Breonna Taylor, an EMT, was shot eight times in a botched no-knock drug raid. PAR interviews an ex-cop who tells the truth about drug raids, warrants, and asset forfeiture, and speaks with cop watcher Laura Shark.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Taya Graham: Hello. My name is Taya Graham and welcome to the Police Accountability Report. As I never get tired of saying, the point of this show is to hold police accountable. To do so, we don’t just focus on the behavior of bad cops, but we examine the underlying political economy that makes police malfeasance possible. Today, we’re going to be focusing on these specialized units that use military-style tactics that have come to define our country’s war on drugs. But we’re not just going to talk about what they do. We’re going to speak with an insider, who will reveal some startling revelations, in what makes these types of cops tick. We will also be joined by an LA-based cop watcher and get her perspective on the growth of specialized police units. But before I get started, I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us and we might be able to investigate.
Please reach out to us. You can email us tips privately at Tara@therealnews.com and share your evidence of police misconduct. Of course, you can message me directly at [inaudible 00:01:03] Baltimore on Facebook and Twitter, and please like, share and comment. You know, I read your comments and appreciate it. Now ,that’s out of the way. If there is any dominant symbol of our evolution towards a more aggressive and militarized policing, it’s the specialized unit. I’m talking about groups of plain-clothed, police officers who have prosecuted this country’s war on drugs, conducted risky, no-knock warrants and been at the forefront of asset forfeiture, taking property without due process. It’s a style of policing that can lead to destructive consequences. Take for example, Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force, a group of now nine officers who robbed residents, dealt drugs and stole overtime. Last week we witnessed a tragic example of how these units have transformed policing with the death of Brianna Taylor.
Taylor was home with her boyfriend in Louisville, Kentucky, when a plain-clothed narcotics unit executed a no-knock warrant. The police used a battering ram to break down the door and stormed in the house, without announcing who they were. In the ensuing mayhem, Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker fired a single shot, striking one of these police officers. You can see it on the screen in the leg. The cops returned fire, striking Taylor eight times, killing her on the scene, but that wasn’t the end of the story. It turns out, the man police were hunting had already been arrested at another location. Despite the fact there was no evidence, either Taylor or her boyfriend had sold drugs, police raided the home. In fact, the only evidence police used to justify the no-knock warrant was the suspicion that the suspect had used her address to ship illegal narcotics.
It’s worth noting that the state of Kentucky has a Stand Your Ground Law, meaning when under threat, a person has the right to defend themselves. Since both Taylor’s neighbors and her lawyers say police did not announce their presence before storming into the house, many civil rights activists have questioned why Walker has been charged with attempted murder. Technically, the Kentucky law does not apply to force use against police officers, but there’s a caveat. If police don’t announce themselves, as alleged in this case, then the use of force against them is considered warranted, which is why we have asked the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office, who is now handling the case, why Walker is still facing charges. Of course, the execution of no-knock warrants is not an uncommon practice. According to a report from the Louisville Courier, the use of no-knock warrants has risen dramatically in the past 40 years.
In fact, the newspaper reported that there were on average, 3000 per year, and now that total is approaching 60,000 annually. What this says about the state of our constitutional rights is troubling, but it is the link between the imperative driving, plain-clothed policing that we have uncovered and the use of tactics that endanger all of us, that is even more troubling. As you know, on the show, we always try to dig deeper into every story we report. We attempt to unearth previously unreported facts and speak to people who are willing to reveal the truth about American policing. Today is no exception because we have an in-depth interview from a person who actually used to run one of these units. What he told us is revelatory. His name is Neil Franklin, and he’s a former State Police Commander, who ran a plain-clothed drug interdiction unit for years.
In 2018, Franklin agreed to sit down with my reporting partner, Stephen Janis to discuss what drives these ad-hoc units and how things like money actually steer their investigations. For the first time today, we are airing what he told us to discuss the interview. I’m joined by Stephen to give us an overview of what he said and what it means. Stephen, thank you for joining us.
Stephen Janis: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Taya Graham: Now, before we play the interview, Neil, who has been a guest before on our show, has had an interesting career. Can you tell us about it?
Stephen Janis: Yeah. Along with being the head of a narcotics unit for the State Police, he was also a commander in the Baltimore City Police department and he headed up their training division, so he’s had a broad swath of experience in law enforcement.
Taya Graham: Steven. Now, before we play the key clips, what was the topic of the interview and why were we speaking to him and what were you trying to learn?
Stephen Janis: Well, at that point, we were investigating a Worcester County drug unit in Worcester County, which is in Maryland’s lower Eastern shore, who had been harassing Kelvin Sewell, a police officer in Pocomoke City. He was trying to Institute community policing. They kept coming into town, unannounced and raiding people’s homes and stirring up problems for Kelvin Sewell and the black community. We had been looking into them and wanting to learn more about how these units operated, and we found out a lot of interesting things from him.
Neil Franklin: Drug task forces and the way they operate, it was interesting. They’re interesting entities, because they’re not governed by one jurisdiction. They’re not governed by a Mayor’s office. They’re not governed by the Governor. They’re not governed by a County Executive. They’re this Willy-nilly group of folks who have come together to do whatever they want to do, and tie it to drug enforcement. They seized a lot of money. They seized a lot of cash. It’s a lot of money. It’s a lot of cars, motorcycles, homes, boats, you name it. There’s no direct accountability over top of that. A lot of times, we were deciding upon what car to go after, or what target to go after, what person to go after. We were making that decision upon the value of their assets. We’d do financial workups on people, and that’s how we would target a lot of these folks. Do they own their property? Yeah, we looked at liens. Do they own their cars? We look at liens, motorcycles, boats, whatever else they had. Then we’d start to do the work up. Many times you’d hear somebody undercover saying, “That’s going to be my next undercover car.”
Taya Graham: Stephen, what is your reaction to Neil’s assertion, drug units would run financial workups to determine who to investigate? What does that tell us about the other ways we’ve discussed policing on past shows?
Stephen Janis: Well, I think what it says to me is that the need and search for profit and the profit incentive, completely warps policing to its core. I think I, even when Neil told me this, I was stunned about how naked it was, how they didn’t even make any excuses or pretense as in terms of why they were investigating. Also I think, for once and for all, completely undermines any of the impetus for the war on drugs, that the war on drugs is nothing but an industry based on exploiting communities and extracting wealth from communities that can least afford it.
Taya Graham: Now, as we always like to do on this show, we don’t just talk to insiders and experts, but rather, seek out the opinions and perspectives of people on the front lines of citizen journalism, who are holding police accountable through their own YouTube channels, and tireless reporting. Today, we’re joined by Laura Shark, an LA cop watcher. Who’s been following the police department and recording their interactions for several years. Laura, thank you so much for joining us today.
Laura Shark: Thank you for having me.
Taya Graham: What has your experience been, watching drug enforcement units? What have you seen and recorded?
Laura Shark: I’ve seen a lot of videos about the [inaudible 00:08:19] raids and how tragic they can turn out with the no-knock raids.
Taya Graham: Now, we spoke to a former commander of a drug enforcement unit and he said their primary motive was financial. Do you think this is a common imperative of drug units who benefit from asset forfeiture?
Laura Shark: Yes. I believe there’s a big problem with police for profit, basically. What I’ve read into and what I’ve witnessed, I mean, it just, it does seem linked. Then that gives them incentive to pick a victim, basically.
Taya Graham: Laura, you have a video here where you caught on camera part of the process we’re talking about, taking property from people who are charged with a crime. Can you describe the scene for us?
Laura Shark: I’m on Figaro in Los Angeles, recording the Los Angeles Police Department and they’re arresting two females for prostitution, soliciting sex. I’m not sure the legal term really, but, and they are taking their property, which was a lot of money. It dawned on me that, I mean, aside, there’s obviously the drug raids and that asset forfeiture part, but there’s also street police for profits where, it’s like, essentially in my opinion, the police are the pimps. They’re just like a secondary pen. They’re collecting money and they’re accepting that money that these women made and whatever their struggles are, it it gets pretty dark. I also talked to a prostitute later on and ask them straight up, “Do they keep your money?”
She said, “They’re not supposed to, but it just depends on the cop, but usually yeah. Or, they demand sexual favors.” I mean, that’s a whole different issue, but it still falls in line with forfeiture.
Taya Graham: Laura, let’s go to your video from May 4th. Can you describe for us what we’re seeing here?
Laura Shark: We were listening to the scanner. We heard them say, “Officer’s still, in a fight. We see a female deputy running. They were saying something about [inaudible 00:10:29]. We could see she had something in her hand and Tom Zebra started yelling, “Leave him alone.” Then all of a sudden, she just stops in her tracks. She went back to her unit, I assume to put whatever she got back. They weren’t done with them until we showed up basically. I didn’t see the suspect right away. I saw three deputies on the ground, behind a bush. Then we were pushed back by Deputy Gomez, to film. He threatened to arrest us, if we didn’t abide by his words. Basically too, when they try to claim a crime scene, it means they’re just trying to get you out of the area. But there was a point where, and I’m pointing the direction of three deputies, when all of a sudden they sit this man up and it was horrific. It really shocked me.
I really wasn’t expecting that. I’ve seen, I mean, I’ve recorded obviously many, many, many, many police contacts, but that literally was like, I was speechless. I mean, I based, Oh, I was just holding back tears because of the state of this man’s face was just so disfigured. It was like, is he even human? It was just, and then, I’ve actually recorded these deputies many times, so I almost feel like they knew me, I know them, and I was angry. I was very angry.
Taya Graham: What kind of hostility have you endured as a cop watcher, just for recording the actions of law enforcement.
Laura Shark: In very beginning when I first started, I feel like even though I mentioned Tom Zebra, he’s been doing this for over a decade. In my mind, I thought he had already set the mold for police departments, but come to find out still most police departments weren’t used to the concept. They weren’t telling me to stop necessarily, but they’ve pushed me back as far as I could. Their hostility, there were a lot, they were very rude, very cynical. Then, because I stayed with that department because I was so shocked by their response to me, I just focused in, on them, LAPD Harbor Division and you slowly but surely it’s like, “Hi Laura, hi, Laura.” They get used to me, but, I’ve been to many other departments and basically what they do, is just put up tape and get you out of their hair.
Taya Graham: Do you think your work and the work of others like you, has any effect on how law enforcement operates? For example, when you were shooting this video, the officers noticed you and it altered their behavior, correct?
Laura Shark: Yes. For [inaudible 00:12:58] we saw that the female deputy running up to stopping in her tracks. It was something that I remember, Tom Zebra have seen. He’s like, “What does it mean OC? We were running up and he said, “They’re going to go get OC,” and I’m running up. I remember him saying that. I remember seeing the deputy, but at that point already, I was trying to focus on where the suspect was. But yeah, I mean, when it comes to changing the actions of the officers, it happens a lot. I mean, it happens to the point where, because even, again, the LAPD, they recognize me. As soon as I’m starting to walk up, it’s like all of a sudden the stops over. Okay. Okay, go ahead. I’m like, “Well, why do you have to stop him to begin?” Situations like that, where I feel like the difference is that they know they can’t … I guess technically, they do what they want, but they know that my video will be available right away and it’s harder for them to cover their tracks when they don’t have enough time.
I mean, I’m going a little bit above your question, but I don’t really feel like I’m going to change the police, to be honest. That has never been my intention, to change police. I feel like that’s a pipe dream. They have, I mean, there might be organizations or people out there that can take on such a task, but me, I’m more focused on the citizens, the public and educating on your rights. This is what happens with police every day.
Taya Graham: It’s clear once again, that the link between policing and profit can not be ignored. Both our guests, Neil Franklin, and Laura Shark, document in some detail, how the process of law enforcement is fueled, at least in part, by the search for cash, that this link has evolved hand in hand with the interminable war on drugs, and the rise of aggressive policing can not be discounted. It’s a fusion of the power to search and seize with the allure of personal and private gain, driving it behind the scenes. I mean, let’s face it. As Neil pointed out, officers could literally drive the cars they confiscated in drug rates. They were actually allowed to partake in these so-called spoils of the war, and in this case, the war on drugs. How in any practical sense, could this incentivizing of law enforcement, not end badly? How can any society sacrifice its civil rights to the altar of profit acquired to punishment?
How can we expect reform if plainclothes officers are allowed to roam the country, barely supervised, to execute dangerous, no-knock warrants, based upon the flimsiest of evidence? These are questions that deserve answers, but let’s be clear. Just looking at the facts, that the risk of no-knock warrants are real and often lead to tragic consequences. Consider the case of Aiyana Jones. It was 10 years ago, this May, that a SWAT team officer shot and killed the seven-year old girl in her Detroit home during a no-knock warrant. Officers stormed into the house, carrying assault rifles, searching for a murder suspect, but they had the wrong address. The officers first launched a flash grenade into the living room before busting through the front door. In the ensuing chaos, Officer Joseph Weekley fired a single shot from his AR-15, killing the young girl, who was sitting on the couch, in the arms of her grandmother.
At first, Officer Weekley said Aiyana’s grandmother had grabbed the gun, prompting it to discharge unintentionally, but evidence later showed that the story was untrue and Weekley was charged with manslaughter. After three trials, the charges against Weekley were dropped. What has received less attention, is that this case also fits the profile of policing for profit. While the connection is less direct, it shows how the intersection between money and law enforcement, policing and propaganda, work hand in hand to justify these types of raids. That’s because Officer Weekley was a frequent star of the reality TV show produced by the A&E channel, called The First 48, that showed, depicted Weekley, who was called the brain as one of many heroic officers solving homicide on the streets of Detroit. The program heavily touted the efficacy of the Detroit police department on a national network, which netted hundreds of millions of dollars in profit annually.
But in reality, The First 48 was part of the heavily problematic propaganda we have discussed frequently on the show. Hours of programming in the innards of police investigations, bolstered by advertising. In other words, once again, monetizing the criminal justice system, that’s supposed to be motivated by safety and service. It is such a profitable enterprise apparently, according to CBS Detroit, that one of the crew members who filmed the botched raid, actually lie to investigators, to protect Officer Weekley, and was then charged herself, a stark and direct link between cash, corruption, justice, and profits, that clearly raises questions about the imperative driving American policing.
I mean, think about it. All the so-called performers in these shows work for free. In other words, while the multi-billion dollar cable channels reap profits from mining human tragedy for entertainment fodder, the only people who foot the bill is us. That’s because all the officer’s depicted in the so-called surfeit of a reality TV, are still being paid by the cities, which employ them. As far as we know, there is no compensation that goes to the communities, which pay the cop salaries or health benefits or their pensions. No, that burden falls on the same poor families in Detroit, who must not only pay for the policing that is often questionable in its efficacy and usefulness, but also foot the bill when things go wrong. It is in some sense, hard to understand, but also revealing.
Obscenely profitable entertainment companies, creating hours of cop- aganda, without paying a dime to communities that actually fund it. How much clearer of a picture can we paint about what ails law enforcement and how far does this process from monetizing injustice have to go before our political leaders say enough? To emphasize how consequential these strategies are, I want to end the show on a story that I reported on, but whose consequences live with me to this day. It was the story of Lawrence Christian. He was a lifelong steelworker who retired 10 years ago and it was hoping to live out his days in an affordable housing row home in Baltimore. But one day a courier showed up at his door with a package addressed to a man he didn’t know.
When he refused to accept it, the supposed postal worker threw the package at him. Shortly thereafter, a specialized unit of plain- clothed officers stormed into his house and arrested him for drug dealing.
Lawrence Christ…: I come downstairs, open the door and he said, “I have a package. I have a package for Nigel Williams.” I said, “Nigel Williams don’t live there.” “What’s your name?” I said, “My name’s Lawrence Christian.” Then he say, “Well, that’s your address on it. Why don’t you sign for it and he’ll pick it up later.” I said, “F, no.”
Taya Graham: The charges turned out to be false and baseless and they were dropped, but it was too late for Lawrence. As he told us in 2015, the landlord used the alleged crime to evict him from his home before he went to trial. So, Lawrence was homeless, a man who worked his whole life, a father and grandfather, forced onto the streets by the war on drugs. Let’s listen.
Lawrence Christ…: It’s terrible. It’s really terrible. I feel like I’ve been tossed away for something I didn’t do.
Taya Graham: Since we spoke to him, Lawrence has disappeared. We’ve not been able to connect with him or speak with relatives who might put us in touch. He has, in some sense, vanished. For that reason, I will make an appeal here and now, that Lawrence, if you are watching, or if someone who knows him is watching, please reach out to us. Please let us know. As with all the people we speak with as journalists, you are not forgotten and we will not forget the story you shared with us or the life you lived. That is my promise to you, and to everyone that comes on this show. I want to thank my guests, Laura Shark for her incredible work, documenting police in LA and across the country. Laura, thank you for your time and for your work.
Laura Shark: Thanks for having me. I really enjoyed this.
Taya Graham: I want to thank intrepid reporter, Stephen Janis for his investigative reporting, writing and editing. Thank you, Stephen.
Stephen Janis: Thanks for having me. Let’s continue this conversation.
Taya Graham: Of course, I have to thank friend of the show, NOLA D. for her support and for introducing me to Laura. Thank you Nola D. and I want you watching to know, that if you have evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us and we might be able to investigate. Please reach out to us. You can email us tips privately at Tara@therealnews.com and share your evidence of police misconduct. You can also message us at Police Accountability Report on Facebook or Instagram or at EyesonPolice on Twitter. Of course, you can message me directly at [inaudible 00:21:42] Baltimore on Twitter and Facebook, and please like, share and comment. I read your comments, appreciate them and answer questions whenever I can. My name is Taya Graham. I’m your host for the Police Accountability Report. Please, be safe out there.
Host & Producer
Before joining TRNN as an investigative journalist, Taya worked in Baltimore’s neighborhoods of color for years as an advocate and was awarded the Coalition of 100 Black Women’s Torchbearer Award and YANA’s (You Are Never Alone) “Love in Action” award. Her years of outreach to underserved communities have uniquely prepared her to connect with city residents. Now she cultivates relationships with Baltimore’s citizens to cover the stories on the ground.