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Romano: "Dealing weed should not be a death sentence.''

The name was unfamiliar to her and, initially, the story was, too.

It was the pain that Patricia Silliman recognized. The look of disbelief and grief on the faces of strangers.

Silliman had the TV news on late at night when she first saw the loved ones of Levonia Riggins, the 22-year-old Tampa man who was killed during a SWAT team raid of his home.

"My heart just sank,'' Silliman said.

For a moment, she quietly stared at nothing.

"And then I got angry.''

Silliman is the mother of Jason Westcott, who was killed two years ago in another SWAT team raid. The two cases involve different agencies and different circumstances, but have one important bond:

Both Riggins and Westcott were minor players in Tampa's drug scene, and the raids on their homes turned up no more than a few ounces of marijuana.

Which begs the question:

Did the level of force exceed the suspected crime?

"You want to have as much information as possible before you go into a situation like that so you don't come out empty-handed, and leaving a dead body behind,'' said Joseph Giacalone, a retired New York Police Department sergeant and adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

"Dealing a few bags of weed should not be a death sentence.''

Asking questions aloud does not exonerate the dealings of either Riggins or Westcott. Nor do they point a finger at individual cops who say they had reason to fear for their lives once the raids began.

Instead, these are questions of departmental policies and philosophies. Questions of perspective, judgment and leadership.

There is no doubt law enforcement agencies need enough latitude and discretion to do their jobs safely and effectively. But that latitude comes with enormous responsibility.

And in these cases, the results suggest the Tampa Police Department and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office may have been negligent. Either their investigations falsely led them to believe Riggins and Westcott were dealers worthy of a SWAT raid, or they knowingly overreacted for minor crimes.

"Is there danger in serving a warrant or conducting a drug raid? Or course,'' said University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris, who has testified before the U.S. Senate and written books about police procedures. "But is that a justification for treating all raids with a maximum degree of force and military tactics a department has at its disposal?''

The problem of overreaction seems to be more common in recent years as more and more agencies have acquired SWAT-style equipment and personnel. And instead of limiting tactical teams to the high-risk situations for which they were intended, they are more routinely employed.

Some might argue that there is something to be said for a better-safe-than-sorry approach. The problem is that an overreaction by police can lead to an overreaction by suspects, putting everyone in more danger than necessary.

Attorney TJ Grimaldi, who is representing Silliman in a lawsuit against the Tampa Police Department, disputes the police's contention that officers announced their presence upon busting into Westcott's home at night. Awakened by the noise, Westcott grabbed his gun and was shot and killed by police.

"They could have gone about it in a totally different way,'' Grimaldi said. "Do you need to surround the house with a (tactical response team) and storm the home? If you've seen the home, there wasn't much to storm. It's pretty tiny. You can see the entire house from a big bay window in front.

"Their response to this was pretty crazy.''

In the more recent case, the Sheriff's Office said the house was cleared of all occupants except for Riggins, who remained in a back bedroom. A deputy said Riggins made a move toward his waistband as if going for a gun, and was fatally shot. Riggins, it turned out, was unarmed.

Neither the Police Department nor Sheriff's Office has said much about the cases. The Police Department will not comment when there is pending litigation, and the Sheriff's Office says the investigation is ongoing.

Giacalone, the former NYPD sergeant, said there are numerous reasons to use SWAT-style units to conduct raids and serve warrants. It is not a stretch, he said, to assume someone dealing drugs might also have weapons in a home. And if a suspect is arrested away from their home, police run the risk of word getting back to associates who can move drugs before a warrant is served.

In most cases, Giacalone said, the safest way to enter a home is with a SWAT unit. That's a legitimate argument to make. At the least, it's worth discussing.

But if that's the policy, then police have to make sure the potential gain is worth the inherent risk.

In the cases of Levonia Riggins and Jason Westcott, it does not appear that the bar was met. There seems to be no credible evidence they were doing anything more than selling a little weed to friends.

Considering possession of a small amount of marijuana is now legal in several states, the reaction of police in these two cases would be comical if it wasn't so tragic.

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