A 19-month old Georgia toddler is in critical condition after a northeast Georgia SWAT team threw a “flash bang” grenade into his playpen while he was sleeping, causing him to suffer severe burns and later enter a medically induced coma. The tragic incident is part of a larger trend of innocent bystanders suffering injury and death due to the tactics employed by SWAT teams.
Police stormed the Habersham County residence where 19-month-old Bounkham Phonesavanh was sleeping last Wednesday night. Operating under a “no-knock warrant,” police threw the stun grenade after struggling to beat down the door with a battering ram. Upon entering the home, they realized the obstruction to the door was the toddler’s playpen, charred by the explosive grenade. The boy’s mother, Alecia Phonesavanh, reported that she and her family had been sleeping at her sister in-law’s after their Wisconsin home burned down. The police were searching for Wanis Thoneteva, Phonesavanh’s 30-year-old nephew, who sold methamphetamine to a confidential informant the previous day but who was no longer in the house. They were also unable to find any arms or drugs inside the home.
While County Sheriff Joey Terrell has claimed that police “didn’t see anything to indicate that there was a child in the house,” mother Alecia Phonesavanh told ABC otherwise in an interview: “My son’s old playpen was right outside because we were getting ready to leave, we were going to throw it away… it was very, very visible,” adding that several car seats were also in plain sight. Still, Terrell has insisted that Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Brian Rickman, who has been tasked with investigating the incident, assured him “there’s nothing to investigate.” Rickman has since denied this claim.
This is not the first time SWAT teams using flash grenades have caused harm to children and bystanders. In 2012, a 12-year-old girl received first degree burns after police detonated a flash grenade next to the bed where she was sleeping in her Billings, Montana home. 7-year-old Aiyana Jones was killed in 2007 when a SWAT team looking for a suspect in a murder investigation raided the duplex where her family lived and threw a flash grenade into her room, igniting her bed and setting Jones on fire. Neighbors claim they warned police children were present in the house, and the suspect was apprehended on the other side of the housing unit.
Members of the law enforcement have also spoken out against the use of flash grenades, which are reportedly intended to cause distraction and confusion, but in reality can start dangerous fires. In 2008, officer Donald Bain experienced accidental detonation of a flash grenade he was carrying, leading to a concussion and intense burns. The use of flash grenades in raids against suspected nonviolent drug offenders is just part of the larger problem of police forces being authorized to use greater force.
The Phonesavanh family, who do not have health insurance, have started an online fundraiser to raise money for 19-month old Bounkham’s surgeries.
Will Freeman is an intern with Think Progress.