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The Official Whitewash of the Killing of Duncan Lemp

Trust us, it was a good killing
Walter Reed National Military Medical Center

Why did a Montgomery County, Maryland SWAT team kill  21-year-old Duncan Lemp, in a no-knock predawn raid on March 12?  The county released an official report yesterday stating that a violent no-knock raid was justified “due to Lemp being ‘anti-government,’ ‘anti-police,’ currently in possession of body armor, and an active member of the Three Percenters.”  The report also noted that “police had viewed several videos showing Lemp handling and shooting firearms.”

Distrusting the government and police and appearing in photos or videos with firearms is a catch-all that could apply to millions of Americans. But that was enough to justify a deadly assault in one of America’s most liberal jurisdictions. (I wrote about this case for TAC previously here, here, here and here).

Montgomery County released the report on New Year’s Eve, probably hoping that it would receive scant attention. But the county’s own admissions should propel new demands for disclosures on the most under-reported police killing of 2020.   

The report details how police attacked the Lemp home from two sides. Two members of the raid team did a “‘break and rake’ on Duncan Lemp’s first-floor bedroom window while the rest of the team entered the house by using a battering ram on the main front door … Another officer used a fireman’s pike tool to break the bedroom window closest to the bed where Lemp and [his pregnant girlfriend Kasey] Robinson were sleeping. The tool also has a hook that is used to grab a hold of and pull away the blinds so that officers would have an unobstructed view inside the bedroom. Once the window was broken and the shades pulled out of the way, one officer ducked below the window line as he was unarmed. A second officer (the shooting officer) who was armed with a rifle, then stepped up to the window and looked inside to locate Lemp as soon as possible and prevent him from having time to access any weapons that could be used against the SWAT officers.” Another team of SWAT cops used a battering ram to smash in the front door of the Lemp home. 

The official report serves a completely different version of Lemp’s killing than the county police department provided on March 17. In its initial explanation of the Lemp killing in March, the Montgomery County Police Department stated: 

The officers entering the residence announced themselves as police and that they were serving a search warrant. Officers gave commands for individuals inside the residence to show their hands and to get on the ground. Upon making contact with Lemp, officers identified themselves as the police and gave him multiple orders to show his hands and comply with the officer’s commands to get on the ground. Lemp refused to comply with the officer’s commands and proceeded towards the interior bedroom door where other officers were located. Upon entrance by officers into Lemp’s bedroom, Lemp was found to be in possession of a rifle and was located directly in front of the interior bedroom entrance door. 

In the new version of the report, Lemp was shot five times by a policeman standing outside his smashed-in bedroom window. Montgomery County still refuses to name the policeman who killed him. That policeman says that he shouted a warning to Lemp before opening fire, asserting that Lemp stood up holding a rifle and turned the muzzle toward the policeman. (The family always maintained that the shots that killed Duncan came in from that window.) Were the police lying in March, or are they lying now, or are they still lying?

“Let’s go to the videotape”—except that there isn’t any. And there were no other police witnesses to the killing of Duncan Lemp. Police body cams have been one of the most significant reforms in curbing police misconduct in this century. But, as Lemp family lawyer Rene Sandler disclosed, Montgomery County signed a labor agreement with the police union which allowed the SWAT team to “opt out of the truth and transparency by not being required to wear body camera or videotaping a no knock raid.” This is par for the course for police unions across the nation utterly sabotaging police accountability. 

Police targeted and eventually killed in part Lemp because they believed he possessed an illegal Israeli assault weapon. Late in the report, as if reciting a minor technicality, the county prosecutor states, “It should be noted that upon further review and investigation into the IWI Tavor X95 rifle, it was determined that it was not an assault rifle … It appears that Lemp’s rifle was a legal ‘copycat’ made to look exactly like the illegal version of the IWI Tavor X95.” But the non-banned weapon was close enough for government work to justify violently attacking Lemp’s home. The false predicate for the violent raid barely rates a footnote in the 17-page report. 

Police stated that Lemp was prohibited from possessing any firearms due to a previous criminal conviction—a point that the family vigorously contests. According to Sandler, the affidavit used to secure the no-knock raid contained information that was “demonstrably false.” (Shades of Waco and Ruby Ridge!) A police raid occurred at the Lemp family home when Lemp was a juvenile in 2016 but no details were disclosed in the report on that raid or by anyone else.

Montgomery County announced that the killing would be investigated by neighboring Howard County, to assure an independent credible review. But that was a sham from the start. The Howard County prosecutor requested that a Montgomery County detective “conduct interviews” with key police personnel, including the officer who signed the search warrant and the SWAT supervisor “to find out more details regarding why the decision was made to do a no-knock warrant.” Howard County made no effort to determine some of the most potentially controversial aspects of the case.

A grand jury examined the shooting earlier this year but all of the testimony and evidence presented remains confidential—except for selections that the county attorney’s office received permission from a judge to disclose in the report. Sandler and Cary Hansel, a lawyer for Kasey Robinson, Lemp’s girlfriend, are outraged at what they consider “cherry picking” by the prosecutor. They are calling for full disclosure of all materials and evidence from the grand jury proceedings.  Was the grand jury investigation into the killing of Duncan Lemp as big a charade as the Louisville grand jury that examined the police killing of Breonna Taylor earlier this year? Sandler notes, “The family is particularly upset at the lack of any consideration of the other eye witnesses in the home at the time [of the raid].  The report simply makes it clear that none of that was seriously considered.” Instead, the new storyline on the killing was sacrosanct. 

Nothing in the report indicates that Lemp posed a threat of imminent threat of violence to anyone, not even to stray dogs in the neighborhood. The report indicates that police were surveilling Duncan Lemp and the Lemp residence well before they launched the SWAT raid.  Sandler said police “would have seen him taking Kasey to a doctor’s appointment or going to a store. They could have detained him during a traffic stop while [other police] secured the home. That would be a much safer tactic than to accost an entire family and to raid blindly at 4:30 in the morning in the dark.”  

Why did the SWAT team rely on massive violence instead of the type of routine police work that prevailed in most of the nation in the last century? The “break and rake” routine seems custom-made to spur residents to grab any firearm or broomstick handy. And then there were the bombs the police detonated that morning. Flash-bang grenades epitomize the current relation between police and private citizens. A 2019 federal appeals court decision noted that the grenades are “four times louder than a 12-gauge shotgun blast” with “a powerful enough concussive effect to break windows and put holes in walls.” As TechDirt noted in 2019, “As anyone other than cops seems to comprehend, startling people in their own homes with explosives and kicked-in doors tends to make everything more dangerous for everyone.” 

The official report makes clear that Lemp was targeted in part because of his political beliefs. Lemp is identified as a supporter of the “the Three Percenters … a far-right militia movement and paramilitary group” which advocates “gun ownership rights and resistance to the federal government’s involvement in local affairs.” ( Three-percenter refers to “the belief that only 3% of colonists fought against the British in the Revolutionary War,” as the report notes.) This is close enough to heresy in antigun Maryland, though it is considered on par with motherhood and apple pie in most of America.  Lemp was outspoken politically, and his last tweet, a couple months before he was killed, declared,The constitution is dead.” The report also gravely notes, “Lemp has a number of postings on his Instagram page showing him in possession of and shooting different types of guns.” The police targeting of Duncan Lemp was spurred by a “confidential source” whose name has not yet been disclosed. The report states that that source directed police to Lemp’s  “mymilitia.com” and “Instagram” profile pages. Was the “confidential source” trying to bring down gun activists, or was he working off a plea bargain (bringing in scalps for a reduced sentence), or was it simply someone who Lemp had told about his firearms?  

And why has Montgomery County created a new right for police to anonymously kill citizens? As David Simon, the writer who masterminded the television series Homicide and The Wire, observed, “Without a name [of a policeman involved in a shooting], there’s no way for anyone to evaluate an officer’s performance independently, to gauge his or her effectiveness and competence, to know whether he or she has shot one person or 10.” When an FBI agent shot to death Ibragim Todashev, a Chechen guy he was interrogating in Florida in 2013, the FBI sought to keep all the details secret (despite the changing official narrative of the killing). A year after the shooting, the Boston Globe revealed that the FBI agent who killed Todashev had a stormy record as a policeman in Oakland, California, where he “took the Fifth at a police corruption trial and was the subject of two police brutality lawsuits and four internal affairs investigations” before retiring at age 31. But Montgomery County officials believe no one is entitled to know the prior record of the officer who killed Duncan Lemp. 

Nobody in Montgomery County appeared to give a damn about Lemp’s killing. Sandler contacted Montgomery County executive Marc Elrich and all nine Members of the Council  on behalf of the family. “And not one person responded,” Sandler said. Mercedes Lemp, Duncan’s mother, commented, “We are so disappointed and saddened and shocked by the apparent lack of any meaningful investigation in this case. And given the county’s refusal to even acknowledge us as victims, we decided to relocate” out of the county.    

The prosecutor’s report, explaining why it wasn’t important that Lemp didn’t actually own an illegal assault weapon, tutted, “Very minute changes such as the overall length of the weapon can mean the difference between an illegal assault rifle and a legal one.” Unfortunately, there are no such “very minute changes” in Montgomery County police procedures that could justify violently attacking a peaceful home and killing a young man. The brazen report released yesterday confirm that Montgomery County politicians and police officials believe they can continue covering up the killing of Duncan Lemp. Trust us, it was a good killing. Will they get away with it?

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.