In South Florida, SWAT Raids Netting Minimal Drugs Often Turn Deadly
Illustration by Carlo Giambarresi
The SWAT team snakes behind a one-story pink and yellow house an hour before dawn breaks over a silent working-class block in Hallandale Beach. As the heavily armed cops in black military gear pour into the small backyard, Tank, a 15-year-old pit bull, rises from the concrete ground, straining at his metal chain. One cop aims and shoots the dog, killing it. Another officer smashes open the back door, then hurls in a flash grenade. Officer Michael McKenzie, a burly cop covered in bulletproof gear and armed with an automatic shotgun, bursts into a narrow kitchen.
McKenzie is suddenly face to face with the man he'd come looking for: Howard Bowe Jr., a bearded 34-year-old with a chubby face and long dreads, wearing only a T-shirt and boxers. McKenzie screams at Bowe to get down.
Seconds later, he shoots him twice in the stomach.
In the next apartment, Corneesa Bowe, Howard's sister, hears her brother scream. "Why did y'all shoot me?" he yells.
Howard's 16-year-old son freezes in bed on the other side of the house. Suddenly the door is kicked open, and three SWAT-gear-clad officers storm into his room. "Don't move!" one cop shouts, grabbing hold of the teenager and pulling him out of the bed. "What's going on?" Howard III asks.
Twenty minutes later, from the back of a police van, Howard III watches his father, still conscious and with a dazed look in his eyes, rolled out of the house on a stretcher. "Why did y'all shoot me?" his father says again, this time weakly.
Within hours, Bowe would fall into a coma. Ten days later, he'd be dead.
The May 8, 2014 raid was the latest in a sometimes-deadly trend of military-style operations targeting those suspected of dealing small amounts of drugs in South Florida. Police, who admitted that Bowe was unarmed when he was shot and had no weapons in the house, later said they found 16 grams of cocaine — more than a personal stash but hardly a legit trafficker's horde. Bowe is at least the fifth person killed in South Florida since 2005 in a SWAT raid that resulted in minimal or no drugs.
Although Bowe was the first suspect killed in a Hallandale Beach SWAT operation, New Times found that since 2006, the department's narcotics unit has conducted at least 38 SWAT raids, including 33 in the same square mile area where Bowe lived. That area is a mostly black enclave within a sleepy, affluent town of 38,000 that's 80 percent white. The other five raids were carried out within a quarter-mile of that area.
New Times also found that not a single Hallandale Beach raid has ever turned up a substantial drug bust. In the majority of cases, police found small amounts of cocaine or marijuana, including in one raid that yielded nothing but one joint. At least four of those SWAT efforts turned up no drugs at all.
"When police deploy resources in predominantly black or poor neighborhoods yet their investigations yield little or no results... it begs the question, why the continued police scrutiny in those communities over all others?" says Broward County Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes.
City leaders maintain that the raids help keep Hallandale Beach safe and dispute claims that they're racially biased in choosing their targets.
"They do value the raids because the impact to the community is substantial," says Pete Dobens, a city spokesman. "It addresses the drug issue and other aspects of cleaning up the city, and it restores some of the security in that neighborhood."
But critics say organizing heavily armed SWAT raids to turn up small amounts of drugs is simply bad policing that wastes taxpayer dollars — and, in the worst cases, leaves unarmed suspects dead.
"There is no good justification for the police to deploy a SWAT team... for this kind of situation," says Peter Kraska, a University of Kentucky professor of criminology who has studied SWAT tactics. "Clearly, this is a misapplication of a militarized approach that should only be reserved for the most extreme situations. This misapplication unfortunately led to an unnecessary tragedy."
Becoming a father at age 16, Howard Bowe tried many different ways to make ends meet.
Courtesy of Corneesa Bowe
Hallandale Beach was once known simply as Hallandale, a farming community founded in the late 1800s under the stewardship of Henry Flagler, an oil baron who founded the Florida East Coast Railway. It's most famous mainstay — the Gulfstream Park racetrack — was founded in 1939, and by the 1960s, the town had grown into a quiet suburb that wanted to become a beach destination. After incorporating more coastline into its city limits, leaders added "Beach" to the town's name, cementing the borders of a four-square-mile city tucked between Aventura in Miami-Dade County and Hollywood in Broward County.
As the city grew, de facto segregation kept the west side mostly black and the east side mostly white. But that didn't stop the black community from thriving during the '60s and '70s in a western neighborhood known as "The Palms." That's where Howard Bowe's grandfather opened the Dew Drop Inn, a popular gathering place for local black folks to drink and eat and for out-of-towners to stay.
Bowe Jr. was born on September 10, 1979, around the time the beachside town finally began to boom. Condos were built, and white retirees from up north began buying them up, further isolating working-class black residents into a small pocket out west. That's where Bowe's maternal grandfather started the Johnnie Lee James plant nursery, which became the family's nexus point.
As a child, Bowe earned the nickname "Poochie" for his chubby, teddy-bear-like face and fondness for Winnie the Pooh. As he grew older, neighborhood friends took the nickname and modified it.
"I called him 'Big Baby,'?" chuckles Arvis Samuel, a neighbor and longtime friend. "That's what he looked like — a big dude with a baby face."
Cuddly appearance aside, Howard was a hard worker with an entrepreneurial spirit, a quality he learned from his business-minded grandparents. It was a personality trait that would constantly drive him toward new ways of making money — but also one that led him into trouble.
"His [maternal] grandfather always told him to be your own boss and work for yourself," his mother, Belinda, says.
Growing up, the strapping Bowe was always in demand on the football field. He played in the Washington Park youth league in Hollywood as a kid. His father, an avid soccer player, was a volunteer coach who used his skills to help his son's defensive game and kicking skills.
From a young age, Bowe was always hustling. He had to. Money was sometimes tight in the family, and his father suffered back injuries that made physical work difficult.
When he was 12 years old, Bowe used his allowance to buy Butterfingers and Snickers in bulk and sell them in the school playground. When he was a little older, he worked with his father doing construction and demolition work around South Florida. The pressure to make a living increased when Bowe became a father himself when he was just 16. After graduating from Nova High School, he supported his infant son with gigs cleaning and detailing cars and boats and pressure-cleaning yachts during boat shows.
But Bowe's hustling often got him in legal trouble. He had four run-ins with the law over the next ten years, including two arrests for cocaine and marijuana possession with intent to distribute, plus a domestic-violence charge and a third-degree theft charge.
In 1998, when he was 19, he had his first drug-related arrest, possession with intent to distribute cocaine. He was later sentenced to time served: 37 days in jail. In 2004, he was charged with domestic violence after trying to pull his pregnant girlfriend into a car; prosecutors declined to pursue the case. (Bowe and the girlfriend remained close until his death.)
In 2006, an undercover cop posing as a drug buyer asked Bowe for $20 of crack. According to police records, Bowe said he knew somebody with drugs and asked if he could get $10 for arranging the deal. Police charged Bowe with felony intent to distribute cocaine within 1,000 feet of a church. He pleaded no contest in exchange for drug court.
Two years later, undercover BSO deputies stopped a woman near Bowe's home and found a baggie of crack. She told police she got it from Bowe. Police came back with a search warrant and found drugs, though the amount was not disclosed on police records. Bowe ended up with two years of probation for possession with intent to distribute.
By 2008, however, Bowe's family believed he'd gotten his life in better order. He stopped getting arrested and had two more kids. By 2011, he and an accountant girlfriend had even opened a tax preparation business together in Hallandale Beach.
But that stability was short-lived. The business dissolved in September 2013, and Bowe scrambled again to make ends meet. He started a mobile car washing and detailing business. Always a gourmet who specialized in whipping up Bahamian recipes he'd learned from his parents, Bowe began driving to a wholesale market in Miami to buy conch. He'd grill the chewy delicacy out in his front yard and sell it to neighbors.
In 2013, he got a used-car dealer's license, hoping to buy and fix up used cars with his father, with whom he'd spent long afternoons restoring old engines. Bowe was also taking classes at the McFatter Technical Institute in Davie to get a forklift operator's license. He earned the certificate in January 2014.
Bowe grilled and sold Bahamian-style conch and chicken dinners from his front yard.
Bowe wasn't shy about wanting to get out of Hallandale Beach. He'd even invested $4,000 into a small plot of land in rural Clewiston near Lake Okeechobee, where he liked to go Jet-Skiing and fishing. His dream, Bowe's father says, was to put up a small home near the lake where he could spend laid-back days in the sun.
"He told me he wanted to live out there and have his car business set up, have his Jet Ski, and fix up one of those swamp boats so he could go out on the lake," Howard Sr. says.
Bowe also kicked around the idea of having a music festival on the plot of land with his brother, Bruce, a local rapper and producer. It would be a mini-Woodstock with soul and reggae music."We thought it could be a small thing at first and maybe grow it if people came out there," Bruce says.
But as he was working with his family to finance those dreams, police say he was also quietly dealing cocaine again. Just a few weeks after getting his forklift license, an informant and a SWAT raid would put a deadly end to his plans.
One afternoon in May 2014, Howard Bowe heard a knock at the door of the same small house he'd been living in since he was born. The visitor was a local druggie looking to score a bit of crack. And according to police, Bowe had some on hand. He ducked back inside and, a few minutes later, emerged with a small baggie. He pocketed cash from the junkie, handed it over, and shut the door.
Bowe didn't know it, but the buyer was a snitch, and his testimony to cops would start the wheels turning that would lead days later to Bowe's death.
One year later, Howard's family, police, and prosecutors are still trying to untangle exactly what went wrong that May morning inside his Hallandale Beach house. But interviews with witnesses and a review of police documents bolster critics' claims that a flawed process made a tragic ending bound to happen in a town where these raids are frequent.
Two weeks before the May 8 operation, detectives Michael Springer and Christopher Allen "formulated a plan," according to police documents, for the unnamed confidential informant to go to Howard's home and make a controlled buy.
They outfitted the informant with audio and video surveillance equipment and gave him cash as Springer and Detective Lori James watched him walk down the street toward Howard's home on NW Fourth Street.
Then they watched the drug buy. "Bowe exited the rear door of apartment B and delivered suspect crack cocaine to the [informant] in exchange for official investigative funds," according to the police narrative in the search-warrant application.
Police never said how much crack was purchased by the snitch. But the buy was enough to get a warrant signed by Judge Elizabeth Scherer. Armed with the warrant, the HBPD SWAT team plotted its raid.
Around 6 a.m. on May 8, the 12-member SWAT team swarmed Bowe's house, shot his dog, then shot Bowe twice in the stomach.
Bowe was rushed to the intensive-care unit at Hollywood's Memorial Regional Hospital — the same hospital he was born in 34 years earlier. His family hurried to his side, but for two days, they weren't allowed to see him. Bowe was officially under arrest for possession of cocaine and resisting arrest without violence; technically, he had to be bailed out before they could visit him. It took relatives two days to make the $10,000 bail. By then, Bowe was in a medically induced coma.
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In the meantime, police released basic details of the shooting and the charges against Bowe. They said they'd followed proper procedure in the raid by announcing their presence, knocking on the door, and then bursting through the front of the house. In the police narrative of the shooting, McKenzie claims to have seen Bowe holding an "unknown reflective item" before he fired. Bowe was unarmed, though, and it's unclear what he was holding. The only objects taken from the kitchen for evidence were a can of Raid, a watch, a lighter, a cell phone, and a spatula.
Police Chief Dwayne Flournoy says Hallandale Beach PD followed the procedures laid out by Florida's State Statute 933.09, which he quoted word for word to New Times.
"An officer may break open any outer door, inner door, or window of a house or any part of a house or anything therein to execute the warrant, if after due notice of the officer's authority and purpose, he or she is refused admittance to said house or access to anything therein," he says.
But some neighbors take issue with the police version of events, claiming cops actually went through the back door first and never announced themselves.
Arvis Samuel, a 41-year-old longtime friend of Bowe's, lives in the house across the street. He says police ran through the backyard. Then he heard the gunshots that killed Tank, the pit bull, and then Bowe.
"They didn't serve the warrant at the front door. They went straight through the back door," Samuel says. "I heard the first gunshots, and the first shot was to kill the dog at the back door. About 30 seconds after the first shot came the second and third shot."
Corneesa Bowe, Howard's sister who was next door during the raid, believes Howard was asleep when the first shot killed Tank. She believes he got up to see what was happening, walking into the kitchen that faces the back door. When police broke in, Howard was facing McKenzie, who then shot him.
"I heard some screaming and then the gunshots," she recalls. "And after that, my brother was crying out, 'Why did y'all shoot me?'"
Samuel could also hear Bowe shouting after he had been shot. "I heard him screaming for about three or four minutes," says Samuel. "He was telling them to stop, don't shoot."
At Hollywood's Memorial Hospital, Bowe's family sat at his bedside for the next ten days. "The doctors told us his organs were destroyed," says Corneesa. "He had to be on pain meds the entire time. They took him off the medication once, and his blood pressure shot up through the roof."
Police say they went through the front of Bowe's home, but some neighbors say cops went through the back door first.
Photo by Brian M. Stewart
Although he never regained consciousness, the family thought Howard was fighting. He once ripped out some of the tubes in his throat. Another time he tried to roll out of bed. Doctors said these were just reflexes. But to the family, it was something more.
"He was trying to communicate something," says Bruce.
But on May 19, Bowe's organs failed, and he died. His son sat by his bed, watching him slip away, while Bowe's father tried to comfort the rest of the clan.
"I didn't get him out of here fast enough," Howard Bowe Sr. says. "This city doesn't want us here anymore. They're pushing us out. They want to get rid of us. And now they killed Poochie."
Bowe is far from the first small-time drug suspect targeted by the Hallandale Beach Police Department. Critics in the community say the number of raids in the blocks surrounding Bowe's house paint the picture of an affluent community deploying a heavy police presence on its small black neighborhood — and getting scant results to back up the tactics.
"The police have been using excessive force almost exclusively on the west side of Hallandale and disproportionately targeting the black community," says Brian Stewart, an attorney who lives on the same street where Bowe was shot.
Activists say the trend is the latest problem for a force with a history of racially biased policing. By the 1980s, the cocaine wave sweeping Miami had an impact on Hallandale Beach. "There was a lot more drug activity back then," says Anthony Sanders, the only black member of the Hallandale Beach City Commission.
But violent crime did not grow with the drug trade. Except for a spike in murders in 1980, which saw ten, the murder rate never exceeded two per year through the '90s, according to FBI statistics. By 2000, only one person was killed in Hallandale Beach. Since then, violent crime in the small city has been minimal.
Yet Hallandale Beach Police have stepped up their aggressive policies in recent years, resulting in eight police shootings in the past five years — three of them fatal, including Bowe's.
In 2012, Gregory Ehlers was shot three times after allegedly shoplifting at a Best Buy. He was unarmed. The Ehlers family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the City of Hallandale Beach, which settled for $150,000. That same year, Eduardo Prieto, also suspected of shoplifting, was shot and killed by police. HBPD has not disclosed the reason for the shooting. Prieto's family has a pending lawsuit against the city. Prosecutors are still investigating both fatal shootings.
Tony Rocco, 59, Bowe's godfather and an ex-cop who worked in Hallandale Beach and Hollywood until 1992, says the problem is an overfunded force without much serious crime to tackle. "Some of these small-time departments want to make like they're not small-time. There's no action, so they make their own action," says Rocco, who says he retired just as the SWAT teams were growing in use. "When they militarize themselves to that point, it's total overkill for basic drug sellers... These aren't big-time cartels."
Yet SWAT raids have become a regular tactic for the force, which averages about five per year in an approximately one-square-mile radius near Bowe's home. (The department's annual budget is about $20 million, according to city figures; exact breakdowns were not available for the SWAT team's budget.) A review of the warrants in those cases paint a picture of overwhelming force routinely deployed against suspected small-time pushers.
On October 21, 2008, for instance, the Hallandale Beach SWAT team raided a home on NW First Avenue, busting down a door and swarming inside — only to find nothing but a baggie with a "trace amount" of suspected cocaine residue. Police ended up taking a filled-out job application with the resident's personal information as evidence.
Two years later, in May 2010, police raided a home on NW Seventh Terrace and didn't find any drugs. But the cops did confiscate a box of Ziploc bags because they are "commonly used to carry narcotics," according to police documents.
In November of that same year, police raided a home on NW Fourth Avenue and found nothing but "loose cannabis" on the living room floor and a baggie of marijuana stashed inside a box of Newport cigarettes.
In the raids where police did find cocaine, the amounts were usually negligible, including in two raids in the six weeks before Howard Bowe was shot. One raid turned up only three rocks of crack cocaine, and the other found just one small baggie of cocaine.
If the militaryesque operations were meant to combat heavy weaponry from suspected drug dealers, there isn't much evidence to support that precaution. In the force's 38 raids since 2006, police found only two weapons: one handgun and one AK-47. (It's not clear if the owners had permits for those guns.)
City officials say the raids are all based on solid intelligence about drug dealing. "In that area, we have four schools, four parks, and a number of churches, so they're all impacted by the drug trade," says Dobens, the Hallandale Beach spokesman. "That's where the activity is, and that's why they hit it."
However, neither Dobens nor the police department could provide drug-arrest data that might show whether Hallandale Beach's mostly black community in fact has more drug activity than its tourist-friendly beach zones. The city's overall arrest numbers suggest there isn't much criminal activity in general. In 2013, the last year for which data is available, HBPD made just 114 total arrests, including 41 felonies and 73 misdemeanors.
Hallandale Beach PD has conducted 38 SWAT raids since 2006, the vast majority in the town's small black neighborhood.
Photo by Brian M. Stewart
Black leaders say they're troubled that the raids all target Bowe's neighborhood.
"Drugs are a problem in every community, but others mask them more than us," says Sanders, the city commissioner. "In the lower-income communities, you can see where they're selling marijuana because the community is small and everybody knows everybody. But in the more affluent communities, they have drug problems too, but they're not as visible as in the lower-income communities."
Sanders says he saw that bias firsthand in 2010 when, on his way back from a football game with his teenaged sons, cops pulled him over and drew their guns on him before verbally abusing his family. "The real drug dealers are the ones shipping this stuff on yachts and flying them in here on planes, but that's not where we are," he says.
While Bowe was the first suspect to die in a Hallandale Beach raid, a look at other SWAT casualties in South Florida suggests fatalities aren't unheard of in cases that turn up small amounts of or no drugs. At least four other suspects have died since 2005 in similar cases:
• On August 25, 2005, the Sunrise Police Department raided the home of 23-year-old Anthony Diotaiuto, who was suspected of selling marijuana. According to police, Diotaiuto was in the living room when he ran from police and hid in his bedroom closet, where he armed himself with a semiautomatic handgun. Detective Sean Visners and Officer Daniel Kobayashi chased Diotaiuto into the room and allegedly saw him point the gun at Visners. That's when they shot and killed Diotaiuto.
Police later searched the home and found less than one ounce of marijuana. Both of the officers were cleared by prosecutors of any wrongdoing.
• On June 13, 2008, Vincent Hodgkiss, a 47-year-old cancer patient, was naked in his bedroom when the Pembroke Pines SWAT team busted through the front door of his home. Officer Javier Diaz later testified that as he kicked open Hodgkiss' bedroom door, Hodgkiss ran into the bathroom with a shotgun and pumped the barrel. Diaz, "in fear for his life," shot two rounds, killing the suspect. But Hodgkiss' naked body was found halfway out of the bathroom, while the shotgun was in the shower. Hodgkiss had been shot twice in the back.
Diaz was eventually cleared of wrongdoing, and the shooting was ruled justified. Police found about one ounce of weed and some prescription pills. It's not clear if those pills were for one of Hodgkiss' ailments.
• In March 2010, 52-year-old grandmother Brenda Van Zwieten testified to police that she was in fear of a man who had allegedly broken into her Pompano Beach home two weeks prior. The next day, police smashed through a sliding glass door of Van Zwieten's home in search of evidence that the mother of four was selling drugs.
According to reports, Van Zwieten ran from the living room, where police were entering, and hid in her bedroom. When deputies Geraldo Lopez and Jason Rotella kicked down her door, they claim they saw the slim blond clutching a pistol — and then they shot her five times. The cops were cleared without charges. Police later found ten ounces of marijuana and six plants in the house.
• On March 7, 2012, Miami-Dade Police smashed through the front door of a Miami Lakes home belonging to 26-year-old Michael Santana, who was sitting down to a chicken dinner with his girlfriend. Santana pulled out a gun (which he had registered), and officer German Alech shot Santana three times, killing him on the spot.
Santana had been suspected of selling marijuana. After shooting him, police found less than two ounces of pot in the home. Alech was later cleared, but Santana's family has a lawsuit pending against the police department.
On a Sunday afternoon in April, Bowe's family gathers at the Johnnie Lee James plant nursery, which his grandfather started more than 30 years ago and is now run by his mother, Belinda. Lush plants surround the small green building, which has doubled as an intimate church where Bowe's uncle James sometimes preached.
Belinda quietly holds court at her desk while she watches her ex-husband, Howard Sr., a barrel-chested 60-year-old with a booming voice used to lead construction crews, describe what a wreck he's been since his son's death.
"It hasn't been getting easier," he says. "Every first week of the month, it reminds me of when they shot Poochie. It hasn't gotten easier; it's just gotten worse."
As Bowe's family grapples with his death, community activists are asking police to reconsider how they conduct SWAT raids.
The Hallandale Beach Police Department concluded its own investigation in June 2014, just weeks after the shooting. It passed its findings to the State Attorney's Office, which will ultimately decide whether to charge Officer McKenzie with any wrongdoing.
A year later, the Bowe family isn't any closer to getting answers about why police killed Howard.
Photo by Michele Eve Sandberg
But McKenzie hasn't had to give a statement about what led him to shoot Bowe. According to Ron Ishoy, a spokesman for the Broward Attorney's Office, the officer isn't required to testify.
"In a case like this, the involved officer is given an invitation to testify before the grand jury upon a waiver of immunity in which he must essentially waive his Miranda rights," Ishoy explains. "It is the officer's choice — with advice of his counsel — whether or not he shall choose to testify."
While prosecutors investigated, McKenzie was put on three months of paid leave and has since been assigned to desk duty. McKenzie, who earns $154,000 a year (including retirement and benefits), appears to have made light of his new paper-pushing role: On his desk is a paper nameplate that reads "Front Desk Task Force Coordinator."
Rocco, the ex-cop and Bowe's godfather, says he doubts McKenzie's tale but doesn't expect prosecutors to act.
"[It's] the oldest trick in the book," he says of McKenzie's claims that Bowe had a shiny object in his hand. "Say you saw something shiny and that's your excuse."
Sanders agrees. "Historically, it just hasn't happened," the commissioner says of charges against officers who kill suspects. "The best we can hope for is that policies change... I'm not saying there doesn't ever need to be a raid... But [the Hallandale Beach Police's] reasons for raids are too minimal."
City leaders, though, maintain that the SWAT raids are still a useful tool, even in the wake of Bowe's death. "[Bowe's death] is a consequence" of drug dealing, Dobens says. "To the community, the value [of SWAT raids] is immeasurable."
Kraska, the Kentucky professor, says most police departments agree and are still investing in military-style units that target drug dealers. He says 80 percent of cities with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 people have SWAT teams. Raids have skyrocketed from 3,000 deployments per year in 1980 to 45,000 in 2007, with 80 percent of them for drug warrants.
"There's no reason to think it will drop off," he says. "We're seeing the trickle-down effect of police militarization, which has normalized a paramilitary approach in police departments."
Kraska says if the policies are ever reconsidered, it will happen because of pressure from political movements criticizing police tactics and mass incarceration. "What we're seeing today is a groundswell of awareness, particularly among African-Americans, that it doesn't have to be this way, and that could lead to a change in policy," he says.
Hallandale Beach PD has made one move since Bowe's death. Chief Flournoy hired an outside firm to evaluate police tactics: Cincinnati-based Greenwood and Streicher was brought on in February to conduct a department-wide audit that is expected to be finished within the next few months.
Broward prosecutors, meanwhile, are not expected to release findings on Bowe's death anytime soon. Their report on the two fatal shootings involving Hallandale Beach Police in 2012 are still pending. Ishoy says those cases are "near the top of our list."
Whatever answers do result from the state attorney's investigation, Bowe's family will still never understand why Hallandale Beach Police stormed into Howard Bowe's home and killed him. "I'll never have peace. I'll never have closure," Belinda says. "Why did they have to go in like that?"