented by Gordon and the others. Outfitted in full battle gear, five officers approached the front of the house while another contingent took positions in the back yard. Andrea Barber, at the sound of loud banging coming from the main entrance, started down the stairway to answer the door. But before she got there, officers kicked it open. As they rushed inside, other SWAT officers launched canisters of white tear gas through second-story windows in the front and rear of the house. A few minutes later, a fire broke out in the master bedroom which quickly enveloped the place.

     Eric Kush, who had fled to the attic at the inception of the raid, ran out of the house to escape the fire. A police officer threw him to the ground, and another officer sprayed a fire extinguisher into the face of his dog, driving the pet back into the house. The puppy perished in the fire, which completely destroyed the dwelling. An officer, in pulling the SWAT tank away from the house fire, lost control when the electric brakes disengaged. The massive vehicle rolled down an incline and smashed into a parked car.

      Investigators with the Phoenix Fire Department concluded that a lit candle knocked over in the confusion of the raid had caused the fire. Andrea Barber, however, insisted that a tear gas canister had set the bed ablaze. Either way, had there not been a SWAT raid, there would have not been a fire, and Kush's dog would not have suffered an agonizing death.

     The Maricopa County SWAT team raid that destroyed an expensive home, killed a pet, and traumatized a quiet neighborhood, resulted in the seizure of an antique shotgun and a 9-mm pistol. The police arrested Kush on a misdemeanor warrant for failure to appear in a Tempe municipal court on two traffic tickets. He paid the $1,000 bond and was released from custody. In the week following the botched raid, the neighborhood stank of the fire debris, and the rotting puppy.            

     


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