By Phillip Smith
Police conducting an undercover, street-level, reverse drug sting in Putnam County, Florida, shot and killed one of their targets Friday night as he attempted to drive away from the scene. Andrew Anthony Williams, a 48-year-old black man, becomes the 11th person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.
According to local press accounts, all relying on law enforcement sources, deputies and detectives from the Putnam County Sheriff's Office were conducting a "reverse sting" where they posed as drug dealers, sold unwary customers small amounts of drugs, and then arrested them.
Deputies had successfully sold drugs to and arrested 10 people, but when they identified themselves and tried to arrest Williams, who was number 11, he declined. "[H]e drove away quickly and hit a tree," the St. Augustine Record reported. "The man next backed up toward the deputies, then put the vehicle into drive and turned toward some of them, the Sheriff's Office said. Four deputies fired at the oncoming vehicle almost simultaneously, the Sheriff's Office said."
News 4 Jax had it this way: "...when they tried to arrest Williams, he took off in a blue SUV and, swerving to avoid deputies, ran into a tree. Williams then backed up and tried to take off again toward deputies causing four of them to open fire on Williams SUV, hitting him an unknown number of times."
Williams was taken to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead. One deputy was wounded in the gunfire, but that bullet came from another deputy's gun, according to the Sheriff's Office. (In the headline for its story about the incident, News 4 Jax neglected to mention that anyone had been killed, going with "Putnam County deputy hit by bullet fired at suspect.")
The Sheriff's Office did not identify the four deputies involved in the shooting, but was quick to make available Williams' criminal history, which including charges for drugs, fleeing, eluding, resisting arrest, and battery on a law enforcement officer.
The four deputies are on paid administrative leave.
This killing should raise a few questions, both about the nature of the operation itself and about what actually occurred.
Reverse drug stings are a controversial tactic, sometimes arguably justifiable at the higher echelons of the drug trade, where selling sizeable quantities of drugs to a player to see where they go help crack a drug ring, but that logic isn't at work here, where the only result is to round up some street drug buyers and drag them into the criminal justice system. Is having deputies pretend to be drug dealers to bust small-time users really the county's best use of its law enforcement resources?
And then there's the no-witness "he was going to run me over" defense used by the police to justify the killing. It happens not infrequently. Williams may have decided that getting busted on a minor dope charge was worth trying to murder a group of police officers with his vehicle. But could it have been that he was just trying to get away?
It'll be up to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which investigates officer-involved killings, to get to the bottom of it.