Catherine Gates thought that her Charleston neighborhood was under invasion last week when heavily armed police rolled in at daybreak with an armored vehicle, ski masks and exploding stun grenades.
An officer told Gates they were serving arrest warrants at a nearby home where drug sales had occurred. That angered Gates, particularly when she learned the suspects weren't even home when police arrived. What if an innocent person had gotten hurt?
Gates, a 56-year-old jewelry artist, wrote Mayor Joe Riley and other officials accusing police of "terrorizing" her West Side neighborhood with heavy-handed tactics. "There are good people in this neighborhood, and the police are playing war games back here," she said Thursday.
Others in the neighborhood supported the operation and welcome police efforts to curtail crime. The episode illustrates the tensions that can build in a community when a take-back-the-streets movement collides with competing concerns about civil liberties and overly aggressive policing.
City Councilman James Lewis, who represents the area, said it's unfortunate the raid startled Gates, but police are dealing with very real problems there. "We either keep criminals out or we let them in, and I don't think its the intent of the police, mayor or council to not work in areas where there is high crime," he said.
Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said police stepped up their presence around H Street after residents complained of drug dealing and violence. Police shut down a meth lab on the street in October, and nabbed six suspects in a separate narcotics probe a week later.
The May 22 raid stemmed from an investigation into reported drug sales from a home at 19 H Street, police said. In April, police made four undercover purchases of crack cocaine from three men at the house, said Lt. Sterling Dutton, a narcotics unit
Officers obtained arrest warrants for Ervin Johnson, 22; Rashad Johnson, 19; and Anthony Bailey, 33, all of whom have criminal records, police said.
Rashad Johnson and Bailey have prior convictions for violent offenses, including robbery and gun violations, state and federal records show.
Due to the potential for violence, police opted to involve the department's SWAT team, which has the equipment and experience for high-risk warrant operations, Mullen said. They went in at 6 a.m. in the hope of catching the suspects sleeping and avoiding a fight. There also was less chance of children and bystanders being on the street at that time. "We wanted this to be as safe as possible," Mullen said. "We didn't want anyone to get hurt."
Officers used "flash bang" stun grenades to disorient those inside the home before violence could erupt, Mullen said.
Ski masks were used to protect the identity of undercover officers. These are common techniques used by police departments across the country, he said.
Two men ran from the home and escaped as police were approaching, Mullen said. Officers didn't find the suspects, but they did arrest another man wanted on check fraud warrants. They also found drug paraphernalia and ammunition in the home. Officers seized $550 from a woman in the home, but it was later returned after they determined it wasn't tied to drug activity, he said.
Investigators are still looking for the Johnsons, but Bailey surrendered to police earlier in the week, Dutton said.
When a reporter visited the home this week, a woman and a man there declined to discuss the incident in detail.
Arthur Lawrence, president of the West Side Neighborhood Association, said he had no problem with the way the operation was conducted. "I can't knock the police for trying to protect themselves and the citizens in the area," he said.
After speaking with a police officer and community leaders at a neighborhood association meeting Thursday night, Gates said she better appreciates the problems police face. She sent Mullen an e-mail Friday to tell him as much and say that she plans some research to better understand the roots of violence in the community.
That said, she's not sorry she spoke up. Gates said she wishes more people would get involved in their communities and question what they see going on around them. "People shouldn't be afraid to ask questions if they see something that bothers them."
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or firstname.lastname@example.org.