Early in the morning on July 7, after a SWAT team bombarded a home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with chemical irritants and a flashbang device, detectives went inside and found the corpse of a teenage boy. Brett Rosenau, 15, was not suspected of any crime. The police’s target, a 27-year-old man who was wanted for a parole violation, had already emerged from the house to be arrested. But a fire had erupted inside, likely from the flashbangs. The man with the alleged parole violation was burned, and Rosenau died from smoke inhalation.
While an investigation is underway, the police chief has acknowledged that his officers may have caused the fire that killed the boy. One witness said the cops threw smoke grenades and flashbangs repeatedly during the standoff and let the house burn for 40 minutes after it caught fire. The police “treated and trapped them like animals,” Elizabeth Fields, whose sister owned the house, told the New York Times. (The police said firefighters did not enter sooner because the officers worried the 27-year-old man might be armed.)
Activists and community members took to Albuquerque’s streets to protest Rosenau’s death in the days following the incident. In a statement to reporters, Rosenau’s family described his death as “tragic and completely avoidable” and blamed the SWAT team, according to the Albuquerque Journal. “If any of our actions inadvertently contributed to his death, we will take steps to ensure this never happens again,” Police Chief Harold Medina said in a statement.
If history is any indication, however, Rosenau may not be the last child whom police flashbangs injure or kill. The British military developed the incendiary devices in the 1970s to temporarily disorient enemies with a bright light and loud noise. In 2015, ProPublica documented dozens of cases of Americans who were killed or wounded by flashbang grenades over the prior 15 years, and found that police departments used the devices in the vast majority of raids they conducted. Over the last decade, several kids have been killed or maimed as a result. Many were younger than Rosenau.
In 2010, for example, 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was sleeping on a couch with her grandmother in Detroit when a flashbang landed so close to her that it burned her blanket. A police officer burst into the duplex and, in the confusion of the loud lights and noise, fired a single shot that struck her in the head, killing her. (The officer was charged in the death but not convicted after two juries failed to reach a verdict; he said the girl’s grandmother slapped at his gun, causing him to pull the trigger. The city paid the family an $8.25 million settlement.) The suspect the police had hoped to arrest during the raid, a man who was wanted for alleged murder, didn’t even live in the same unit of the duplex; he resided upstairs.
Four years later, police raiding another home for suspected drugs in Cornelia, Georgia, threw a flashbang grenade into the crib of 19-month-old Bounkham Phonesavanh, affectionately known as Baby Bou Bou. When an officer peered into the crib afterward, the boy had a long laceration and burns across his chest, and his face was bloody, blistered, and speckled with shrapnel. “I heard my baby wailing and asked one of the officers to let me hold him,” his mother, Alecia Phonesavanh, wrote a few weeks later for Salon. “The officers yelled at me to calm down and told me my son was fine, that he’d just lost a tooth.” It wasn’t until later, after they went to the hospital, that she learned her baby was in the intensive burn unit and had been placed in a medically induced coma. “There’s still a hole in his chest that exposes his ribs. At least that’s what I’ve been told; I’m afraid to look,” she wrote.
The child survived but underwent more than a dozen surgeries and struggled with nightmares. The police didn’t find any drugs in the home—the suspect didn’t live there. The sheriff’s deputy who sought the warrant was indicted on federal charges that she’d violated Bou Bou’s civil rights, but she was later acquitted. The city paid the family $3.6 million in settlements.
The attacks on Aiyana Stanley-Jones and Bou Bou received national media attention, but other similar incidents do not. In 2012, a 12-year-old girl standing in her sister’s bedroom suffered first- and second-degree burns after a SWAT team in Billings, Montana, threw a flashbang through the window. “It was totally unforeseen, totally unplanned and extremely regrettable,” Police Chief Rich St. John told the Billings Gazette. “We certainly did not want a juvenile, or anyone else for that matter, to get injured.” In 2018, a 2-year-old boy also suffered burns when police in Lakeland, Florida, threw a flashbang during another drug raid. The cops said they believed the room was empty. But in the moment before the flashbang erupted, the toddler emerged from behind a mattress that had been leaning up against the wall, where he’d been hiding. “Our worst nightmare is that there are children in the house. We try to do intelligence. There was no indication a child was in the home,” a police spokesperson said in a news conference to discuss the incident, according to The Ledger, a local paper. “We are just as hurt. We feel for the boy.”
Some courts have tried to hold cops accountable for similar incidents, particularly when officers failed to aim an incendiary device or did not check the room carefully enough prior to detonating it. In 2017, an Indiana court overturned a man’s felony drug convictions because a SWAT team conducted an “unreasonable” search when it dropped a flashbang “very close” to the playpen where his infant was sitting, according to court records cited by the Washington Post. (A police spokesman said the child was not harmed.) In 2019, the Kansas City Police Department settled a lawsuit after an officer dropped a flashbang into a home with a 2-year-old. According to the Associated Press, a court found that “[b]lindly throwing a flash-bang grenade into the residence under these circumstances was obviously unconstitutional.”
Even when police don’t use flashbangs, children are routinely traumatized by raids. In 2020, Chicagoan Sharon Lyons was in her kitchen when her front door flew off its hinges and more than a dozen cops rushed inside with guns and flashlights. Her 30-year-old son, Julius, who has autism, reportedly ran toward her in terror, and her 4-year-old granddaughter screamed from the bedroom. The girl said police pointed guns at her. They’d raided the wrong address.
It’s difficult to count how many similar cases have occurred. But the New York Times found that from 2010 to 2015, an average of 30 federal civil rights lawsuits were filed each year to protest residential search warrants executed with forcible or surprise entries, and that many of the complaints described incidents in which children, elderly residents, and people with disabilities were held at gunpoint. As I’ve previously reported, Black and Latino people are disproportionately affected by these raids.
In Albuquerque, an investigation into Rosenau’s death is ongoing. The police department says officers used a drone and robots to determine who was inside the home as they put it under siege. In a statement, the department said that “devices used to introduce irritants into the home may have caused the fire,” and that “no fires have been reported over the many years [the devices] have been used in Albuquerque.” The fire department is looking into the cause of the flames, a process that could take a couple of weeks. Rosenau’s family is requesting that the state’s attorney general also step in to assist with investigating the teen’s death.
The family has said that Rosenau was small for his age, that he was smart and funny and liked sports. And he is not the first person in the household to die at the hands of the police. When Rosenau was just a baby, his father, also named Brett, was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy while running from law enforcement during a traffic stop. A grand jury later deemed the shooting justified.
In an interview with the Daily Beast, Rosenau’s aunt wondered whether that history played a role in Rosenau’s death last week: “I think that may be why little Brett—I think that’s maybe why he could have been scared of cops” and didn’t come out of the house, she said, even after the fire erupted and filled the rooms with smoke.