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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Across the United States, law enforcement agencies are becoming more militarized, according to a recent American Civil Liberties Union report. The Journal begins today a series about how the Winston-Salem Police Department and the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office use their respective SWAT teams. Today, we examine the case of Ryan Nicholas. Next Sunday, an overview of the use of SWAT in Winston-Salem.

The Winston-Salem Police Department was looking for a marijuana plant when 18 SWAT officers launched a raid April 8, 2011, blasting into a house near Miller Park using an explosive device.

The marijuana plant was a no-show.

The raid, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, highlights concerns raised in a report that the organization released recently about the militarization of police departments nationwide.

“Is that the type of offense that warrants a military-style raid without so much as a knock on the door?” Mike Meno, a spokesman for the ACLU-NC, said last week, referring to the marijuana plant. “Things can escalate very quickly.”

Once in the house, police investigators stumbled upon 2 ounces of marijuana and a bong. They also stumbled upon Ryan Nicholas, 34, who had moved into the house just three weeks before the raid. In his room, they found no marijuana, just a digital scale and what they believed was an illegal mushroom. It wasn’t. Nicholas was clean, prosecutors would later say.

Nicholas got cuffed, charged and locked up for eight months.

Matt Bremer, who, according to police, was dangerous enough to warrant the use of a SWAT team and a no-knock raid, was not in the house. He later admitted that the marijuana was his.

Police departments nationwide increasingly use SWAT teams not for emergencies, such as situations involving a hostage or an active shooter, but to carry out routine police work, such as searching for a small amount of drugs, according to the ACLU report. Another concern, according to the report, is that the raids are being done without enough transparency by police or oversight by elected officials.

The ACLU reviewed 800 SWAT raids in 20 states. It found that most – 79 percent – were done to execute a search warrant, most commonly in drug investigations. Only 7 percent were for hostage, barricade, or active-shooter scenarios.

In Meno’s view, the public should have access to information from police departments that shed light on such things as SWAT team deployments by crime, the requesting agency, or the purpose for the raid – for example, to serve a warrant, arrest someone, diffuse a hostage crisis – the number of no-knock warrants applied for, the uses of force by all SWAT teams, all injuries incurred by anyone at the scene.

In an exchange of emails with the Winston-Salem Journal, the city last week provided information contained in incident reports involving SWAT that is considered public record. Another article focusing on SWAT will highlight that information next Sunday.

The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office is in the process of gathering similar information based on the Journal’s request for public records.

Police didn’t know what to expect

Police Chief Barry Rountree and other high-ranking police officers stood by their decision to deploy the SWAT team in the raid at that house near Miller Park.

They said that the use of SWAT is reserved for potentially dangerous situations, usually involving someone who may have weapons. They said that they strongly believe the use of SWAT, or Special Weapons and Tactics, helps protect the safety of police officers, the suspect and the general public.

Police Capt. Scott Bricker said that police officers had reason to believe that Bremer was dangerous and had access to weapons.

About a year before the raid, Bremer, a former Marine who served three tours of duty in Operation Iraqi Freedom, had threatened a police officer, Bricker said. He suffered from PTSD, or post traumatic stress disorder, Bricker said. And, according to an informant, he was intent on harming police officers.

Relaying what Bremer told the police officer in the confrontation a year before the raid, Bricker said: “If you didn’t have that gun on your hip and if I had more than a double-barrel shotgun, we could have more of a fair gunfight.”

Attempts to contact Bremer were unsuccessful.

Police officers didn’t know what they would run into when they prepared to go after Bremer and what police believed was a marijuana plant.

“Could the door be booby-trapped?” Bricker said.

Rountree said in a separate interview about the general use of SWAT that the ultimate goal is to protect public safety.

“If the bad guy is in control, we have a bad situation,” he said.

Was raid on house overkill?

“Boom! They blew the rear basement door to smithereens,” Nicholas said.

On the day of the raid, Nicholas saw from his bedroom window patrol cars swarm into the neighborhood. It had to be something going on at a neighbor’s house, he said. After he heard the blast, he went to the front porch to find out what was happening, he said.

“The whole road was blocked off. Cops were behind cars. There were firearms pointed at me from every direction,” he said.

A police officer, he said, was barking a command: Get on the ground. Put your hands in the air.

In a panic, Nicholas said, he got confused. He didn’t know how to obey both commands at the same time. To get on the ground, he’d have to drop his hands. To keep his hands in the air, he’d have to fall like a tree to the ground.

Nicholas froze.

“I didn’t know what to do because I felt like they would just shoot me,” he said.

Rountree said Nicholas was not obeying verbal commands and that is why a police officer tackled him to the ground.

Nicholas was in police custody and police investigators were inside the house. They didn’t find what had triggered the raid – the marijuana plant or Bremer – but they did discover marijuana in the basement.

Meanwhile, outside, Nicholas talked freely with the police, he said, because they told him he had nothing to worry about if his room was clean. It was clean, Nicholas was convinced.

So he talked.

Nicholas told police investigators that he had previously smoked marijuana in the house but said he did not know of anyone in the house growing marijuana. He also admitted that he had been convicted on a charge of possessing illegal mushrooms about three or four years ago when one of the officers recognized him.

“I have no problem being forthcoming. I have nothing to hide. I did not think they would use it against me,” he said.

In the end, all that was in Nicholas’ room was a digital scale, which he said he uses to weigh dietary supplements, and a mushroom.

Rountree said that police investigators had probable cause to bring Nicholas up on charges. The marijuana in the basement could have been his, the digital scale could have been used to weigh drugs and the mushroom may have been illegal considering Nicholas’ past conviction.

Vince Rabil, an assistant N.C. capital defender, who has 17 years’ experience as a prosecutor and seven years as a defender, said the raid reminded him of another one that killed police officer Bobby Beane in 1993.

It didn’t involve SWAT but it was a violent no-knock raid. Police weren’t looking for a murder suspect, just drugs and a suspect, James Lyons. The suspect said he thought he was getting robbed, so he started firing and a bullet struck Beane.

Rabil, a prosecutor at the time, was in the audience when Lyons was on trial. Judge Julius Rousseau, Rabil said, reprimanded the police department: “A good police sergeant has now been killed over a little mess of marijuana.”

Jailed for eight months

All the charges that police investigators brought against Nicholas as a result of the raid were dropped several months after the raid when the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office found that police had provided insufficient evidence to prosecute him.

Nicholas stayed in jail for a long time while his case crawled through the criminal justice system, partly because he could not afford to pay bond and partly because of the time it took the state crime lab to test whether the mushroom that police investigators had found in his room during the raid was illegal.

In the end, the mushroom turned out not to be illegal.

“You would think that a narcotics officer would know the difference between an illegal mushroom and the one in my room,” Nicholas said.

Nicholas stayed behind bars for eight months, from April to December, until he was finally released on an unsecured bond.

“I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy,” Nicholas said.

Prosecutors eventually dropped all the charges against him. Jim O’Neill, the Forsyth district attorney, said that delays at the state crime lab must be dealt with. Cities such as Charlotte and Raleigh, even Iredell County, have their own crime labs.

“We need to get a lab here,” O’Neill said. “Not only would it benefit local law enforcement, but it would also benefit those individuals who may be exonerated by an expeditious lab test.”

After filing a complaint with the police department and then going to the city’s Citizens Police Review Board, Nicholas’ appeal for a hearing was denied earlier this year.

Casey Leftwich, a member of the review board, declined to talk specifically about why the appeal for a hearing was denied. But he seemed to empathize with Nicholas.

“We all agree that it was a bad situation for him,” he said.

Nicholas said he wants to let the police department know: “This is what you put me through.”

“I hope what happened to me – it’s kind of like taking one for the team of society. If it helps someone else, that would be nice,” Nicholas said.