I have a developing story for you all, courtesy of libertarian blogger Radley Balko:

Jonathan Ayers, a 29 year old pastor of Lavonia, Georgia was shot and killed last Tuesday by undercover narcotics officers during a botched drug bust. The shooting occurred around 2:30 in the afternoon just outside a Shell station in Toccoa, Georgia, where he had just returned to his car after getting money from the ATM. There, an SUV pulled up to the store, and a joint task force–comprised of three officers from Stephens, Habersham and Rabun counties–sprung out of the SUV with their guns drawn and confronted Ayers. Ayers put his care into reverse and backed into one of the officer and then began to drive off, at which time, one of the other officers opened fired at his vehicle. Ayers was shot in the liver and subsequently crashed his car a short distance from the Shell station. He was taken to a local hospital, where he died from his gunshot wound.

While the full details of this story are still being learned, the police officers are already facing scrutiny due to the differing accounts of the story that they have given. Members of Ayers’ family were initially told that Ayers had died in a traffic accident. It wasn’t until hours later that they learned that he had died in an officer involved shooting. Furthermore, police officers initially told WNEG, the local news station, on Tuesday that Ayers was a suspect/target of a drug investigation. On Wednesday, however, authorities confirmed that Ayers was not the target of the investigation, contradicting their previous statement. Ayer’s family maintains that Ayers, who was the minister of Lavonia’s Shoal Creek Baptist Church and whose wife was four months pregnant, was not involved in illegal drug activity.

This troubling story raises two questions:

1) If Ayers was NOT the target of the drug bust, why did a joint task force jump out of their SUV and confront him with their guns drawn?

2) Even if Ayers HAD been the target of the drug bust (which we know he was not), how can the police officers justify shooting an apparently unarmed man as he was driving away? Ayers lost control of his vehicle after being shot, and could have run into a pedestrian or another vehicle. And as the owner of the Shell station pointed out in his interview with WNEG news, the police officers put the stores patrons at risk given that the incident took place near a parking lot full of people and several gas pumps.

Apparently, the joint task force was after–not Ayers–but the woman who he had dropped off shortly before he arrived at the Shell station. According to Stephens County Sheriff Randy Shirley, the woman had been charged with cocaine possession and distribution, he said. WNEG news has reported that the woman, whose name has not been released, was also the target of an ongoing investigating involving prostitution.

WNEG news has obtained surveillance footage from the Shell station, showing the police shooting. The point in which Ayers steps into his vehicle cannot be seen in this footage, but the point at which the black SUV pulls into the parking is shown, and the police officers (who were dressed in regular clothes as opposed to police uniforms) darting across the street with their guns drawn and shooting at Ayers’ vehicle AS HE IS DRIVING AWAY can clearly be seen.
The county sheriff maintains that the police officers immediately identified themselves as police officers. He also points out that Ayers struck one of the police officers with his vehicle as he was backing up, and though he concedes that Ayer’s striking the police officer with his vehicle was unintentional (the police officer had run behind the car just as it was reversing), Ayers’ was nonetheless driving towards the other police officers “in a threatening manner.”

I don’t know about the rest of you, but it’s things like this that really anger me–far beyond what the words of this page can convey. I realize that we don’t have the entire story yet and they details of this story might emerge that might put what the police officers did in a slightly better context.

However, on just basic principle, law enforcement officers shouldn’t being using deadly force against unarmed citizens, regardless of whether the citizen was a suspect in a drug bust. That Ayers was not even the target of the drug bust but police officers decided to pull their guns on him nonetheless, makes the story even more indefensible.

Now, I realize that some people will argue that this incident reflects a mistake made the police officers in question and not any inherent flaw in the War on Drugs and that I shouldn’t be so quick to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

To them, I would ask, how many innocent people have to be maimed or killed during drug busts before we begin to ask whether there isn’t something inherently wrong with using law enforcement to go after unarmed citizens for what amount to be nothing more than vice crimes/victimless crimes. During his time with the CATO institute, Radley Balko has done extensive research regarding the unnecessary violence caused by our country’s prosecution of the War on Drugs, and the number of cases in which in which the wrong person was targeted or innocent bystanders were maimed or killed paints a damning portrayal of the length drug warriors will go to achieve their utopian dream of ridding the country of drugs–that is–other than those sold legally by Philip Morris and the pharmaceutical industry.

This is probably only the second or third article that I have posted with regards to innocent bystanders who have died during botched drug raid, but I can tell you that these kinds of incidents happen all the time. Radley has been documenting them over at his website for the last five or six years, and I can honestly tell you, that there isn’t a week that goes by that Radley doesn’t point out yet another incident in which an innocent bystander was killed. In order to give you all a truly accurate picture as to the prevalence of this problem, I’d have to have a weekly column here at TMV.

I’m so angry right now, that there’s not much more I can write at this time. I’ll try to update you all as more details emerge.

In the meantime, just because you don’t personally know anyone who has victimized by the Drug War or haven’t heard about it in the news, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

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  • Jillian Galloway

    They probably ran out of flies to pull the wings off. We all know the career path of cops – pull the wings off flies when you’re a kid, beat up little kids when you’re at school, and become a cop when you’re an adult so you can continue being a bully for the rest of your life. Beat ’em up, shoot ’em up, break down their doors – it’s all fun to them. Why do you think they support the woefully ineffective and deadly marijuana prohibition, coz it’s more fun to shoot family pets and 80 yr-old women than it is to walk the beat through run-down neighborhoods.

  • StockBoySF

    “… the police officers put the stores patrons at risk….”

    This is the biggest complaint I have against our police. They regularly put innocent people at risk and in more situations than drug related crimes. I’m totally against high speed chases, for instance.

    I appreciate that the police have a difficult job and sometimes they need to make split second decisions, but choosing to confront a person filling up at a gas station is not a split second decision and neither are high speed chases. The police are so gung-ho in capturing criminals that they lose sight of their mission, “To serve and protect.”

    Quite frankly anyone can claim to be police. If I had been that pastor and men with guns jumped out at me I would have sped away. I probably would have aimed the vehicle at them too, hoping to disable them to prevent them from shooting at me.

    If they had police uniforms on then I would have behaved very differently and waited for their orders. I do acknowledge that some thugs do pose as police officers, but I think those situations aren’t so public and the thugs want something else, i.e. wanting to gain entrance to the home of a woman….

  • This is the biggest complaint I have against our police. They regularly put innocent people at risk and in more situations than drug related crimes.

    Radley Balko writes about this in his book Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America, describing how law enforcement has resorted to paramilitary tactics to deal with vice crime situations that the vast majority of Americans would agree don’t need paramilitary tactics. This, of course, leads one to consider the great paradox in the way America conducts it’s War on Drugs…Putting moral objections against drug use aside, the case in support of the War on Drugs supposedly rests upon the premise that people who use drugs are a safety risk to both themselves and other people. Yet even the most hard core supporter of the War on Drugs would have to admit that there are good number drug users who use drugs in the privacy of their own homes and are of virtually no risk to anyone but themselves. Likewise, even the most hard core supporter of the War on Drugs would have to admit that sending swat teams with paramilitary gear into people’s houses in the middle of the night is MORE likely to lead to the deaths of both the suspects and the police officers involved than if we dealt with enforcement against the use of illegal drugs in a more traditional manner.Law enforcement officers are supposed to protect people, not endanger their lives. And when you hear drug war apologists say things like, “Well, it was sad that so-and-so lost his life, but police officers have a dangerous job, and these are the kind of powers that we have to give them in order for them to fight crime,” it shows that they have completely missed the point. Police officers HAVE a dangerous job, in part, because politicians have given them the power to violently intrude into people’s lives in order to settle problems that could otherwise be dealt with in a non-violent manner.The objective of my article was not to rail on law enforcement official–the majority of whom I assume to be well-meaning people. The objective was to point out to people just how violent the War on Drugs has become.People have to understand that when they defend the War on Drugs, they are indirectly defending the use of state-santioned violence against their neighbors. People who defend the War on Drugs are willing to punish ALL drug users (not to mention innocent bystander who get caught int he crossfire) in order to control the MINORITY of drug users who actually are a risk.And if the American people doubt that the overwhelming majority of drug users are harmless, they need only to look to polls that have shown that a third of American adults have used marijuana at some times in their lives–not to mention the vast majority who have used alcohol–a substance that has claimed many more lives than any drug that is currently illegal.

  • DLS

    Nic, I also recommend works by David Kopel (you probably know who this person is). Among other issues, he has discussed (and expressed concern about) the increasing militarization of police (at the same time some would want to reduce our military to the role of police, if not to social workers). He has also decried the Drug War itself (including civil asset forfeiture, in my view often the worst threat people can face, more than extreme violence) as well as federal overreach into state and local affairs.

  • “reduce our military to the role of police, if not to social workers”

    cmon, DLS, the “battlefield” has changed. When fighting a uniformed army of an “enemy,” the military role is as it has always been. But we haven’t had a war like that in decades (well, maybe Gulf War 1). Now it’s a tossed salad of civilians and armed “insurgents” who are criminals. Since you support gun rights, it can’t be assumed that a civilian with a gun is a terrorist. The role of the military in such situations, like it or not, IS that of police action. They have to shoot only if threatened and if they apprehend someone with a gun, must assume them to be innocent unless there’s evidence to the contrary. As for “social workers” that’s far fetched, but “relief workers” would be accurate, as many of our soldiers in Iraq built roads and bridges, built walls, etc. all of which are a part of military missions these days.

  • pdx632

    how can the police officers justify shooting an apparently unarmed man as he was driving away?

    You answered this in the beginning of the story:Ayers put his care into reverse and backed into one of the officer

  • EEllis

    You can’t see the officers well enough to be sure that Ayers new they were cops. If they were wearing raid vests/jackets and easily identifiable then Ayers committed a very reckless and illegal act by fleeing. He put himself, the officers, and everyone there in harms way by doing so. That does not mean he deserved to be shot, but obviously it’s totally one sided.

  • DLS

    “cmon, DLS, the ‘battlefield’ has changed”

    To that of “asymmetric” and guerrilla and terrorist warfare rather than traditional nations and militaries as our foe, sometimes, more in the future among “failed states.” That this introduces a greater risk of civilian casualties and attention directed at avoiding them or reducing them, I don’t deny. (Nor has our military!) But extending in any way beyond true warfare — not only occupation but replacing a police force, etc — is divergence from the military’s true role. So are “relief efforts,” which not only involve, e.g., aiding displaced persons or war casualties elsewhere in the world, but disaster relief here at home. No doubt many would want our military put to use in natural disasters for rescue and repair tasks in addition to the traditional role of imposing martial law to prevent looting and other crimes. But again, this diverges from what is normally seen as the real role of the military. Even the most realistic and reasonble mission here at home normally, patrolling and controlling our borders, is open to question or to debate.

    As for the increasing police powers, yes, of course, there is an arms race with the gangs (California was at the forefront of this craziness back in the 1980s if not before in some parts of it), but I still say there is such a thing as police misconduct (I’ve experienced something of a Signal Hill Lite episode or two myself before), and while I’m not naive about drug legalization, I don’t like the Drug War and the worst parts of it, not only needless (and needlessly expensive) incarceration but civil asset forfeiture, which is police-power plunder. (Some of us were concerned in the 1990s that not only the IRS but the EPA would do things like seize “wetlands” if they thought civil asset forfeiture was inviting as well as effective.)

  • DLS

    “Ayers’ was nonetheless driving towards the other police officers ‘in a threatening manner.'”

    So is pointing a gun at someone, or even continuing to hold one (even a toy) when told to drop it.

  • how can the police officers justify shooting an apparently unarmed man as he was driving away?You answered this in the beginning of the story:Ayers put his care into reverse and backed into one of the officer

    So the correct course of action was to kill an otherwise unarmed man?By the sheriff’s own admission, Ayers unintentionally hit the police officer as her ran behind the car just as Ayers was reversing. It wasn’t as if Ayers, finding himself cornered, decided to plow through the officer in order to make his getaway. And while the sheriff argues that Ayers was driving towards the other police officers “in a threatening manner”, from what I can tell from the grainy video footage, Ayers was simply trying to make his getaway.In fact, if you watch the video footage carefully, you’ll see that at that time that the police officer shoots Ayers, the police officer is standing TO THE SIDE of the car, no more than five to ten feet from the front passenger seat door, and the car, having come to a stop for a couple of seconds, was now driving forward.In other words, Ayers was shot, not as he was driving into the police officers, but as he was driving away.Now which of the following seems more likely to you? That the police officers shot him in order to prevent him from running into one of them ahead? Or that they shot him in order to prevent him from escaping?Yes, he hit the first police officer. But we’re not talking about someone who had committed a crime and then hit a police officer while making his getaway. We’re talking about an unarmed man, who by the Sherrif’s own admission, was not a suspect/target of their investigation. The police officers pulled their guns on an innocent, unarmed person, who hadn’t commited any crime. Ayers didn’t do anything dangerous or suspicious before they stopped to question him that would have given them probable cause, and there is nothing to indicate that they have a warrant that would have given them the right to search his vehicle.And while I’m not quite sure what the law says about people who refuse to stop to answer a police officer’s questions, I’m pretty sure the law doesn’t give police the power to shoot a person simply for refusing to stop to answer a police officer’s questions. I don’t even think that “resisting arrest” can be invoke in this case since in the three days since this incident happened, no one from the task force or sheriff’s office has said anything about arresting Ayers.Pulling a gun on an innocent, unarmed person is wrong, and wearing a police badge doesn’t make it right. No, Ayers shouldn’t have refused to speak with the police officers after they identified themselves. But since when has it been the policy for police officers to question non-suspects by pulling guns on them?Since the War on Drugs began…that’s when. The War on Drugs has thrown our civil liberties out the window, and law enforcement officers who raid the wrong houses and shoot innocent suspects rarely get anything more than a slap on the wrist. In fact, they tend to get temporary leave with pay, as was the case in this scenario.

  • rfyork

    I’m 65. In my lifetime there has been one, count ’em, one successful was pursued by this country. The Second World War.

    As for the rest, read the litany of wars:

    The war in Vietnam
    The war on poverty
    The war on drugs
    The war in Iraq (or on Iraq)
    The war in Afghanistan (or on Afghanistan)

    From any objective viewpoint every one of the above was, is or will be (Afghanistan) a failure. Oh, I know there are still some of you out there who think some of the wars above were successful.

    It’s time we put the hoary old metaphor in its well deserved grave.

    I am a liberal with libertarian social leanings. It is long past time to terminate the utter disaster called the War on Drugs. It is a failure by every measure but one; it has created a self-perpetuating bureaucracy of federal, state and local police agencies which exist only to preserve their own existence.

    There is literally no way in which this insane program can be deemed a success. We lefties and righties should be able to rally around this issue and, with some serious work, end it. Civil liberties ought to be a uniting cause for us all.

    Now, I’d like to see all of your opinions on the “Patriot Act”.

  • WmHarris

    Debaters debate the two wars as if Nixon’s civil war on Woodstock Nation didn’t yet run amok. One need not travel to China to find indigenous cultures lacking human rights or to Cuba for political prisoners. America leads the world in percentile behind bars, thanks to ongoing persecution of hippies, radicals, and non-whites under banner of the war on drugs. If we’re all about spreading liberty abroad, then why mix the message at home? Peace on the home front would enhance global credibility.

    The drug czar’s Rx for prison fodder costs dearly, as lives are flushed down expensive tubes. My shaman’s second opinion is that psychoactive plants are God’s gift. God didn’t screw up. Canadian Marc Emery sold seeds that enable American farmers to outcompete cartels with superior domestic herb. He is being extradited to prison, for doing what government wishes it could do, reduce demand for Mexican.

    The constitutionality of the CSA (Controlled Substances Act of 1970) derives from an interstate commerce clause. Only by this authority does it reincarnate Al Capone, endanger homeland security, and throw good money after bad. Official policy is to eradicate, not tax, the number-one cash crop in the land. America rejected prohibition, but it’s back. Apparently, SWAT teams don’t need no stinking amendment.

    Nixon promised that the Schafer Commission would support the criminalization of his enemies, but it didn’t. No matter, the witch-hunt was on. No amendments can assure due process under an anti-science law without due process itself. Psychology hailed the breakthrough potential of LSD, until the CSA halted all research and pronounced that marijuana has no medical use, period.

    The RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993) allows Native American Church members to eat peyote, which functions like LSD. Americans shouldn’t need a specific church membership to obtain their birthright freedom of religion. Denial of entheogen sacrament to any American, for mediation of communion with his or her maker, precludes free exercise of religious liberty.

    Freedom of speech presupposes freedom of thought. The Constitution doesn’t enumerate any governmental power to embargo diverse states of mind. How and when did government usurp this power to coerce conformity? The Mayflower sailed to escape coerced conformity. Legislators who would limit cognitive liberty lack jurisdiction.

    Common-law must hold that adults own their bodies. The Founding Fathers decreed that the right to the pursuit of happiness is inalienable. Socrates said to know your self. Mortal lawmakers should not presume to thwart the intelligent design that molecular keys unlock spiritual doors. Persons who appreciate their own free choice of path in life should tolerate seekers’ self-exploration.

    Simple majorities in each house could repeal the CSA. The books have ample law without it. The usual caveats remain in effect. You are liable for damages when you screw up. Strong medicine requires prescription. Employees can be fired for poor job performance. No harm, no foul; and no excuse, either. Replace the war on drugs with a frugal, constitutional, science-based drugs policy.

  • dunno_moire

    A major concern of mine is the confusion it creates regarding an “ordinary citizen’s” requisite response upon witnessing unidentified individuals brandishing arms in public. We’re all heartened to hear when a lunatic’s shooting spree is cut short or prevented through a courageous “nobody’s” intervention. I shudder to think that somewhere in the future, a person who might otherwise become a hero will delay for too long as they assess whether a gunman is killer or plainclothes detective.