When police officers shattered his window and used a battering ram to enter his home, Duncan Lemp’s worst fears had come true.
One of the most positive developments from last year’s political strife was a stronger focus on police abuses and no-knock raids. Some states and cities have imposed new restrictions, others are working toward greater transparency when it comes to police shootings. Unfortunately, Maryland, a state that has wrestled with some of the most egregious SWAT and no-knock cases in the country, remains mired in controversy.
The state has a long record of SWAT debacles. After police wrongfully raided a mayor’s house and killed his dogs in 2008, Maryland required police to report every SWAT raid. Between 2010 and 2014, police in Maryland conducted more than 8,000 raids, killing nine people and injuring almost a hundred civilians.
Despite controversies, statistics were no longer collected after 2014. Strong police unions have blocked numerous efforts at legislative reform. As a result, Marylanders continue to be vexed by the same kind of deadly no-knock debacles that killed Breonna Taylor last March in Louisville, Kentucky.
Duncan Lemp is one of Maryland’s latest victims.
On New Year’s Eve, Montgomery County’s state attorney office issued an official report absolving police for the killing of the 21-year-old gun owner after he was awakened during a no-knock raid on March 12. The report proffered a nothing-to-see-here-move-along verdict.
Lemp lived with his parents in a sedate neighborhood in Potomac, Maryland. According to the county report, a no-knock raid was justified “due to Lemp being ‘anti-government,’ ‘anti-police,’ currently in possession of body armor, and an active member of the Three Percenters,” a far-right paramilitary group that discussed government resistance.
Belonging to a group is not illegal. And while the group spoke out against actions by white supremacists during the 2017 deadly riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, they were also known to show up at protests to push back against efforts by Black Lives Matter. Many of those efforts focused on saving the lives of people caught in confrontations with police — similar to the situation Lemp found himself in.
Lemp’s views on gun ownership and the fear of tyranny seem to have driven his activism. One of his last tweets declared, “The Constitution is dead.” A little over two months later, police killed him.
According to his mother and his lawyer, Lemp had no history of violence (though he had a juvenile record).The police were tipped off by a “confidential source” that Lemp possessed firearms and “had made ‘anti-police’ statements in the past.” They had been surveilling Lemp and his family residence well before they launched the SWAT raid.
Lemp family lawyer Rene Sandler told me that police “would have seen him taking his girlfriend to a doctor’s appointment or going to a store. They could have detained him during a traffic stop while (other police) secured the home.”
The report provides chilling details on how police attacked the Lemp home from two sides at about 4:30 a.m. Members of the raid team did a “break and rake” on Lemp’s first-floor bedroom window. Standing outside the house, one officer “used a fireman’s pike tool to break the bedroom window closest to the bed where Lemp and (pregnant girlfriend Kasey) Robinson were sleeping.The tool also has a hook that is used to grab a hold of and pull away the blinds so that officers would have an unobstructed view inside the bedroom. Once the window was broken and the shades pulled out of the way, one officer ducked below the window line as he was unarmed. A second officer (the shooting officer) who was armed with a rifle, then stepped up to the window and looked inside to locate Lemp as soon as possible and prevent him from having time to access any weapons that could be used against the SWAT officers.” Another team of SWAT cops used a battering ram to smash in the front door of the Lemp home. Lemp was killed by five shots from a policeman shooting through his bedroom window.
At the same time the bedroom window was being smashed in, the report notes that “other members of the SWAT team were tasked with deploying ‘flashbangs’ outside the residence to disorient the senses of the occupants of the house as to what was happening.”
The Supreme Court of North Carolina last year labeled flashbangs a “weapon of mass death and destruction,” and criminal defense lawyer Clay Conrad commented that flashbangs are “just an assault. These things are designed to blind and deafen. … You’re intentionally injuring people.”
Unfortunately, Montgomery County police did not videotape the raid or the shooting. Police body cams have been one of the most significant reforms in curbing police misconduct. But, as family lawyer Sandler disclosed, Montgomery County allowed SWAT to “opt out of the truth and transparency by not being required to wear body camera or videotaping a no knock raid.”
The official report contains plenty of text messages between Lemp and his mother. Lemp wrote to his mother that he might be targeted by police “because I exercise my constitutional rights.”
The no-knock raid was justified in part because police believed that Lemp possessed an illegal assault weapon. How did they know this?
Lemp posted photos of himself on Instagram with various firearms, and police concluded that one of the guns was an IWI Tavor X95 rifle, an assault weapon that the report notes is prohibited in Maryland. However, as the official report later mentions, “It should be noted that upon further review and investigation … it was determined that it was not an assault rifle.” The report asserts that Lemp’s rifle “was a legal ‘copycat’ made to look exactly like the illegal version of the IWI Tavor X95.”
This should be a red flag against predawn attacks on private homes based, in part, on false interpretations of Instagram photos, but the report draws no such conclusion.
Police also asserted that Lemp was prohibited from purchasing firearms due to a juvenile conviction that meant he couldn’t purchase them until he was 30. The family denies this allegation, according to family lawyer Sandler, and the report failed to provide any details. Maryland has some of the nation’s most onerous requirements for buying guns, and Lemp purchased at least one of his firearms from a licensed dealer in Rockville, Maryland.
A grand jury examined the shooting last year, but all of the testimony and evidence presented remains confidential — except for snippets that the county attorney’s office received permission from a judge to disclose in the report that exonerated the police.
Lemp’s mother, Mercedes Lemp,commented: “I will always wonder whether the police intended to kill Duncan from the start — there was never a search, never any regard for our family — the way they conducted themselves seems as if they intended to kill him even before the raid began.” Having surveilled Lemp and knowing his political views, his reaction at 4:42 a.m. was as predictable as the sun rising in the east.
A New York Times investigation of SWAT raid killings noted, “After being awakened by the shattering of doors and the detonation of stun grenades, bleary suspects reach for nearby weapons — at times realizing it is the police, at others mistaking them for intruders — and the shooting begins.”
The report stated that Lemp’s texts to his mother “gave insight into Lemp’s mindset when police executed the no-knock warrant.” Unfortunately, we have no insights into the mindsets of police chiefs and SWAT commanders who chose to unleash so much violence. Lemp’s mother lamented: “The police were the threat, they have never provided any evidence that Duncan was a threat.”
Montgomery County officials might be hoping that releasing the report on New Year’s Eve will buttress their continual refusal to disclose key evidence. At this point, the only certainty about the case is that Lemp’s fate confirms the old saying: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.
And that, in too many cities, SWAT continue to have a green light to exercise dangerous levels of power.