The Elián Raid: A Cop’s View

The realities of the case surrounding today’s early-morning raid on the house of Elián González’s Miami relatives seem clear to me. The government had the justification and the obligation to take custody of the boy. Federal agents were given the task of removing the boy from the house without injury to anyone concerned, and they were given the go-ahead from the attorney general. They accomplished the mission with complete success, and in the end they must be judged on that success. The case may prove to be a public relations problem for Janet Reno and federal law enforcement, and the aftermath may prove to be unfortunate for the city of Miami, but the reasoning that went into planning and executing the raid is sound.

I’m a New York City Police Detective, and I’ve been involved in removing children in custody battles, but I don’t wish to simply be an apologist for the nation’s police forces. In the recent past, there have been actions by various police forces that I take issue with. The one that comes to mind because of renewed interest due to the lawsuits is the handling of the Columbine Shootings in Colorado. The inaction of the police in the face of what was clearly a still unfolding massacre seems a very poor decision or a tragic lack of any decision at all.

Watching CNN’s coverage of the latest developments in the González case, I was initially shocked at the forcefulness of the federal agents’ actions. The team seemed to be made up of at least the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Border Patrol, the U.S. Marshals Service, and members of the Metro Dade Police Department. The various accounts indicate that the entry team broke down the door, immobilized the occupants of the house, searched for and found the boy, and removed him. These agents wore raid gear: goggles, helmets, black fatigue-type uniforms, ballistic vests, and carried select-fire small arms (i.e. small machine guns).

But I see the tactics as justified. The tension surrounding and danger inherent in removing Elián González should be obvious to anyone who has watched the news in the last five months. The Justice Department is alleging that there was a likelihood that there were guns present in the house. The objective of the raid was to move the boy out of the house and into government custody. The greatest concern was for the safety of the boy; the second concern was for the safety of the agents involved; and the third concern was for the safety of the bystanders and involved persons. The greatest danger to all of these objectives was any resistance to the raid—even disorganized resistance on the part of the crowd that surrounded the Miami González house would have imperiled Elián. The raid had to be performed with as great an element of surprise as possible, with a show of force impressive enough to discourage any resistance, and quickly. Every second of delay invited those who opposed the raid to react violently. The raid succeeded as well as it could: There were no injuries to anyone, and Elián, although obviously upset by the raid, was spirited to a happy and lawful reunion with his father.

When I was on patrol I was once assigned to take a child from his father, who had violated the terms of a court order granting custody of their son to his ex-wife. The father happened to be a bear of a man. Child custody cases are like domestic violence cases—they require the police to interfere in the most personal and strongly felt relationships. While these cases are difficult to police, the actions to be taken are pretty well laid out. The court grants custody to a parent, and if the other parent interferes or disobeys the court’s instructions, he is committing a crime. We have to go get the child and arrest the parent. In this case, the father wasn’t holding on to his son to cause problems; he honestly believed that the son was better off with him, and arresting him and taking away his boy was a tearful, heartbreaking ordeal. While the father’s motive seemed pure, any motive that is so deeply felt can give way to violence, and we were very apprehensive about taking on this one man. He turned out to be a gentleman when we confronted him, and while we didn’t go in with guns drawn, I can understand why the agents in Miami did.

Elián’s cousin Marisleysis has alleged that agents told her, “Give us the boy or we will shoot.” If that is true, it is certainly a brutal tactic and a hollow threat, but it does not ring true to me. The photo that is being shown as evidence of excessive force on the part of the entry is inflammatory. It shows an agent reaching with his left hand for Elián who is in the arms of a man while his right hand aims a submachine gun at that man. The photo makes for bad press, but I believe both that it was a necessary show of force to get the man to surrender Elián and that if the man had threatened the agent or Elián with deadly force, the agent was trained to shoot that gun with almost surgical precision.

It is truly unfortunate that this raid was necessary. It is unfortunate that Elián lost his mother, and it is unfortunate that he has come to sit at the center of huge opposing political forces whose concern for six-year-old boys is suspect. What is right is that six-year-old boys be raised by their parents. The case is not about Fidel Castro, and it is not about Elián’s zealous Miami relatives who didn’t like their doors kicked in or guns stuck in their faces. It is about reuniting a boy with his dad in difficult and dangerous circumstances, and the raid accomplished just that.