BY ROCCO PARASCANDOLA. STAFF WRITER
Copyright 2006 Newsday, Inc.
In the three years since Alberta Spruill was literally scared to death in a botched raid, the New York City Police Department has all but eliminated use of the stungrenade, the device officers used the day they burst into her Harlem apartment, Newsday has learned.
Police have used the grenade only twice since the May 16, 2003, death of the 57- year-old grandmother, according to police statistics.
Spruill died three years ago tomorrow after police officers mistakenly burst into her West 143rd Street apartment looking for a drug dealer.
Several police sources said that, despite the overall effectiveness of the stun grenade, a tool designed to confuse the target long enough for police to rush in and make an arrest, the NYPD does not want a repeat of Spruill's death - not only a tragedy but a public relations disaster because it involved the death of a well-liked, churchgoing city employee with no criminal record.
Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne, the NYPD's top spokesman, said, however, that stun grenades still could be used under certain circumstances.
"Distraction devices remain part of the inventory, but are used with discretion," he said.
Spruill's sister, Halice Pinkney, said she took little solace in learning that the device is not used nearly as much now as when her sister was killed.
"It will benefit someone else if they're not using it," Pinkney said by telephone from her home in North Carolina. "But it won't benefit my sister. ... The only way my sister would benefit or there would be any justice would be if each cop who was there was taken to court so they can explain what they did."
Since Spruill's death, the NYPD has used the grenade - also called a flash grenade - once in 2004 and another time in 2005. By contrast, in the 5 1/2 months before her death, the device was used 85 times, and in 2002 it was used 150 times, police statistics show.
After Spruill died, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly apologized to her family, and Kelly reassigned two police commanders and a supervisor.
At the time, Kelly said cops at the scene were trying to "do the right thing," but "an unfortunate confluence of events and circumstances" led to Spruill's death.
Spruill was getting ready for her day - she worked for the Department of Citywide Administrative Services - when police burst into her apartment and tossed a stun grenade about 6:20 a.m. The raid was based on the word of an informant who had told police that Melvin "Country" Boswell, then 35, dealt drugs out of the apartment, carried a gun in his waistband and sometimes was accompanied by his pit bull.
The grenade, designed to disorient suspects with a flash and a loud boom, frightened Spruill so much she fell to the floor of her bedroom. Police handcuffed her, took her into the living room and sat her in a chair. She went into cardiac arrest a short time later and died at Harlem Hospital Center.
Even before that, however, the more than one dozen cops involved in the raid realized something was wrong. As Spruill was being handcuffed, police searched the apartment and there was no sign of Boswell.
Instead, police found an ordinary, well-kept home with no sign that drugs were being dealt there or that a dog was staying there.
Worse, police said later that the Emergency Services cops who led the raid did not know that Boswell had been arrested days earlier and was being held on Rikers Island.
Police also admitted that when Boswell was arrested, those officers - though aware of the pending raid - never asked him about Spruill's apartment.
The candid NYPD report on the botched raid - issued just two weeks later - also noted that the informant's tip was not corroborated and that a number of cops involved were unaware of the NYPD's extensive, detailed written policies governing the use of stun grenades.
In the days following the incident, the medical examiner ruled that Spruill died from the stress and fear of the raid. Her family sued the city, which settled the case for $1.6 million.
Pinkney, meanwhile, said the pain of her death is always a part of her life.
Just the other night, she said, she was singing in church when her sister's image popped into her head.
"She went to church all the time," Pinkney said, referring to her sister's devoted membership at Convent Avenue Baptist Church. "I pictured her there, singing."
Photo - Alberta Spruill, holding an award, died of a heart attack after police raided her apartment in 2003.
May 15, 2006
N.Y. cops using stun grenade sparingly