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January 21, 2005 - Newsday (NY)

Woman Seriously Burned By Device During Drug Raid

By Associated Press

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. - An 18-year-old woman was in a hospital burn unit after being injured by an explosive device police tossed during a drug raid.

Authorities said the woman was not the target of the investigation and described the incident as an unfortunate mishap.

Rhiannon Kephart suffered second- and third-degree burns on her chest and stomach when the device, known as a flash-bang, landed in an apartment where she apparently was in bed or just getting up.

A resident of the apartment was arrested.

The explosion set off a small fire, police said.

"We feel terrible about this. It's very unfortunate," Niagara Falls Police Superintendent John Chella said.

"The intended use of a device like this is to stun people or to divert their attention ... not to hurt anyone."

He defended the officers' actions, saying there was concern that loaded assault weapons were inside the apartment. A loaded gun was recovered, he said.

Officers arrested Michael Johnson, the apartment's occupant, on a felony drug conspiracy charge. Johnson, 24, was charged with conspiring to possess and distribute marijuana, and with possessing a 9 mm handgun.

In court papers, agents said Johnson admitted importing 1,000 pounds of marijuana from Canada in the last three years.

Authorities said they did not know if Kephart was staying in the apartment or visiting.

Organizations like Drug Reform Coordination Network and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which have criticized the nation's anti-drug efforts, have long questioned the use of flash-bang devices.

Peter Christ, a former police captain and co-founder of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, described such devices as part of a dangerous militarization of police tactics.

"I'm not making any judgments about this Niagara Falls incident, because I wasn't there and I don't know their reasons for using it," Christ said.

"But these are like military devices. When you use it, you're putting people in danger."

David Borden, executive director of the Washington-based Drug Reform Coordination Network, said the devices should be limited to exceptional situations, such as hostage-takings.

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