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March 17, 2009

Police shooting lawsuit

The civil wrongful death lawsuit now under way in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, filed by the family of 44-year-old Cheryl Lynn Noel, raises some interesting questions:

1. Did a member of the Baltimore County police Swat team unnecessarily fire a third and fatal bullet into the chest of Noel, who was already wounded, as she lay on the ground, unable to pose any threat?

2. Did county police overdo it by sending in a heavily-armed 16-member SWAT team dressed in camouflage gear, some armed with assault rifles, using a flash grenade and carrying ballistic shields with bright lights, to serve a search warrant on a Dundalk home for drugs?

Terrell N. Roberts III addressed the 10-member jury selected on Monday and set to hear at least two weeks of testimony in a case that will examine what at the time was a routine police shooting. I'll take  you through the statements by Roberts and the county attorney defending the officers, letting each tell the tale:

Roberts began by talking about Jan. 21, 2005, which he described as a "cold winter morning" in which, at 4:50 a.m., Cheryl Noel, a 44-year-old "devoted mother and wife was asleep in her bed" and, on a normal day, was to have gotten up shortly to get ready for work at the Baltimore City Department of Public Works, where she was a water technician at the Back Water Treatment Plant. Instead, Roberts told the jury, "She was shot by a police officer who is sworn to protect and serve."

What she didn't know as she slept so soundly in her bed was that "outside her home amassed a SWAT team of about 16 officers" who were about to swarm her home after having conducted an investigation that began when a county officer stopped her 19-year-old son a few weeks earlier and found a single pill of Percocet for which he did not have a prescription. Cops later searched the household trash and found "remnants, traces of marijuana, traces of cocaine." The son, Matthew, had been living downstairs in the basement. (He was convicted of marijuana possession and served 90 days in jail stemming from charges filed after the raid in which his mother was killed).

Roberts described for the jury a high intensity, high-risk home invasion by cops for what he called a minuscule amount of drugs. "The way they entered the house is what this case is all about," he told the jury on Monday. "They did not knock and announce. They took a battering ram, knocked down the front door and stampeded into the home."

He talked about the explosion, a flash grenade, set off outside the house as the cops went in, designed he said to confuse occupants so they don't know who is barging inside. He said it was timed to go off, from a pole set up outside the house and near Noel's second floor bedroom window, just cops who were already inside rushed through the bedroom door. The husband Charles, who was asleep on the bed, sat up, but "before he could say 'What the ...' his door was banged down and he saw two muzzle flashes. He looked over to see his wife beginning to go down."

Roberts said Cheryl Noel, hearing the flash grenade, grabbed her legally-registered handgun and was standing at the foot of her bed, pointing it in a downward manner, when the cops burst through the door; Officer Carlos Artson, seeing the gun, immediately fired two shots, hitting her in the upper right and upper left part of her body. She fell, and the gun came lose from her hands.

Her husband, Charles Noel, complied with officer's demands to put his hands up and said he told his wife, "Put your hands up, babe." She responded, "They shot me in the chest."

Roberts said Artson then yelled three times for her to move away or move her hand away from the gun. Roberts said Charles Noel will testify that his wife posed no threat, that she was incapacitated and could not comply with Artson's demands. He said Artson then fired a third and final shot, downward, into the center of Cheryl Noel's chest. That, Roberts told the jury, "was the kill shot."

Roberts described haphazard training. He pointed out the cops didn't have an arrest warrant, but merely a search warrant, and that the main target was Matthew Noel, Cheryl Noel's 19-year-old son who lived in the basement with his girlfriend and who fully cooperated when different officers yelled down the stairs for him to surrender. Roberts said Cheryl, had she known cops were inside her house, would've done the same given the chance. He said the officers who conducted the raid knew she feared for her life because people had called in death threats in connection with her son -- one threatened to burn the house down -- but that his clients were not dangerous individuals.

He did conceded that Charles Noel had been convicted of second-degree murder 30 years ago stemming from a fight with other teens. He said he left for the army but returned to plead guilty when charges were brought "and he served his time. It's been a matter of shame for him." He now works a waste station at the Fort George G. Meade Army base in Anne Arundel County, and has for the past 13 years. Matthew Noel also had problems -- he had recently shot a man in the foot with a .45 caliber handgun, an incident that Roberts described as fight among teens.

Of Cheryl Noel, Roberts said, "This woman did not have fair warning that the police were entering her house." He said he will put on experts who will tell you what police won't -- that such raids are designed to hide the fact that cops are busting into homes and that the use of flash grenades prove the cops want to cause as much confusion as possible. And when she was shot, "she was not going for the gun. She was incapable of going for the gun."

Of the raid itself, Roberts said: "We're not going after Osama bin Laden. We're not even going after a murderer. This wasn't even an arrest warrant."

County attorney Paul M. Mayhew, who is defending the two sergeants and three officers, stood up and wondered aloud if what his counterpart had just described was more like Nazi Germany than Baltimore County. Of police, he said, "This is not a terrorist organization we're running here. These officers are highly trained and dedicated."

While Roberts described Dundalk as a suburban enclave, Mayhew described it as part and parcel with the city -- same type of housing, same type of problems. Dundalk might as well as be East Baltimore: "We live in a very violent city and a very violent nation and a very violent world, full of guns and drugs, unfortunately."

He described how the investigation unfolded, not a keystone cops type of a thing, but from a simple stop of a car by a patrol officer of 19-year-old Matthew Noel, who was driving on a suspended license. The cop noticed a pill that was Percocet and the young Noel told the officer "he had a pill problem." The case was referred to a federal task force investigating what Mayhew described was formed in "response to a growing prescription drug epidemic." The sergeant, he said, "did what he was supposed to do -- investigate."

Officers searched the Noel's trash outside the house and three separate times found evidence of drugs -- small amounts of marijuana and cocaine, scales for measuring and "the razor blade used for cutting it up." He noted that "drug dealers are business people. They don't throw out their product out in the trash. We always find just a little."

The drugs combined with the scales led police to believe the house was being used to sell drugs, not just occupied by people who used them. He said cops did a background check on the occupants and turned up, yes, the old murder conviction for Charles Noel, but also the shooting case against the son Matthew, that his girlfriend, a nightclub dancer, also was wanted on a warrant and that there was a second handgun registered to a person in the house. They also found mail indicating another man with a long criminal record for burglary, drugs and assault might be living there. The threats Cheryl Noel was worried about were directed at Matthew.

Putting all that information together -- there were guns in the house, it's linked to drugs and occupied by people with violent histories -- the officer "went and got a warrant. That was the Noel's fourth amendment protection." Then Sgt. Robert M. Gibbons had to decide how to go into the house.  He said Gibbons had to think of all that they learned, including that another son, who had moved out, had been arrested and charged with selling marijuana "outside the home" by an officer who happened to be on the raid team. That charge was dropped when the suspect "flipped" on "someone else with more drugs," Mayhew told jurors.

In addition, Cheryl Noel, the dedicated mother and worker, had a previous conviction for possessing marijuana and driving under the influence of alcohol. Gibbons, Mayhew told jurors, "didn't think it was remotely safe to send a patrol officer knocking on the door. He knew the house was occupied by a convicted murderer and a man who had just shot another man with a .45." Police officers, he said, are here to "serve and protect" but "that doesn't mean they have to forfeit their right to protect their own lives."

He disputed Charles Noel's statement that his wife never moved toward the gun; he said Artson saw her move her hand toward the weapon and fired. He said the officer showed incredible restraint in stopping after he fired the first two bullets and yelled three times for her to move away from the gun. His partner was still subduing the husband on the bed by training an assault rifle at him, and that "any other officer, any one of you, would've kept shooting" until it was clear Cheryl Noel couldn't move again.

Mayhew told the jury, "We do not apologize one minute" for the shooting. He held up the box containing Cheryl Noel's gun to the jury: "This is a a legally registered handgun. Would you wanted it pointed at you?" ... He noted that county tactical officers have conducted 3,000 "high-risk" raids in the past 30 years and only three times "have they discharged their weapons." He said Charles Noel complied with the officer's demands and wasn't hurt at all.

He said flash grenades are not used to cause confusion but to "momentarily distract" someone as cops go in. He said in this case, officers broke down the door as a single officer shouted, "Police search warrant" over and over again. The flash grenade was set off 4.5 seconds after the door came down, giving what he said was ample warning to the people inside that police were there. He said it can be debated whether 4.5 seconds is enough time for that to register but he said the tactic has worked in most of the other 3,000 raids.

Mayhew said Cheryl Noel kept her fully-loaded gun under her pillow because she was worried about the threats made toward her son, and that she thwarted efforts by the husband to kick the young man out. He said the idea police want to conceal who they are during a raid is not true, in that cops yell who they are as they come through door, have the words "police" emblazoned on their gear and even on their shields. In fact, Charles Noel, according to Mayhem, said during his deposition that he didn't know cops were inside until he was handcuffed and brought downstairs; but his lawyer said in opening statements that he told his wife to put his hands up and that he was blinded by the light coming from the police officer's shields.

Here is a copy of the lawsuit and the police report that lists the items seized from the house:

Complaint Complaint Peter Hermann

bcreport bcreport Peter Hermann

Posted by Peter Hermann at 11:34 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Police shootings


4 things come to mind in viewing this story:

1. The notion that a hardworking individual can be awakened from sleep at 4:50am and immediately understand multiple shouted commands (let alone react positively to the flash bombs) is absurd. I think that the jury out to be sequestered for this trial. After a few nights, let's have a SWAT team enter a juror's motel room under similar circumstances. I think the jurors wouldn't need to hear closing arguments from the County Attorney in order to find for the plaintiff.

2. I think my advanced age is coloring my attitudes towards local police forces. When I was young, it was understood that policework was extremely dangerous at times, and loss of life was possible. The police agreed to value citizens lives over their own and in return we granted them (and their survivors) extraordinary benefits like retirement with a pension that could be accessed immediately (at reduced rates, granted) was one of the tradeoffs. While the benefits haven't changes, It seems to me that police now value their own lives over other citizens, counting any argument with a command, slow reaction to orders, etc. as a "threat" and results in immediate use of deadly force by the officer.

3. I would be curious to know if serving a warrant in daylight or early evening by a regular team of officers is statistically more dangerous than other arrests (aside from domestic disputes which we all know are statistically more dangerous to the officers). What has prompted this extreme show of force when serving drug warrants? Too much TV? Too much funding for SWAT teams?

4. The fact that a 30 year old non-related murder conviction served as one basis of rationale for the use of SWAT team is particularly disturbing to me. Did someone know the particulars of that case? Didn't seem from the article that that case had any relation to the current one and if someone has a clean record for 30 years shouldn't have as much weight as a factor as much as the original information?

Any thoughts?

Please check out this website. There is a memorial to some that have lost their lives due to this type of militant atmosphere. It's sad. With this attitude of kill or be killed the 'no-knock warrant" sets up someone to die. Anyone wearing a mask entering the home of a registered gun owner creates a bad situation. This type of warrant is supposedly used so evidence doesn't get flushed? That's ridiculous. No one needs to risk death over what the officers found in this home and certainly no one deserved to die over it.

Living in this area and growing up on that street, I passed by this location many times. At any given hour of the day their were groups of people just hanging around on the cornor, and at that house. Tennis shoes hung in the electric wire by the house (common to drug areas). Some neighbors had complained about the location to the police already. The death of Mrs. Noel was tragic, but these officers have a tough job and yes their safety is first, they have families to go home to. If you allow this kind of activity to occur in your home you need to be prepared for the consequences. Obvisouly she knew something was going on, or she would'nt be sleeping with a loaded gun under her pillow.

I agree with JB. Police are not to blame here for the drug culture, violence and total disrespect shown by our youth. Police on the east coast for the most part work for lousy pay, lousy equipment, and sacrifice more every day than most do in a lifetime. And yes, cops have families which are often torn apart by the work that they do from the stress, hectic schedule, and commitment that officers have to the job. Ask any cop family and the spouse will tell you it is very difficult. These officers were trying to stem the tide of drugs and violence in our community- if not them, then who? This city is in crisis, and too many people are turning a blind eye to it. It is sad that Ms. Noel was killed in this way. Do you think young Matthew Noel will stop and change his life after realizing he was the catalyst that put this whole thing in motion? Not a chance.

I Just Found Out Tonite About My Friend Cheryl Noels Death
I Moved Away & Lost Touch .

I Have Read Every Article I Could Find on Cheryl's Death .It All Doesn't Make Sense to Me .
Cheryl Noel Was The Most Loving Person I Knew.

One Christmas Cheryl & Her Husband
Charles Noel Surprise My Family With Christmas Presents ,Breakfast & Dinner .
I Knew it Was Them as I Saw Them Drive Off .

They Never Knew In My Heart I Remembered Their Kindness Every Day Since Then .

Cheryl Noel Would NEVER Hurt Anyone ..She Couldn't Her Heart Was " To Big & Full of Love"

I Was Alone One Valentine's .
Cheryl Brought Me a Candle That Read :
"Love makes the Lonelies Go Away "
I Never Lite That Candle .I Never Wanted to Forget Such a Wonderful Person She Was .
I Lite it Tonite for Cheryl

Now Who is Going to Take The Loneness Away
for Charles,Mathew , Jacob & Cheryl's Family & Friends Who Loved Her So Much .
RIP Cheryl.. I Love You

If her handgun were not registered, then I would have concerns, but since she had all rights to have that gun, there is no need to question why. My concern about this issue how did this even come about over drug charges. My neighbor a few years ago had her house raided by "mistake" because of the confusion of numbers of the address. So let the jury decide what they think before anyone can truly pass judgement.

The problem starts when Police Departments use SWAT teams in unwarranted situations. Why are they using SWAT for search warrants? they should be for Arrest Warrants, and only for felony crimes involving the threats by Armed and Dangerous.…This was result of a two week investigation following the discovery of one percocet after a routine traffic stop? Over zealous law enforcement increases the risk and potential for unnecessary and fatal outcomes. The tactics, weapons and ammunition they use are meant to be catastrophically lethal SWAT training is designed to intimidate with elements of Speed, Surprise and Violence of Action…which are all meant to disorient and terrorize the situation they are confronting, in this case A 18 year old marijuanna user? In addition to policies and protocols that have officers at ready gun with weapons pointed at center mass of another human being, an opportunity for devastating and disastrous outcome. The officers’ admitted mindset is based on risk assessments. Sounds like someone in charge did not properly provide valid risk assessment to a 16-man SWAT team for a botched DRUG SEARCH WARRANT. My CRINGING thought is two shots fired to subdue Ms. Noel, then one shot more, the FATAL shot fired DOWN into the chest of a frightened, scared innocent victim. All of these components, are primed for devastating and disastrous outcomes. Shame on every Police Department that uses SWAT TACTICS for ROUTINE Community law enforcement. We should all be sleeping with Loaded PISTOLS (no shots were fired, would it have mattered whether loaded, registered, or not?) to protect ourselves from ALL FORCED ENTRY, even if they are UNANNOUNCED local Community Police Officers. Hurray for the true Law Enforcement Officers who are trying to stem the tide of drugs and violence in our community. SWAT TEAMS should be better regulated and held responsible.

What a great blog!There have a chance that we can have an furthur exchanges and cooperation.I will always pay attention to your blog.

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About Peter Hermann
Peter Hermann started covering news for The Baltimore Sun in 1990, first in Anne Arundel County and, starting in 1994, reporting on the Baltimore Police Department. In 2001, he was assigned to Jerusalem as the Baltimore Sun's Middle East correspondent. He returned in 2005 as an assistant city editor overseeing crime coverage. In 2008, Peter returned to the beat as a daily reporter and blogger. A recent BBC report featured him in a segment on the harsh realities of covering crime in Baltimore.

Coverage will focus on crime trends, problems in neighborhoods in the city and elsewhere, profiles of victims and police officers and try to offer readers a fresh perspective on one of the most vexing issues facing Baltimore and its future.

Contributing to this blog is Justin Fenton, who joined The Sun in 2005 and has covered the Baltimore City Police Department and the criminal justice system since 2008. His work includes an investigation into Cal Ripken Jr.’s minor league baseball stadium deal with his hometown of Aberdeen, a three-part series chronicling a ruthless con woman, coverage of the killing of five Amish children at a schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa., and a job swap with a British crime reporter to explore differences in crime-fighting. A special report looking into how city police handle rape cases led to sweeping reforms that changed the way sexual assaults are investigated in Baltimore. He was recognized as the best reporter in Baltimore by the City Paper in 2010 and by Baltimore Magazine in 2011.

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