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Did Maryland Police Shoot and Kill a Sleeping Man?

An initial police press release claims "firearms offenses" were involved, but now the authorities are being mum.

Duncan Lemp in 2019 (Courtesy of Lemp family) and stock photo SWAT CLP Media/Shutterstock

“The constitution is dead” was the last tweet ever sent by 21-year-old Duncan Socrates Lemp.  On Thursday morning at 4:30 a.m., a Montgomery County SWAT team killed Lemp during a violent attack on his family’s home in the affluent Washington suburb of Potomac, Maryland. 

Why did the SWAT team attack the home as Lemp was sleeping? The initial county police press release referred only to “firearms offenses.” County police spokeswoman Mary Davison refused to disclose either the details of Lemp’s alleged offense or the affidavit used to justify the raid.  Instead, she notified me that my press inquiries were being handled under the Maryland Public Information Act which entitles government agencies to delay responding for weeks or months.

Even the search warrant used to justify the raid is reportedly sealed for 30 days. This Blue Wall of Silence is doing nothing to slow the cascade of allegations on social media that Lemp was murdered.  

According to Rene Sandler, a former prosecutor who is representing the Lemp family, Montgomery County police fired into the bedroom where Lemp and his pregnant girlfriend were sleeping without warning. The gunfire was followed by two flash-bang grenades.  The Supreme Court of North Carolina last month labeled flash-bangs a “weapon of mass death and destruction,” and a 2019 federal appeals court decision noted that flash bangs are “four times louder than a 12-gauge shotgun blast” with “a powerful enough concussive effect to break windows and put holes in walls.” Criminal defense lawyer Clay Conrad observed in 2010, flash-bangs are “just an assault. These things are designed to blind and deafen… You’re intentionally injuring people.”

And when gunfire and bombs ring out at 4:30 a.m., it is not surprising that someone gets killed in the commotion.  Montgomery County police have offered no explanation for the timing of the raid. Instead, they issued a press release late on the day of the killing announcing a “police-involved shooting” — a weasel phrase preferred by police departments and much of the media nowadays. 

After Lemp, who was a software developer, was wounded, the police handcuffed the surviving family members and his girlfriend while conducting an exhaustive search of the house. Lemp was pronounced dead at the scene. On Friday evening, the police department posted photos of five firearms (none of which were apparently illegal in themselves) they seized during the raid but omitted including a photo of Lemp’s bullet-ridden corpse.  The police also modified their story to assert that Lemp had “confronted” the police officers.  But this could simply mean that he stood up after the shooting or took a step towards the window from where shots were entering. The police department has not asserted that Lemp had a firearm or any other dangerous device when he was slain.

Is the version of events that Sanders offers unfair to the police?  SWAT team members were reportedly wearing body cams. The ACLU of Maryland is demanding that the police “must be transparent and release all body camera footage” of the raid on Lemp’s home.  The county government’s refusal to answer questions or to disclose the body cam footage is doing nothing to help its credibility. 

Why was Lemp targeted?  Lawyer Sandler said that the search warrant referred to Lemp as a “prohibited person” —meaning that he was prohibited from owning firearms. That could mean simply that he had a permit to use medical marijuana —a violation that would apply to tens of thousands of Maryland gun owners who use marijuana despite federal law prohibiting gunownership combined with pot smoking. A check of Montgomery County court records revealed one offense for Lemp:  a speeding ticket from last year. Court records state that Lemp was only 5′ 8″ and 145 pounds but he was towering enough to terrify a SWAT team into opening fire without warning. 

Lemp was apparently a member of some online pro-gun groups and had allegedly expressed interest in joining a militia. His Instagram page shows two photos with the motto “Sic Semper Tyrannis”—the Virginia “Thus Always to Tyrants” state motto, including one photo showing firearms held high. Checking his Facebook page on Friday morning, I was surprised that he and I had seven mutual friends, including a savvy libertarian lawyer lady from California. Did Lemp’s political beliefs or associations have any role on his fatal targeting by the Montgomery County police?  

Maryland has a long history of deadly SWAT raids that kill innocent people or dogs — lots of dogs. After Maryland police wrongfully raided a mayor’s house and killed his canines in 2008, the legislature required police to report on every SWAT raid.  Between 2010 and 2014, police in Maryland conducted over 8000 SWAT raids, killing nine people and injuring almost a hundred, as well as killing 14 animals.  Those grim statistics helped spur the Maryland legislature to end SWAT recordkeeping.

Montgomery County police have refused to disclose the name of the police officer or officers who killed Lemp.  Maryland police are protected by the so-called “Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights” that prohibits questioning a police officer for 10 days after any incident in which he used deadly force.  A 2019 George Washington Law Review nationwide survey revealed that 98% of police chiefs believed that delaying interrogations of police after a shooting can impede  investigations but police unions’ clout prevails on this issue. One police chief commented that “showing evidence in advance allows [police] to tailor their lies to fit the evidence,” while another police chief observed that that process simply gives police suspects “time to fabricate a better lie.” 

Another barrier against finding the truth out about is the Potomac SWAT raid is that Maryland treats police falsifying evidence as the equivalent of jaywalking. A Baltimore police officer was found guilty in 2018 of “fabricating evidence in a case in which his own body-camera footage showed him placing drugs in a vacant lot and then acting as if he had just discovered them.”  The man who was arrested for those drugs was locked up for six months before the charge was dropped and he was released. The policeman kept his job because, as the Baltimore Sun explained, “Under Maryland law, officers are only removed automatically if convicted of a felony. Fabricating evidence and misconduct in office are both misdemeanors.”  An ACLU lawyer groused that he “cannot imagine a more screwed-up, idiotic way of trying to manage a police department or any other public office” than continuing to employ a cop convicted for fabricating evidence.

Was Duncan Lemp correct that “the constitution is dead”?  One answer will be found in whether Montgomery County police face any consequence for his death. Unfortunately, the legal playing field in Maryland is profoundly tilted in favor of official killers. 

James Bovard is the author of Lost RightsAttention Deficit Democracy, and Public Policy Hooligan. He is also a USA Today columnist. Follow him on Twitter @JimBovard.

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