Another Innocent Victim in the War on Drugs

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  1. Cops 'Saddened' By Botched Raid


    By Sean Gardiner and Daryl Kahn
    http://www.nynewsday.com

    May 16, 2003, 10:33 PM EDT


    A 57-year-old Hamilton Heights woman died of a heart attack Friday after police who thought her apartment was a gun and drug stash — on an informant's mistaken tip — broke down her door in a dawn raid, tossed in a "flash grenade," stormed inside with guns drawn and handcuffed her before realizing their error.

    "Obviously we're deeply saddened. This is a tragedy. This should not have happened. No question about that," Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said of the death of Alberta Spruill, who worked for the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. At a news conference, Kelly offered "condolences and sympathy" on behalf of the Police Department and a personal apology to Spruill's family.

    Mayor Michael Bloomberg, calling the incident a "terrible episode," said his heart went out to the dead woman's relatives. "I join all city employees in grieving the loss of our dedicated and hard-working colleague," the mayor said.

    Spruill went into cardiac arrest about a half-hour after 12 police officers raided her sixth-floor apartment at 310 West 143rd St. at about 6:10 a.m. She died shortly before 8 a.m. at Harlem Hospital Center.

    Melvin Boswell, 35, the man who police said they believed was using Spruill's apartment as a drugs cache, with a vicious dog or dogs on guard, already was in police custody, having been arrested on a drug charge Monday. He lives in the same building as Spruill, but on the ninth floor.

    Boswell's distraught girlfriend, Isabel Llanos, 48, said Friday evening that Boswell has used crack and has an 11-week-old pit bull mix named "Bighead," but that he doesn't have a gun. A tearful Llanos accused police of "making him out to be a killer" to cover their mistake.

    Kelly promised a "thorough investigation" — a pledge also made by the mayor — and said all aspects of the raid are under investigation, from the reliability of a confidential informant who first led police to Spruill's apartment, to subsequent efforts by police to confirm the informant's tip, to the decision by police to use the flash grenade.

    The police commissioner immediately placed on desk duty the police lieutenant whose decision it was to use the flash grenade and banned use of flash grenades department-wide. The device was used in this instance, he said, because police believed there may have been people wielding guns, or dogs, in the apartment.

    At the afternoon news conference, Kelly gave this description of events leading to the raid:

    On May 5, a confidential informant walked into the 25th Precinct and told police that a man he bought drugs from was storing cocaine, heroin and guns in Apartment 6F at 310 W. 143rd St. The informant named Boswell, who police said has six prior arrests on drug charges and another arrest on a weapons charge.

    The informant took police to the building, pointed out the door to apartment 6F, and gave police the apartment's layout, Kelly said. The informant said Boswell kept dogs inside that apartment and was known to carry guns.

    On May 6, police obtained a search warrant for apartment 6F but did not execute it at that time.

    On Monday, Boswell was arrested on drug charges and gave his address as 310 W. 143rd Street. "That arrest added credibility to the informant's information," Kelly said.

    Friday at 6:10 a.m., six officers from the department's Emergency Service Unit broke through Spruill's door, and a flash grenade was thrown into the apartment. At the time, Kelly said, Spruill was entering the apartment's main room, getting ready to head to her job downtown at 1 Centre St.

    The explosion shattered the glass top on a table and caused the items on it to tumble to the floor, but there was no other damage to the apartment, Kelly said.

    The six ESU officers ran into the apartment, placed Spruill in a chair and handcuffed her, Kelly said. They were followed by six officers from the 25th Precinct.

    The cops quickly searched the apartment. They found no drugs or guns or dog.

    A captain from the 25th Precinct then entered, realized the confidential informant's tip must be wrong, and ordered the officers to remove Spruill's handcuffs, Kelly said.

    "Police apologized for the entry and asked Ms. Spruill if she needed medical attention," Kelly said. "She refused, but mentioned that she had a heart condition. [Emergency Medical Services] was requested at 6:32 a.m. They arrived at 6:41 a.m. Ms. Spruill's vital signs were taken. They appeared to be normal, but then she appeared to be having difficulty breathing. She was taken to the ambulance, where she went into cardiac arrest. She was pronounced dead at 7:50 this morning at Harlem Hospital."

    Kelly was not able Friday to answer several questions about the events leading up to the raid or the raid itself.

    Kelly said the man who gave police the information was "registered" with police as a "confidential informant." He was not sure if the man ever gave police any information that actually was used to make an arrest.

    Prior to the raid, police in the 25th Precinct had identified Spruill as the apartment's sole occupant. Kelly did not know what, if anything, officers had done to tie her to the informant's tip that her home was being used as a hiding place for drugs and guns.

    He did not know if officers from the 25th Precinct, before conducting the raid, had notified officers in the 32nd Precinct, where the raid took place, as is standard procedure.

    "We're looking at the process used to identify the apartment, if any other follow-up observations were conducted or could have been conducted, the judgment of the officers involved as to the use of this flash grenade," Kelly said. "So we're looking at the totality of the circumstances."

    The department has carried out more than 1,900 search warrants this year, Kelly said, and only four of those have been conducted at wrong locations, none resulting in injuries.
     

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