Goose Creek - WWRL Morning Show Broadcast Transcript

December 17, 2003
Location: New York City
Time: 07:00 AM - 08:30 AM
Station: WWRL-AM
Radio Program:WWRL Morning Show

Host:

And as we move from her, we move to the actual attorney in charge of this case. ACLU is actually taking the case for, I believe, 20 of these students. Suing, I believe, the school system or probably the police department as well. Joining us now is Antonio Ponvert.

Mr. ANTONIO PONVERT (Attorney):

Hi. Good morning.

Host:

Hi. Good morning. Welcome to New York and thank you for joining us. We do appreciate it.

Mr. PONVERT:

You're welcome. Thank you.

Host:

Thank you. I'm not sure if you heard any of our interview with our previous guest, which Miss Williams.

Mr. PONVERT:

Yeah. I was able to hear just the last exchange.

Host:

Okay. Let's perhaps start from the beginning with you. You are suing-- for whom are you suing? Why are you suing? Why do you feel there's a case?

Mr.PONVERT:

Well, we're suing-- we represent 20 of the children who were wrapped up in the raid and we are-- and the defendants in the case include the Goose Creek Police Department, the school district, the City of Goose Creek because that's the entity that has control over the police department. And then we're suing three individuals: the principal, the chief of police, and a supervisory official in the police department who was one of the central players in implementing the raid.

Host:

Can you take-- I'm sorry.

Mr.PONVERT:

The reason that the lawsuit's being brought, I mean, in terms of the legal causes of action, we're suing to vindicate the Fourth Amendment constitutional rights of these children because this raid was an unconstitutional search and seizure and it was a unconstitutional use of excessive force against these children. It also violated several state laws, assault and battery and false arrest.

But centrally, what the case concerns is the power of government officials to plan and implement sort of paramilitary police raids on schoolchildren. And the question in the case from a societal standpoint really is how much of that abuse of power are we going to tolerate in the name of curbing perceived illegal activity in our schools.

Host:

Antonio, from my understanding, they had tapes that the police department reviewed to show that there is good reason, reasonable doubt, if you could use those words, of activity going on. They had kids who came forth to the principal and said, "Listen, things are being sold. Things are being used." Kids had-- although they didn't find any drugs within the bags alone, and that's one of the questions that I have, who tipped these kids off to know that there was going to be a raid that morning? That's a separate question.

But these dogs, and from my understanding, these dogs know what they're smelling and they did, in fact, smell many of the kids' bags, saying that there were drugs within those bags anytime prior to that morning. So are you telling us, a, that they shouldn't come in to do a raid, what they have to do to protect the other 2,700 children in the school?

Mr. PONVERT:

Let's go back to the first point that you made, which is the information that the principal used to justify the raid. And as I understand it, the statements that have been made so far on that point is this. The principal had reviewed first by himself and then with police four days of video surveillance clips from stationary cameras that were at the school. And he received, quote unquote, "information from a student."

We don't yet know what that information is and we, frankly, don't know what the tapes show. But in the principal's words, they showed suspicious activity with children going in and out of a bathroom in a way that he found to be suspicious. I'm not sure exactly what that means, but let's take the least cynical view and say that there was, in fact, something about the way those children went in and out of the bathroom that indicated some reason to be concerned about drugs.

The proper response at that point is to target-- if you're going to target anybody, you've got to target the children that you think are involved in the activity. And they're obviously identifiable because there's a video surveillance clip showing their activity. At that point, the proper thing to do is to take those children aside to the principal's office or to another place, investigate them. If you need to have a dog, you have a dog at that point. I question the need for a dog at that point because there's no reason why you can't individually search those students and their belongings.

But not only is that the constitutional way to do it, but it's the safe way to do it because then you're avoiding a situation which is the very situation that happened, where you've got a whole lot of children, many of whom were clearly not involved in any kind of suspicious activity. We have guns drawn. You've got police in an environment that is very likely to result in something that you don't want to have happen. And that could be the death or injury of an innocent person.

Host:

On the contrary, we know that, generally speaking, drugs and guns work hand in hand. I mean, we know that. I'm sure you're familiar with drug activity and violence and crime that goes on in any big city. And likewise, even a little town like Goose Creek, which has, by the way, 2,700 children in one school. That's a big school by anybody's measuring.

Mr. PONVERT:

But there's never been a weapon found in that school and there was no reason to believe that there was a weapon that was going to be found on any of the 107 children that were wrapped up in this raid.

Co-Host:

Mr. Ponvert, why do you think the cops went in with guns drawn?

Mr. PONVERT:

I think that this was a situation that was very poorly planned and even more poorly implemented. Right now, you are beginning to see in the public statements that divergence between a position being taken by the principal in the school district and the position taken by the police department. And the school district and the principal are distancing themselves from the use of weapons and what they're saying is we did call the police in. We did plan this raid. We did instigate it. But we didn't know the police were going to use weapons.

Host:

And that's true. Why should the-- I mean, the principal-- if I called the police department in, I work for an organization that we run a number of schools, if you're running the school and you bring in the police department, you're basically giving it over to them. They're supposed to be the professionals.

Mr. PONVERT:

Well, that's-- I think there's an element of truth to that. But I also think that the principal at the planning stage of this raid is the most senior supervisory government official in charge of the safety and security of these children. And if he is going to go down a path that is inevitably going to result in armed, weapons brandishing police officers coming into a school, that he has to take responsibility for that. Now there is a point and particularly there is a point if you're in a situation where violence is a realistic potential, obviously the police are going to take charge. But this is not that kind of case.

Co-Host:

What's the reputation of the Goose Creek Police Department or the police department involved in this sweep?

Mr. PONVERT:

I don't know enough about that yet. That will certainly be the focus of the investigation of the case, about not only the reputation of the department as a whole, but also these particular officers and what their conduct has been.

Host:

So the ACLU thinks that a principal when they call in for help the police department, he should sit down with the police department and say, "Okay. Tell me what exactly are you going to do? What doors are you coming in?" I mean, the police department says-- again, I've dealt with police departments before. They say, "Look, leave the policing to us. We know exactly what we do. We do this every day and we know exactly how it has to be handled." Besides the fact that any amount of excessive force that has been used, from my understanding, is because simply the kids did not listen to the instructions that they were told.

Mr. PONVERT:

That's not true and the tapes make that quite clear. There was excessive force used against students who were fully compliant. Many students were put in handcuffs, forced down to the ground, pushed against the wall when they were fully compliant and were doing exactly what the officers were asking them to do.

Host:

Were they told to begin with to stand against the wall and get down on their knees? Didn't one-- if I remember correctly-- I saw it a few weeks ago, but didn't one guy come in with a bullhorn and basically give instructions to all the kids what they should do?

Mr. PONVERT:

Well, the principal was actually involved actively in yelling at students, asking them to get down, saying things like, "Don't think this is funny. Get down. Put your hands on your heads." Those were orders.

Host:

Okay. So it was the principal. I didn't realize who that was. I thought it was a member because most of these police that came in were actually plainclothesmen. They came in with regular or ordinary clothing and you didn't really know that they were police.

Mr. PONVERT:

Well, it's difficult to tell from the videotape because what we do know from admissions made by the defendants so far is that there were 14 police officers, but there were also school officials. There were apparently several coaches and the principal, maybe one or two other people, possibly teachers who were participating in the raid. And that's an interesting fact. I mean, I think in retrospect now, the use of guns is being justified by, as you said a minute ago, because drugs and money equals violence and equals possession of weapons. That's a justification.

Host:

On the street, anyway.

Co-Host:

Mr. Ponvert, it is appropriate for school officials to take part in a sweep like this?

Mr. PONVERT:

No. It's really not. I mean, there's a correct way to do a drug search at a school.

Host:

But at the same time--

Co-Host:

Let him finish because I would like to know what's the proper way?

Mr. PONVERT:

Well, it depends on the context and on the real potential for violence. I mean, the reason that I think the participation of the school officials is an interesting and an important fact here is that it really contradicts the use of weapons because on the one hand, if weapons were necessary because there was a level of potential violence that justified the use of those weapons, then the school officials should have never been on the scene at all.

And similarly, if the four days of videotape is the information that was reviewed by the principal which justified the use of the weapons and the use of armed officers and the use of the dog, why did they sit around for four days and wait to implement the raid? If the videotape evidence showed activity that necessitated the use of armed officers, they wouldn't have sat around and waited four days. They would have implemented some kind of police action or school action earlier.

Co-Host:

That's a very good point.

Mr. PONVERT:

So I really think what's happening now is there's a lot of backpedaling. There's a lot of justification for essentially what ended up being a poorly planned and a very poorly implemented paramilitary raid that went awry.

Host:

We are talking to Antonio Ponvert, ACLU, attorney in charge of this case. We're talking about the case taking place in Goose Creek, South Carolina. And why are you not taking the posture and just the opposite, the fact that the principal was there, some of the coaches were there is because they did have responsibility? They wanted to make sure that the police, in fact, are coached by them to make sure that excessive force is not being used, etc.

Mr. PONVERT:

Well, because that's not what happened. Although now what we see is the principal saying, "I didn't know guns were being used and I didn't want guns to be used," he's on the scene. The guns are drawn. The guns are being pointed by the officers at the students and the principal is actively supporting and participating in that activity. He's not at any point saying--

Host:

Oh, he's supposed to walk out and say, "Hey, guys,

put your guns away?" I mean, once the raid is in, you

yourself get into it.

Co-Host:

You can argue once the--

Mr. PONVERT:

That's exactly the problem, though. Just the point you just made is exactly why this was a very badly planned raid, because once the activity begins, it's almost impossible to stop.

Host:

Antonio, maybe badly planned, but I'm not sure that it's criminal.

Co-Host:

Now is it possible that you'll get more students involved in your case right now? How many are in the suit?

Mr. PONVERT:

We represent 20 individual students. There's another lawsuit that was filed by another law firm and I think they've got eight or ten students. There's a lot of interest and it will not surprise me if more students come forward and want to be a part of one or more lawsuits.

Co-Host:

Is it possible-- there's another lawsuit coming. Is it possible that we'll see more than two?

Mr. PONVERT:

I don't really know. I mean, I think from the legal strategy standpoint, it doesn't make a lot of sense to have separate lawsuits brought by different lawyers on behalf of different plaintiffs because unless something happens here that I can't anticipate, the cases will be consolidated with the same federal judge and will be essentially put on the same schedule and the same track and a lot of the work will be done together.

Co-Host:

Okay, Mr. Ponvert. Thank you very much for joining us today. That was Antonio Ponvert. He is the ACLU attorney in charge of the case that's going on down in Goose Creek, South Carolina involving Stratford High School down there, the drug sweep of that school early in the morning on November 5th. Police went in with guns drawn. About 100 kids, I believe, were detained and now there are lawsuits going on. And Mr. Ponvert represents 20 of those students in the suit.