Rethinking Aggressive Search Warrant Executions

The use of SWAT team tactics to execute search warrants, a growing phenomenon decried in this editorial, can lead to tragic results. The death of Kathryn Johnston, an elderly woman who was killed when police forced their way, unannounced, into her home, is one example. This story provides another example. Here’s another:

[Gilbert, AZ police officers] say they were [at Salvador Celaya’s residence] to execute a search warrant for evidence they assumed to be on the premises. They hoped to find some stolen goods because they thought a truck a crook had used was registered to that address.

The details will take a long time to sort out, but the bottom line is, by the time the cops were done, they had burned the Celayas' house down. The instrument of destruction was a flash-bang diversionary grenade the cops now admit they tossed into the house before they found an armed Salvador Celaya trying to defend his property from intruders. The grenade, which is not supposed to be deployed near anything flammable, landed on a bed.

So long, house.

And here's still another:

On June 28, officers from Fort Worth and other jurisdictions stormed Steven Blackman's house in the 3600 block of Rufus Street after a confidential informant said a suspect in a major drug operation was inside. Officers surrounded the house, slit the tires on Blackman's truck, fired canisters of tear gas inside and broke down the door.

They found an empty house with no sign of drug activity.

What's wrong with knocking on the door and waiting for a response? Police officers who prefer SWAT tactics claim to fear the destruction of evidence if they knock, but the occasional loss of evidence is less significant than the needless loss of life that can occur when the police rely (as they commonly do) on bad information to obtain and execute search warrants.

Speaking of bad information, here's an update on the circumstances that led to Kathryn Johnson's death:

The Atlanta cops initially said they were looking for drug dealers on a tip from an informant. Later, the informant said he had lied under pressure from butt-covering police. The entire Atlanta narcotics squad was suspended from duty (with pay) while the FBI and other agencies look into Kathryn Johnston's demise.

Other examples of botched raids are discussed in this post.

A writer from the Arizona Republic has a sensible solution:

Unless cops are in hot pursuit of a violent offender, the front doors of our humble abodes ought to be inviolable. We shouldn't have to be in fear of overzealous - sometimes even mistaken - cops violently invading our homes.
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  • Display: Sort:
    Precious, precious evidence (5.00 / 1) (#4)
    by scarshapedstar on Fri Jan 05, 2007 at 03:44:31 PM EST
    What's the loss of human life compared to a crack rock getting flushed or swallowed? Officers have promotions on the line!

    No knock (5.00 / 1) (#5)
    by sedipple on Fri Jan 05, 2007 at 04:05:35 PM EST
    Destroying evidence, its good enough for the crack heads in Washington. So why not us?

    Amen to that... (none / 0) (#7)
    by kdog on Fri Jan 05, 2007 at 05:12:57 PM EST
    You know "Acme Crooked Corp." gets time to shred their dirty laundry too.  And no grenades!

    Don't even gotta shred these days (none / 0) (#9)
    by scarshapedstar on Sat Jan 06, 2007 at 02:15:57 AM EST
    Executive Privilege x National Security = Go F*ck Yourself, American citizenry. Y'all act like you own the place!

    Some things never change (none / 0) (#1)
    by Joe Bob on Fri Jan 05, 2007 at 02:32:00 PM EST
    This exact same scenario played out in Minneapolis in 1989. Well, not precisely exact, because the victims in this case weren't as lucky as Salvador Celaya.

    Lloyd Smalley and Lillian Weiss, both elderly and unable to escape, died when a flashbang grenade set their home on fire.

    Too kind... (none / 0) (#2)
    by kdog on Fri Jan 05, 2007 at 02:51:53 PM EST
    "Aggressive Search Warrant" is far too kind a term for this crap....I think "Violent Home Invasion" is a more apt descript, imo.

    sensible solution (none / 0) (#3)
    by roy on Fri Jan 05, 2007 at 03:31:47 PM EST
    Is the "sensible solution" to bar cops from forcing their way in even after being refused entry, or waiting a reasonable amount of time after knocking?
    If so, it sounds like something a Republican would attack as a straw man, not a serious recommendation.  

    I'm all for clamping down on no-knock and knock-and-wait-eight-measly-seconds searches, but if police aren't allowed to force their way in and serve the warrant without permission, criminal investigations will be not just handicapped but crippled.  No physical evidence which can fit inside the home need ever be recovered, unless the criminal is dumb enough to let the cops in before the evidence is destroyed.

    me no grammar good (none / 0) (#6)
    by roy on Fri Jan 05, 2007 at 04:14:11 PM EST
    That first sentence has ambiguity problems.  It should be read as:

    Is the "sensible solution" to bar cops from forcing their way in after knocking and a reasonable amount of time, and to bar cops from forcing their way in after being refused entry?


    Poor execution and so much more (none / 0) (#8)
    by David at Kmareka on Fri Jan 05, 2007 at 06:50:04 PM EST
    In the case of Kathryn Johnston, the "search warrant execution" was, indeed, an execution.  In the case of Salvador Celaya and his family, they were fortunate to escape with their lives.  (By the way, Celaya is 73 and suffers from Alzheimer's.  The East Valley Tribune has more on the story.) Steven Blackman was fortunate not to be home when police popped in.

    Interestingly, all of the aforementioned folks are Black or Hispanic.  But I'm sure race was not a factor at all.  I'm sure the police use such aggressive tactics in upper-class White neighborhoods at least as often as in other neighborhoods.  Right?

    We truly live in an era when the authorities believe that anything goes and the end justifies the means.  However, their behavior exposes the fact that what they may possess in legal authority they sorely lack in moral authority.

    Just wondering.... (none / 0) (#10)
    by kdog on Sat Jan 06, 2007 at 08:10:53 AM EST
    we all have seen the victims of the drug war, the people the drug war has killed.  The mistakes, the over-aggressive tactics....

    Has it ever saved anybody?  Seriously.  Everybody I know who wants to use drugs is using drugs.  I'm wondering who is served...as always.

    Only ONE realistic solution (none / 0) (#11)
    by Yes2Truth on Sat Jan 06, 2007 at 02:43:32 PM EST

    The only realistic solution to this particular aspect of our Police State crime control is to STOP trying to make arrests for those herbs and drugs that are presently classified as illegal substances.

    Any kind of "liberal" restriction on the Poh-Leese
    will be little more than requiring that they not use incediary devices prior to break-ins.

    It's high time we bite the bullet and give our intelligence agencies the funds they need to do their dirty deeds...from the U.S. Treasury and NO LONGER from the proceeds of faciliating the importation and distribution of narcotics...which has been the preferred method of raising the funds needed to conduct so-called "black" operations during the past 50+ years.