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Woman Dies After Police Mistakenly Raid Her Apartment By WILLIAM K. RASHBAUM
57-year-old Harlem woman preparing to leave for her longtime city government job died of a heart attack yesterday morning after police officers broke down her door and threw a concussion grenade into her apartment, the police commissioner said. They were acting on what appeared to be bad information about guns and drugs in the apartment.
Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly apologized to the family of the woman, Alberta Spruill, and said he had ordered an investigation of the entire incident and suspended the use of the grenades, which are meant to stun and disorient people with a loud noise and a flash. He said that he had reassigned the lieutenant who made the decision to use the grenade to administrative duties, pending the investigation, and that he would review how the grenades were used and search warrants carried out.
Mr. Kelly said that the officers were executing what is known as a no-knock search warrant based on information provided by a drug dealer, who told the police that his supplier stored guns and drugs in Apartment 6F at 310 West 143rd Street. The dealer had told the police that he had seen armed people in the apartment on three occasions and that there were dogs inside, Mr. Kelly said. But in the raid at 6:10 a.m., the officers found only Ms. Spruill, and realized the information was wrong.
In the minutes after the explosion, the terrified Ms. Spruill, who was dressed for work, was briefly handcuffed, but a police captain quickly realized the apartment's layout was different from the one described by the dealer, and she was released, Mr. Kelly said.
Ms. Spruill initially declined medical attention, although she told the captain that she had a heart condition. An ambulance was requested, and she went into cardiac arrest on the way to Harlem Hospital Center, where she died at 7:50 a.m.
Ms. Spruill, whom relatives and neighbors called hardworking and devout and someone who minded her own business, was a city employee for 29 years. Her job at the Division of Citywide Administrative Services included maintaining lists of candidates for civil service jobs, including police officers. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said that what had happened was tragic and "a terrible episode," and said in a statement that he joined all city employees in grieving for Ms. Spruill.
Neighbors and several elected officials questioned the department's tactics.
"Obviously it's slipshod police work," said State Assemblyman Keith Wright, who added, "I'm sorry to say, but these things happen all too often in this neighborhood."
At a news conference seven hours after Ms. Spruill's death, Mr. Kelly said it did not appear that the drug dealer had given any previous information to the department, although he was registered as a confidential informant. The commissioner also said that it was unclear whether the officers involved in the raid, who were from the 25th Precinct, conducted any surveillance of the building or the apartment before executing the search warrant, which was signed by Judge Patricia M. Nunez of Criminal Court.
"We're looking at the whole circumstances that led up to this event," Mr. Kelly said. "We're looking at the credibility of this confidential informant, we're looking at the process used to identify the apartment, any other follow-up observations of the apartment that were conducted or could have been conducted, the judgment of the officers involved as to the use of this flash grenade."
"This should not have happened," Mr. Kelly said at the news conference, which aides said was an attempt to quickly provide information and head off tensions. "On behalf of the entire New York City Police Department, I want to offer my condolences and sympathy to the family of Alberta Spruill," he said. "I also want to offer my apology."
But Mr. Kelly said it was not clear how the police had connected Ms. Spruill, who had lived in the neighborhood for more than two decades, to a drug dealer.
The events that led up to the raid began on May 5, when the informant walked into the 25th Precinct station house and told the police that he got his drugs from a man named Melvin Boswell who lived on the ninth floor of the building at 310 West 143rd Street, Mr. Kelly said. But Mr. Kelly said that the informant told the officers that because Mr. Boswell was on parole, he kept his drugs and guns in Apartment 6F.