Most people have heard of “no-knock” raids by police, but many are not familiar with just how unnecessarily dangerous they are. Not just dangerous for people, including children, but also for police. Interestingly, police are typically not held accountable for their abusive and deadly force during these raids.
As police have militarized to fight in the failed “war on drugs”, few tactics have proven as unnecessarily dangerous and deadly as the use of forcible-entry raids to serve narcotics search warrants. These raids tend to cause staggering levels of violence when the stated mission could have been accomplished through patient stakeouts or simply knocking on the door.
Thousands of times a year, these “dynamic entry” raids exploit the element of surprise to effect seizures and arrests of neighborhood drug dealers. But they have also led time and again to avoidable deaths, gruesome injuries, demolished property, enduring trauma, blackened reputations and multimillion-dollar legal settlements at taxpayer expense, an investigation by The New York Times found.
Innocent people have been killed in police attacks at wrong addresses, including a 7-year-old girl in Detroit, and collaterally as the police pursued other residents, among them a 68-year-old grandfather in Framingham, Mass. Stray bullets have whizzed through neighboring homes, and in dozens of instances the victims of police gunfire have included the family dog.
Cornelia GA, on the edge of the Appalachians, has fewer than 5,000 residents, but the SWAT team was outfitted for war.
At 2:15 a.m. on a moonless night in May 2014, 10 officers rolled up a driveway in an armored Humvee, three of them poised to leap off the running boards. They carried Colt submachine guns, light-mounted AR-15 rifles and Glock .40-caliber sidearms. Many wore green body armor and Kevlar helmets. They had a door-breaching shotgun, a battering ram, sledgehammers, Halligan bars for smashing windows, a ballistic shield and a potent flash-bang grenade.
The target was a single-story ranch-style house about 50 yards off Lakeview Heights Circle. Not even four hours earlier, three informants had bought $50 worth of methamphetamine in the front yard. That was enough to persuade the county’s chief magistrate to approve a no-knock search warrant authorizing the SWAT operators to storm the house without warning.
The point man on the entry team found the side door locked, and nodded to Deputy Jason Stribling, who took two swings with the metal battering ram. As the door splintered near the deadbolt, he yelled, “Sheriff’s department, search warrant!” Another deputy, Charles Long, had already pulled the pin on the flash-bang. He placed his left hand on Deputy Stribling’s back for stability, peered quickly into the dark and tossed the armed explosive about three feet inside the door.
It landed in a portable playpen.
In a country where four in 10 adults have guns in their homes, the raids incite predictable collisions between forces that hurtle toward each other like speeding cars in a passing lane — officers with a license to invade private homes and residents convinced of their right to self-defense.
After being awakened by the shattering of doors and the detonation of stun grenades, bleary suspects reach for nearby weapons — at times realizing it is the police, at others mistaking them for intruders — and the shooting begins. In some cases, victims like Todd Blair, a Utah man who grabbed a golf club on the way out of his bedroom, have been slain by officers who perceived a greater threat than existed.
To be sure, police officers and judges must find probable cause of criminal activity to justify a search warrant. Absent resources for endless stakeouts, police tacticians argue that dynamic entry provides the safest means to clear out heavily fortified drug houses and to catch suspects with the contraband needed for felony prosecutions.
But critics of the forcible-entry raids question whether the benefits outweigh the risks. The drug crimes used to justify so many raids, they point out, are not capital offenses. And even if they were, that would not rationalize the killing or wounding of suspects without due process. Nor would it forgive the propensity of the police to err in the planning or execution of raids that are inherently chaotic and place bystanders in harm’s way.
Forcible-entry methods have become common practice over the last quarter century through a confluence of the war on drugs, the rise of special weapons and tactics squads, and Supreme Court rulings that have eroded Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches. Support for their continued use has been bolstered by an epidemic of opioid abuse and the threat of domestic terrorism.
Because many raids occur in low-income neighborhoods, shooting deaths like one in November of a 22-year-old black man in Salisbury, N.C., have exacerbated racial tensions already raw from a spate of high-profile police killings. The American Civil Liberties Union concluded in a recent study of 20 cities that 42 percent of those subjected to SWAT search warrant raids were black and 12 percent Hispanic. Of the 81 civilian deaths tallied by The Times, half were members of minority groups.
The no-knock process often begins with unreliable informants and cursory investigations that produce affidavits signed by unquestioning low-level judges. It is not uncommon for the searches to yield only misdemeanor-level stashes, or to come up empty.
In some instances when officers have been killed, suspects with no history of violence, found with small quantities of drugs, have wound up facing capital murder charges, and possible death sentences.
In December, a jury in Corpus Christi, Tex., acquitted a 48-year-old man who spent 664 days in jail after being charged with attempted capital murder for wounding three SWAT officers during a no-knock raid that targeted his nephew. The jury concluded that the man, Ray Rosas, did not know whom he was firing at through a blinded window.
While the officers are typically seeking narcotics, there also have been deaths and serious injuries when warrants were served on people suspected of running illegal poker games, brewing moonshine and neglecting pets. In 2011, officers in Marine City, Mich., conducted a dynamic-entry raid to serve a search warrant for “any and all evidence pertaining to graffiti including but not limited to, spray paint containers, markers, notebooks, and photographs.” After forcing residents to the floor at gunpoint, they found nothing, according to depositions by the residents.
The Times found that from 2010 to 2015, an average of least 30 federal civil rights lawsuits were filed a year to protest residential search warrants executed with dynamic entries. Many of the complaints depict terrifying scenes in which children, elderly residents and people with disabilities are manhandled at gunpoint, unclothed adults are rousted from bed and houses are ransacked without recompense or apology. Louise Milan, 68, of Evansville, Ind., alleged in her filing that she and her 18-year-old daughter were handcuffed in front of neighbors during a door-busting 2012 raid prompted by threats against the police made by someone who had pirated her wireless connection.
“There’s a real misimpression by the public that aggressive police actions are only used against hardened criminals,” said Cary J. Hansel, a Baltimore lawyer who has represented plaintiffs in such lawsuits. “But there are dozens and dozens of cases where a no-knock warrant is used against somebody who’s totally innocent.”
At least seven of the federal lawsuits have been settled for more than $1 million in the last five years. They include a $3.75 million payment in 2016 to the family of Eurie Stamps, the unarmed Framingham grandfather who was accidentally shot while compliant and on his stomach; and $3.4 million in 2013 to the family of Jose Guereña, a 26-year-old former Marine shot more than 20 times as agents broke into his house in Tucson. No drugs were found.
In each of those cases, as in almost all botched raids, prosecutors declined to press charges against the officers involved. (You can read the entire report here)
There are many terrible stories stemming from these unnecessary raids. The militarized police need to rethink their strategy and find safer ways to catch bad guys, ways that do not involve innocent people getting hurt or killed from police initiated actions. Maybe even knocking on the door and talking rather than jumping straight to smashing the door and shooting.