Herb Dickerson and his sister own a house in Fifeville, and when he got a phone call from her telling him to get over there on August 27, “I could hear the frantic in her voice,” he says.
He pulled onto Seventh Street and saw “this armored vehicle blocking the street and a state police car blocking the other end,” he says.
Dickerson is a recovered addict who won the prestigious Gideon Award in 2017 for his community service helping others struggling with substance abuse. He says the officer he spoke to told him they had a search warrant because a confidential informant said his son, a convicted felon, had a weapon.
He found the show of force—neighbors estimate 20 officers in combat attire and two armored vehicles—perplexing because he’d driven by his house twice that day and seen his son sitting on the front porch. And when police arrived, his son was standing across the street. “I don’t know what kind of investigation they do when they didn’t even know what he looked like,” he says.
It’s one of many questions that remain concerning the Virginia State Police and Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement task force operation that took place in Charlottesville without the knowledge of city police. And it comes as cops across the country are increasingly using SWAT team raids merely to serve warrants, says Rutherford Institute founder John Whitehead, who has written several books on the militarization of the police.
For neighbors, it was terrifying.
Dickerson’s daughter, Annette Anthony, lives in the house with her 11- and 6-year-old girls, who were sitting on the porch when police arrived around 6pm.
The cops asked the girls where their uncle was, then told them to go across the street, she says. Anthony had just come into the house when she heard, “Come out with your hands up,” she says. “They had guns drawn with a beam on my head. I looked on my porch where my kids had been and asked, ‘Where are my kids?’”
Neighbor Brock Napierkowski filmed the operation. He says when Anthony came outside to look for her daughters, she and a friend had their hands zip tied by police and were put in an armored vehicle. “I was going crazy,” Anthony says.
“When parents are taken into custody, children become wards of the state,” says Napierkowski. “No officer took care of them.” Nor were they forthcoming in telling Anthony where her children were, he says. “I can’t imagine how traumatic that was.”
Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney declined to comment about state police and JADE, the multijurisdictional task force that Charlottesville police used to lead but now no has officers on, coming onto her turf without notice. She and Captain James Mooney met with Dickerson, Anthony, and Napierkowski at the house the next day.
“They were not happy with the whole incident,” says Napierkowski. “Chief Brackney took time to speak with the children to make sure they weren’t scared.”
“She came and apologized,” says Dickerson. “She apologized to my daughter and my grandkids.”
When asked about notifying local police before a major operation, state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller says, “We are a state police agency, thus we have statewide police authority and arrest powers.” Geller says Brackney was informed that evening before a press release went out, after the search.
“Because the individual we were searching for is a violent, convicted felon, use of the tactical measures utilized to effect the warrant are standard practice for the purpose of public and officer safety,” she says. And the operation, she adds, “was not a ‘raid.’”
It’s a “common courtesy” to notify a local jurisdiction if another law enforcement agency is coming in, says former Charlottesville police chief Tim Longo. But not one frequently observed by state police, which did not notify Longo when it conducted a raid on a fake ID operation on Rugby Road in 2013.
When there’s a danger of shots being fired and local police don’t know another agency is there, “We’re coming in blind at a tactical disadvantage,” says Longo. “What was the sense of urgency that you come in here with no notice?”
Court records show an August 5 search warrant filed by Albemarle Detective Matt McCall that was voided and never served. McCall serves on JADE and had a $50 heroin case rejected by a jury as entrapment in 2016 when an addict was used to set up another addict. McCall filed a second search warrant August 27 at 4:29pm, fewer than two hours before the raid.
Geller declines to say how many officers were involved in the incident, nor would she identify the jurisdiction of two of the men wearing “sheriff” vests, “because this is an ongoing criminal investigation and any additional release of information would jeopardize that investigation.” Both Charlottesville and Albemarle sheriffs say none of their deputies were involved.
“One of the men had a patch of ‘The Punisher’ on his vest,” says neighbor Amy Reynolds of the skull emblem that can be a favorite of law enforcement. “I understand that this may be his First Amendment right, yet it is in poor taste.”
Reynolds says she was “very alarmed” to see the show of force on her street and she wrote state Senator Creigh Deeds expressing her concern.
Two weeks after the operation, no one has been arrested. Nor was a gun found, although state police report that bullets, a bag of white powder, digital scales, and baggies were found. Anthony calls the reported white powder “bullshit” and says there were no drugs in her house.
Civil rights attorney Jeff Fogel wonders why police didn’t obtain an arrest warrant if Dickerson’s son is so dangerous, and why “they didn’t go after him and give a description.”
The show of force in executing the search warrant, including two flash bang grenades thrown into the house, is “unreasonable,” says Fogel, and “shows a total insensitivity to the community, a primarily black community,” especially after state police failed to intervene in the violence of August 12, 2017, and then showed up with “overwhelming force” last year.
“They could have watched and arrested him coming and going,” says Fogel. He believes police didn’t have enough evidence to arrest the son. “The whole thing stinks.”
Dickerson had been busy replacing a window broken during the raid the day he spoke to a reporter. He says his house looked like it had been flipped on its side, and he’s had to throw away a lot of damaged belongings, including an oriental rug ruined by the flash grenades.
State police and JADE “ran roughshod” over the community, he says. “You got the whole neighborhood upset and you didn’t need to.” He’d like police to “apologize to the community where I live.” And he’s not ruling out litigation.
Says Anthony, “It’s crazy that two weeks later, I still cry.”
Correction: Charlottesville police still contribute funding to JADE—about $13,000—but no longer has officers on the task force.