The New York Times

July 17, 2003

No Stun Grenades Since Death in Raid, as Debate Continues


In the two months since a 57-year-old Harlem woman was literally scared to death after a detective rolled a concussion grenade into her apartment during a mistaken raid, the New York Police Department has not used a single one of the grenades, according to police officials. Last year, it was using about three a week.

Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly temporarily banned their use after the death of the woman, Alberta Spruill. But a week later, Mr. Kelly ordered that they be used only after review and approval by the department's highest-ranking uniformed official. In an interview yesterday, Mr. Kelly said their use had been approved twice but they were not needed. Only a few other requests have been made, which the official rejected, he said.

Because of either the increased scrutiny or the chilling effect from Ms. Spruill's death, the elite officers in the Emergency Service Unit have not used a device that was intended as an alternative to deadly force. The grenades are designed to disorient — but not harm — suspects with a flash, a loud noise and a concussive punch.

A civil rights group yesterday cited the change as proof that the grenades had been used excessively, while a police union leader said his members were concerned that without them, more officers and suspects could be injured or killed. Concussion grenades — sometimes called "flash bangs" — have been used by the New York police with increasing frequency in recent years but drew little public attention until Ms. Spruill's death on May 16. Before that, the department had never determined whether lives had actually been saved by them.

In the late 1990's, the grenades were used in New York City 50 to 75 times a year by heavily armed Emergency Service Unit officers executing search warrants. In 2001, as the number of warrants jumped to 1,509 from 809 the year before, the number of grenades used nearly doubled to 129, from 66. Last year, with 1,695 warrants executed, the police used 152 grenades.

Mr. Kelly played down the significance of the precipitous drop, saying it was a temporary lull and rejecting suggestions that the grenades had been used too freely in the past or that the department was now failing to take advantage of "a valuable tool."

"I wouldn't characterize it in that way," he said. "I think it's somewhat understandable after a traumatic event like the death of Ms. Spruill that there be a pulling back on their use. I think we'll reach some level where they are used more frequently than they are now, but perhaps not as much as they were in the past."

Mr. Kelly added, "But again, it's important to know we still have the procedure in place and we still reserve the right to use it in the appropriate circumstance."

The suggestion that the grenades had been used excessively came from Christopher Dunn, the associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "Just as the department issued a candid report detailing what went wrong with the raid on Mrs. Spruill's apartment and identifying reforms," he said in an e-mail message, "it needs to issue a report explaining the circumstances under which it has been using stun grenades and setting out the specific steps it will take to assure that any future use of the grenades is necessary and proper."

Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, which represents about a quarter of the 450 officers and detectives in the Emergency Service Unit, said officers worry that they have lost the valuable element of surprise from the shock of the grenade explosion when they go through a door.

"How is it that we went from using it fairly often to not at all?" Mr. Lynch asked. "What my members are concerned with is that because we're not using these grenades when they should be used, the number of shootings will go up."

But the leader of the union representing detectives, including 300 in the Emergency Service Unit, took a very different position. Tom Scotto, the president of the union, the Detectives Endowment Association, said he had heard no complaints from his members and had no evidence that the dropoff was endangering officers.

"I think change is good in the department, it's necessary," he said. "It's too soon to tell whether this is a better procedure than the other one, but if it's proven that this type of mechanism was perhaps a little excessive, I'm sure the department will come up with another method" to distract and disorient suspects.

The grenades are used only by the highly trained Emergency Service Unit officers, who handle raids in which heavily armed officers burst into apartments or houses to execute no-knock search warrants, free hostages or arrest suspects.

While the grenades are widely used by police tactical units around the country, there is little legal precedent to guide departments in forming policies on their use, said Jon B. Becker, who owns a company that trains officers and sells tactical equipment.

"The purpose of any raid by tactical officers is to put the suspect in a position where surrender is likely and resistance is futile, and by doing that, the likelihood of them having to shoot the guy goes down," Mr. Becker said.

Many police officials and tactical experts acknowledge that the effectiveness of such devices is difficult to quantify.

"Simply put, flash bangs save lives, of both the good guys and the bad guys," said a former commander of the Emergency Service Unit. "Like any other piece of equipment, their misuse can have serious and untoward consequences. There must be well-thought-out procedures in place, open to modification. As with a firearm or a shovel, the procedures must be followed and the users must be well trained."