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Investigation Reveals Rampant Use Of Flashbang Grenades By Police


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDRED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.




RATH: And that is the bang part of a flash-bang. It's a type of hand grenade used by the police and the military, but instead of shooting out deadly shrapnel, like a standard grenade, most of the flash-bang's explosive energy creates a blinding flash and a deafening boom.

JULIA ANGWIN: They were designed for hostage rescues because the idea is that in hostage rescue you want something that won't harm the hostages but will stun the hostage takers.

RATH: That's Julia Angwin. She's a senior reporter with ProPublica. She investigated the use of flash-bangs by police around the country. Angwin says the police, in some places, use flash-bangs routinely with little training and sometimes with horrifying results.

ANGWIN: What is surprising is that they're being used to serve really low-level search warrants. And when I say really low-level, I mean one instance I found was a grandmother who was selling beer and plates of food from her home without a license in Arkansas, which is a misdemeanor. In the Little Rock police stormed in and threw two flash-bang grenades into her home just to serve her with a search warrant to look for, you know, evidence of illegal activity. And they did confiscate several cases of beer.

RATH: And for a sense of how badly things can go wrong with these explosives, can you describe what happened with that police raid on a family in Georgia last year?

ANGWIN: So last year, a team in Habersham County, which is in northern Georgia, stormed into a house around 5 a.m. looking for what they thought was a meth dealer. And they threw one of these flash-bang grenades and it landed in a portable playpen where a 19-month-old baby was sleeping. It appears to have landed right next to his face. It blew off his nose, it opened up his chest, it tore open his lips and mouth. He' had eight reconstructive surgeries since then. He barely survived this event, and the police didn't find anything. There was no drugs. It was not the place where the suspect was living. And it was just the tragic example of how these are tools that could be used well, but when they're used badly, it can go very terribly wrong.

RATH: And, in that situation, was there any accounting for what happened? Was anybody held responsible?

ANGWIN: The grand jury that looked into that issue declined to indict the officers who threw it. They said that the raid had been sloppy and disorganized, but that it wasn't - it didn't rise to the level of what they considered something that was necessary to indict an officer.

RATH: Do we have a handle on the extent of the problem - how often flash-bangs cause serious injuries?

ANGWIN: Well, I looked hard to find out whether I could really quantify the scope of flash-bang injuries, and I found 50 people who were severely injured or killed in the past since 2000.

RATH: And that includes police officers.

ANGWIN: Yeah, including several police officers who had them explode when they were holding them. So we - I found about 50 - more than 50 people who had been injured, but I am positive that there are many more because many of the police departments that I looked into did not document injuries. There's no national reporting requirement that they report these burns. And, anecdotally, I heard from many officers that it happens all the time.

RATH: So what are the rules when it comes to police using flash-bangs?

ANGWIN: Well, there are no rules, really. Actually, each police officer can - and their department - can make the decision themselves about when to use a flash-bang. Some departments have voluntarily decided to put limits, so the New York Police Department actually doesn't really use them anymore. They put very strict limits on the use of flash-bangs after a woman was killed in a heart attack when they threw a flash-bang into her house about 10 years ago. But other departments that I wrote about, like, for instance, in Georgia and in Little Rock, were throwing them on almost every raid. And it's really up to the discretion of the department and whoever oversees that department, which is, like, the city council or the state officials.

RATH: You talked about the limitations on the number of them in New York City. Is there any move now to limit the use of these devices more broadly? Or are any police departments reevaluating the flash-bang?

ANGWIN: I haven't heard from other police departments about whether they're reevaluating use of flash-bangs. The problem is that with policing it's a very decentralized business. There are 18,000 police and law enforcement agencies in the United States, and there are no national standards for anything that they do, so they all get to make their own decisions on the use of these things.

RATH: Julia Angwin is a senior reporter with ProPublica. Her investigation into flash-bangs was co-published with The Atlantic. Julia, thanks very much.

ANGWIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.