A recent article in the New York Times begins with the following recount of a drug raid in a small Appalachian town:
“At 2:15 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 police in this instance had obtained a no-knock warrant to enter the house where “not even four hours earlier, three informants had bought $50 worth of methamphetamine in the front yard.”
After the police broke the door down, one of the deputies, Charles Long, tossed the grenade into the house. It landed and detonated in an infant’s playpen.
The grenade blast seriously injured a nineteen month old and the raid turned up nothing other than a small amount of meth residue in a pipe.
No-knock entries are a police tactic that are aimed to “exploit the element of surprise to effect seizures and arrests of neighborhood drug dealers.” But these entries often turn out to be dangerous, as they “introduce staggering levels of violence into missions that might be accomplished through patient stakeouts or simple knocks at the door.”
SWAT teams armed with military grade weapons and tactics have knocked down many doors in the past few years attempting to stop drug dealers in their tracks. Those plans have often gone wrong, leading to the injuries and deaths of both civilians and officers.
Police tacticians justify these raids as being the “safest means to clear out heavily fortified drug houses and to catch suspects with the contraband needed for felony prosecutions.” But when those raids result in the death of 81 civilians and 13 law enforcement officers over the course of six years, it may be time to consider the reasoning and drive behind these raids.
Weapons complicate no-knock entry on both sides of the door. Police have become increasingly militarized in part because of the Defense Department’s excess property program, “which has distributed more than $6 billion in military vehicles, weapons and other equipment to law enforcement agencies since 1997.” Equipped with military grade weapons and armor, the no knock raid becomes something Peter Kraska calls “culturally intoxicating, a rush.” This creates within officers a mental lack of centeredness that is incredibly dangerous when paired with weapons and dangerous tactics.
In addition, “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.” A man named Julian Benton ended up in a coma that lasted six weeks after a no-knock police entry caused him to assume he was being robbed and reach for his gun to protect himself. The no-knock entry creates a sense of panic for the resident that also knocks them dangerously off center, making good judgement nearly impossible.
Mistakes made by law enforcement also create complications. The raid that injured the nineteen month old was approved after a young sheriff’s deputy received a tip from an informant that a drug dealer might be living there. She submitted an affidavit that “included inaccuracies and hyperbole.” It seems the lead up to the reckless operation was just as reckless, motivated partly by an ambitious low ranking officer attempting to move up the ladder.
But in other cases, equally reckless mistakes have been made at every stage of a no-knock entry. The New York Times reports on an assistant clerk magistrate in Worcester, Massachusetts who signed an application for a no-knock warrant for an address that had not been surveilled. Additionally, “the affidavit itself acknowledged that motor vehicle and utility records indicated that the suspect did not live there anymore.”
Nonetheless, a SWAT team broke down the door of the residence and found the understandably confused new tenants, detained them at gunpoint and verbally harassed one of the tenants (who had been sleeping naked) in front of her children. Countless other mistakes have been made, leading to injuries, deaths, and lawsuits as a result of the no knock entries. The lack of centeredness and the ambition to “bust the bad guys” leads to rushed actions that in the end cause more harm than good.
So, do we need no-knock entries? Would reducing the flow of military grade weapons help prevent injuries? Would reducing the amount of weapons or number of officers entering a location make a difference? Would that be safe for the officers? What if raids were only performed during the day? What if there were extra steps needed to get the paperwork for a no knock raid to be signed? What if the officers had training in conflict resolution and mediation, and used a more patient, relational approach? Can cities and towns lower the risk that evidence of drugs might be destroyed if a more patient approach is used? What if the no knock raid only became an option after all other options had failed?
These are just some of the questions that we have to ask ourselves if we are ready to commit to nonviolence and create a safer police force and a safer society. On balance, ORANS believes no-knock is no good. What do you think?