In early July, Brett Rosenau, a fifteen-year-old boy, died in a house fire during an Albuquerque Police Department raid on a home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Rosenau was not the subject of the raid, nor was he wanted by law enforcement officials.
Instead, the Albuquerque Police Department was attempting to arrest Qiaunt Kelley, a man wanted for parole violations who fled inside a house he was visiting when police tried to arrest him. Kelley is a person of interest in an ongoing homicide investigation and was thought to be carrying a gun at the time of the raid; however, contrary to initial claims, no outstanding felony warrants existed for Kelley and there has been no indication that his possession of the firearm violated any state or federal laws. He did not even live at the residence where the raid took place.
None of these facts stopped the Albuquerque Police Department from initiating a volatile standoff that included the deployment of dangerous flash-bang grenades and tear gas into the house, which ultimately burst into flames. Reportedly afraid that Kelley was armed, police officers made no effort to combat the blaze or rescue victims for at least forty minutes. By the time they made it inside the charred remains of the house, a child had died of smoke inhalation, a dog had burned to death, and uninvolved residents were left homeless.
Unsurprisingly, the Albuquerque Police Department quickly indulged in the use of the ever evasive exonerative tense. They announced an investigation into whether or not they “may have caused the fire,” although it seems quite likely; most homes do not spontaneously burst into flames, and flash-bang grenades are known to cause serious harm. They also vowed to “take steps” if they concluded that their actions had “inadvertently contributed to [Rosenau’s] death,” although, of course, “contributed” would be the wrong word altogether. If the Albuquerque Police Department did indeed ignite the fire in question, they directly caused the death of Brett Rosenau.
Other comments betrayed their incompetence. In a post on Twitter regarding the incident, the Albuquerque Police Department remarked that the “individuals were given opportunities to safely exit” the building: as if this were valid justification for gratuitous escalation, and as if it were acceptable for the victims to be killed, even accidentally, because they failed to leave the building. The comment implies that Albuquerque police officers had no options for responding to the situation short of burning down a civilian residence; at the very least, it seeks to absolve the police officers for doing so.
When confronted on the issue, representatives for the Albuquerque Police Department doubled down. “Are police supposed to let his warrant slide,” the public information officer asked rhetorically, “and hope there isn’t another carjacking, shooting[,] or murder in the meantime?”
But of course, none of the loudest objectors actually contended that Albuquerque police officers should have just walked away. They simply challenged the effectiveness and ethicality of the tactics that, in this case, appear to have killed a child. The unwillingness of the Albuquerque Police Department to entertain legitimate criticisms of their conduct is concerning. But more than that, their apparent inability to strike a balance between “let[ting] the warrant slide” and starting a house fire is deeply disturbing. Their response suggests that, to them, these were the only available options.
Moreover, Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina admitted that “devices used to introduce irritants into the home may have caused the fire,” and that he was aware of reports that tear gas canisters like the kind used in the standoff had previously caused fires. The Albuquerque Police Department used them in spite of these known risks.
This event is the latest in a series that conclusively demonstrates the lethality of gross negligence and disproportionate uses of force on the part of law enforcement officials. Legislators must recognize and correct fundamentally poor policy decisions, such as the authorization of flash-bang grenades, chemical irritants, and other such devices during police raids. Individual police officers must exercise discretion and restraint and must refrain from and even refuse to implement such drastic measures.
More generally, police officers and departments must ask themselves: is it really worth it? Are the additional effort and mere hours ostensibly saved by these extreme methods worth the violent end of innocent human lives?