In a story that has sparked a debate over the drug war, a Tampa, Florida, SWAT team shot and killed a man during a nighttime drug raid but found only $2 worth of marijuana in his home.
The man, Jason Westcott, worked itinerantly as a motorcycle mechanic and had been fearful that an acquaintance who previously had threatened him was plotting to rob him. In fact, weeks before the raid, Westcott had called police, asking them to keep the man away.
Westcott’s friends said police officers had told him that if anyone breaks into the house, he should grab a gun and shoot the person.
Several weeks later, armed men did come busting through the door of the Seminole Heights home – but they were not armed robbers. Westcott, 29, did not have the opportunity to squeeze the trigger before he was killed in a massive volley of police gunfire. The law enforcement officers were part of the same department that had originally been tasked with helping protect the man from the plotting robber, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
In the time between his initial contact with police and the SWAT team raid, Westcott had become the target of a drug investigation. The raid occurred on a Tuesday evening, the same night Westcott typically kept his sister’s children at his house – but thankfully they were not there this time.
One department official told the newspaper that Westcott had “raised his gun and threatened officers.” The SWAT team ultimately found just .2 grams of marijuana in the home – about $2 in street value. Details of the case came to light only because of a public records request by the Times.
Author Radley Balko said the raid never should have happened.
“So the same police department who warned Westcott that a dangerous man wanted to kill him then sent an armed team of cops into his home in a nighttime raid,” Balko wrote in The Washington Post. “We’re told over and over again by police departments that cops do extensive investigations of suspects before conducting these raids. How, then, could Tampa police not have known that Westcott had reported the threats against him a few months earlier?”
They should have known, Balko wrote, that Westcott “would likely respond violently to men breaking into his home.”
Reporters were told by police that Westcott was dealing drugs and had sold pot numerous times to undercover officers. That, though, turned out to be inaccurate. The drug buys which allegedly took place at the home were not conducted by an undercover police officer but by a citizen informant. According to police documents, the informer bought less than $200 worth of marijuana during multiple visits to Westcott’s Seminole Heights home.
The Tampa Police Department said that the drug raid was prompted by complaints from multiple neighbors. But when the Times conducted its investigation, it could find no record of any neighbor who would admit to calling the police. The department backtracked, saying there were no neighbors who had complained.
Israel Reyes, 22, who lived with Westcott and was also suspected of dealing drugs, has not been charged with a crime.
“Nobody can believe that this happened to Jason. They can’t understand how this could happen to Jason. No one can figure this out,” Patti Silliman, Westcott’s mother, told the newspaper
The Hillsborough State Attorney’s office determined that the police officers involved with the fatal shooting were justified in the use of deadly force.
“Mr. Westcott lost his life because he aimed a loaded firearm at police officers,” said Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor. “You can take the entire marijuana issue out of the picture. If there’s an indication that there is armed trafficking going on — someone selling narcotics while they are armed or have the ability to use a firearm — then the tactical response team will do the initial entry. I’ve gone in where there was an expectation that we would find a small amount and you would find kilos of narcotics. And then vice versa, where you were going in and you thought you were going to find multiple kilos and you found residue. It’s not an exact science.”
But was a no-knock raid really warranted? Had the officers simply knocked, perhaps Westcott would still be alive.
Do you believe SWAT team raids are warranted for drug crimes? Tell us in the section below: