Michael and Wanda Clark were babysitting their six-year-old grandson one afternoon in mid-November when the phone rang. The caller ID showed an unknown number.  

Michael picked up. He couldn’t believe what he heard.

“This is the police, and we are outside your home.” 

They were ordered to come outside. The temperature was in the mid-forties. It had been raining. 

Michael, a sixty-four-year-old African American, opened the door to his house on Friar Tuck Road in Southeast Raleigh and saw a SWAT van parked on his lawn. Two dozen officers—all white, he later said in a complaint—had their rifles pointed at him. They commanded him to put his hands up, turn around, and walk backward toward them. Then they told him to sit.

On the cold, damp ground? he asked.

“You can sit down there, or I will handcuff you,” Michael says an officer replied.

Inside, Wanda rushed to get a diaper on their grandson, who has special needs, as officers called her name through a bullhorn. She opened the door, holding her grandson, and saw guns drawn on her. The child began to cry uncontrollably. She was terrified.

“Having guns pointed at a six-year-old was extremely frightening and completely unnecessary,” Wanda wrote five days later, in a November 19 complaint to the Raleigh Police Department. “Even now, I still have nightmares about those guns being pointed at me and my grandson.”

“Having guns pointed at a six-year-old was extremely frightening and completely unnecessary. Even now, I still have nightmares about those guns being pointed at me and my grandson.”

The family sat on the ground for more than an hour trying to comfort their grandson while police searched the residence. The Clarks later learned that they were looking for evidence related to an armed robbery that had taken place two days earlier at an AT&T store on Capital Boulevard. Their nephew was a suspect. According to the search warrant, one of the robbers—presumably the man the cops were after, Brian Clark—had left a box with his uncle’s name and address at the scene. The police believed he lived there. He did not, the family says. 

Michael Clark, who says he knew nothing of the robbery, asked the police several times what was going on. According to the complaint he filed with the RPD, the officers refused to answer and were “extremely rude, callous, malicious, and racist” while conducting the search. He felt degraded and humiliated, and says he and his wife were treated as “less than human beings.” 

That wouldn’t have been the case if they were white, they said.

The search came up empty, according to the family, but a few days later, Brian Clark was arrested and is currently being held in Johnston County on charges of second-degree kidnapping. (His arrest form lists a different home address.)

“I grew up in the fifties, and I have seen a lot, but I have never been so humiliated and demeaned like the gang of all-white officers that came to my house,” Michael wrote in his complaint. “It is not solely black and white, but also right and wrong. How that band of white officers treated our family was extremely wrong.”

The Clarks formally requested an internal affairs investigation. Their daughter LaDonna Clark, who’d dropped her son off at her parents’ house on her way to work the day police searched it, was allowed to view a single shot of body-camera footage of the incident a month later. That shot, taken from a distance, showed her father exiting the home. She could not see her son or mother in the footage. Police told her a camera had been turned off, she says.

To proceed with the investigation, LaDonna says, police told her they needed to interview the family in person. LaDonna thought they were being stonewalled: Why did the cops need an in-person interview when they had three formal complaints in writing?

She left the police station without a case number and took her story to the North Carolina ACLU and city council member Corey Branch.

“Is it ever justified to point a rifle at a child? I guess that’s the ultimate question,” Branch says. “I don’t see a reason why you would point a rifle at a child, but again, I wasn’t there.”

The answer to that question is no, says state ACLU policy counsel Susanna Birdsong. “Especially when we are talking about an elderly couple and a six-year-old with special needs. Just thinking about the emotional and mental harm that has caused is really disturbing and is, unfortunately, just another example of unnecessary escalation by the police when what they should have been doing in that circumstance is deescalating,” Birdsong says.

And there was no reason to go in with guns drawn, Birdsong adds. “Drawing a weapon is perceived as a use of force and is often used as an intimidation tactic,” she says. “If you draw your weapon, you are threatening the use of force—you are threatening to use it, and if the weapon you are talking about is a gun, then it is deadly force.”

According to RPD policy, deadly force is only permitted in cases of self-defense, to arrest or prevent the escape of a person with a deadly weapon, or to prevent the escape of a person who presents an imminent threat to the public. The department’s use of force continuum states that firearms should only be used as a last resort, after verbal commands, physical presence, restraining techniques, pepper gas, batons, and less lethal weapons fail to deescalate a situation. 

The ACLU is also investigating whether the police tried to prevent the Clarks from opening an internal affairs investigation. In addition to seeking an in-person interview, LaDonna Clark says, even before she filed a complaint, the police told her they’d reviewed the incident and didn’t see anything that violated department policies.

In an email Friday, Raleigh police called this a “miscommunication” and said the department had not been in contact with LaDonna since she viewed the footage in December. “We need to talk to her further in order to investigate her complaint properly,” Captain Craig Barnett told the INDY in an email.

On Friday afternoon, after the INDY inquired about the incident, Sergeant James Neville of internal affairs emailed LaDonna: “We understand that you still have some concerns about the incident,” he wrote. “We are willing to continue the investigation and would like to speak with you to discuss any policy violations which occurred during the search.” Neville suggested a meeting this week.

On Monday, Barnett told the INDY that the RPD had been investigating the Clarks’ complaints “when the letters were received” in November. 

“Viewing the video and reviewing the complaint in the letter created the need to speak with the Clarks,” he wrote. “We attempted to do that when they came and viewed the video. If they don’t want to talk to us, that is fine as well. We will move forward with the investigation without speaking with them. We just want to complete the most thorough investigation possible.”

Asked if there is ever a justification for pointing a rifle at a six-year-old, Barnett replied, “I appreciate you are trying to answer a bunch of your own questions. I have tried to answer as best I can, but have come to a point that I cannot go into further detail about this incident.”

A lack of transparency in the internal affairs process is a problem nationwide, Birdsong says, including in Raleigh. In North Carolina, because of laws protecting police officers’ privacy, even when a complaint is successful, residents aren’t privy to the outcome of the investigation beyond whether it was sustained. They are not told if or how officers are disciplined.

“The internal affairs process remains completely opaque and unavailable to average community members who have a complaint,” Birdsong says. 

For that reason, the grassroots organization Police Accountability Community Taskforce has been pushing the Raleigh City Council to create a citizen oversight board to review complaints.

“[Police] can’t investigate themselves. An outside agency needs to be doing these investigations, and that would be the community—community oversight.”

“[Police] can’t investigate themselves,” says PACT executive director Rolanda Byrd, whose son Akiel Denkins was shot and killed by Raleigh police in February 2016. “An outside agency needs to be doing these investigations, and that would be the community—community oversight.”

So far, their calls have gone unanswered, in part because giving an oversight board access to police records would require a change to state law. (While Durham has an oversight board, it is limited to investigating when the department’s internal investigation was conducted appropriately.) Some council members want the city to do it anyway, including Branch and David Cox, who called for the council to review the matter during its retreat this weekend. But the issue isn’t listed on a draft of the retreat’s agenda, during which it will discuss its goals for the upcoming year.

Since the incident, LaDonna Clark says, her son has had emotional outbursts, and her parents are haunted by nightmares of the event. She wants answers, she says.

“They sat there for a couple nights, and they just cried because that was traumatizing,” she says. “Why do you need SWAT? Why do you have to use the level of force you use? You have become the judge, jury, and executioner of individuals that are collaterally associated with an incident that this person hasn’t been found guilty of. And you didn’t come in with an arrest warrant. You came in with a search warrant.”

In his complaint, Michael Clark was more pointed: “I truly hope these unethical, dastardly, and antagonistic officers are disciplined, because the next innocent person may not be so blessed to not be killed.”

Contact staff writer Leigh Tauss by email at ltauss@indyweek.com, by phone at 919-832-8774, or on Twitter @leightauss. 

2 replies on “After a Raleigh SWAT Team Allegedly Pointed Rifles at Her Six-Year-Old Son, LaDonna Clark Wants Answers”

  1. What a joke, the police were conducting a search warrant for an armed robbery suspect and did their job as they were supposed to, point blank! It doesn’t matter the age of the people inside, the officers have to protect themselves and all involved until they know that everyone inside isn’t a threat. These people need to grow up and stop calling racism just because they were felt with by law enforcement in the way they should have been…cry me a river,

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