It is no secret that I think the drug war is really just a war on the poor and a war on people who are already doing a good job of messing up their own lives. However, we are now seeing more and more times when the police cannot even break down the door of the right home. The result when the police raid the wrong home are nothing short of catastrophic.
I am alarmed by the number of identical cases where police have gotten “no-knock” search warrants completely wrong. I can think of a dozen “wrong house” raids where people have died or were seriously injured due to bad police information. We have a SERIOUS problem on our hands. Even those who believe in the “so-called” war on drugs must concede that we need to cut down on the instances of “friendly fire” deaths.
Habitual “Wrong House” Raids Lead to Devastation:
Just last week, I read the story about Sallie Taylor's “wrong house” police raid in Washington D.C. I was quickly reminded of the many similar stories and how much of a problem these wrong-house-raids have become. I am grateful that Sallie Taylor brought attention back to these no-knock police encounters where the wrong house was raided due to outdated or all-together-bad information. Sallie's home was bombarded by a SWAT team relying on outdated information. The elderly woman, sat in her D.C. home one night, listening to “Bible Talk”, without a shred of criminal activity. D.C. Police charged into her home, took notice of her single occupancy and surrendered her to the floor. Without question or concern for her identification, the officers began to search the home for evidence of drug trafficking but came up empty. The SWAT team completely disrupted her home and privacy before they realized they were in the wrong location. How did this destructive raid happen to the wrong house? The police relied on bad information and acted rash in pursuit of the fruits of a no-knock search.
Before Sallie Taylor there were dozens of similar “wrong house” cases exemplifying my point that we have a serious problem on our hands. In Georgia, our most famous case involved 92-year-old Katherine Johnson. She was shot and killed in her Atlanta home during a botched drug raid. Narcotics officers conducting a no-knock search warrant began entering her Atlanta home unannounced. Believing her home was being broken into, Johnson fired shots at the officers with a pistol she kept in her home. In return, 6 different officers shot back at Johnson which resulted in her death. It was later revealed that the officers were relying on falsified paperwork that stated that drugs were purchased from the home by an undercover officer. Something more troubling about this case was the cover-up attempted by the narcotics division. Atlanta Police knew they had a problem and instead of fixing it they tried to cover it up.
In 2014, police threw a stun grenade into his crib of Bounkham “Bou Bou” Phonesavanh during a “no knock” raid, causing the 19-month old severe injuries. Police relied on false information from a bad informant, who gave Bou Bou's address to officer Nikki Autry. In her affidavit, Autry swore that her reliable informant bought methamphetamines from Phonesavanh's Habersham home. It was later discovered that Autry knew that this information was false and that her informant had not proven himself reliable in past dealings. Without this statement from Autry, there was no probable cause to authorize the no-knock search warrant. Autry was charged with “making false statements to a judge in order to obtain search and arrests warrants.” However, the severe injuries to Bou Bou cannot be undone.
Then there is John Adams, who was shot and killed in a wrong house raid in Tennessee. Adams's widow stated that the police gave no indication that they were police officers when they knocked down their front door. Adams and his wife thought they were part of a home invasion and rendered the security of their residential shot-gun. Police admitted they relied on a faulty informant for this raid. The officers were placed on paid leave and the informant was found responsible for the death. The responsibility of the rash actions of the officers went unpunished.
In January of this year, Kenosha Baggett said that police bombarded her home looking for drugs she did not have. With drawn guns, the officers took apart her home in front of her 11 and 14-year-old children. It took the police 45 minutes to determine they had the wrong house. Baggett said that had police properly investigated her home, they would have found that her home belonged to a hard working mother of three, not a drug dealer. Police confirmed they relied on an informant for the location of the raid. The investigation is ongoing as to the quality of information they relied on, before further reports can be made as to the responsibility of the harm done.
Another case involved Bryant Alequint and his wife in Worcester, Massachusetts. Officers refused to justify their entry at 5:30 on a Wednesday morning in 2015. That same year, the same mistake happened to Marianne Diaz and her children's home, just 10 miles from Alequint. There was also Leska Lyons from North Carolina, who was victim to one of these raids after an informant falsely gave her address as the location of a drug deal weeks prior to her moving into her new home. More devastating is 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones who died during a wrong house raid in her Detroit Michigan home. These stories don't end.
Each of these cases strike a nerve with me due to the lack of responsibility taken by police. In John Adams' case, the chief of police stated that the two officers who shot the 61-year old were not at fault. Same thing for the officers that shot and killed Katherine Johnson, who did not receive punishment either; only the officers who tried to cover up the misinformed police work.
In the Habersham County Georgia case involving baby Bou Bou, no charges were brought against the officers who threw the stun grenade into the infant's crib. My frustration with Bou Bou's case grew not from how incredibly reckless and negligent the actions of the police officers were, but how the local district attorney let the officers off the hook in the grand jury proceeding. As attorneys we should not be in practice of protecting reckless and harmful police work. We should be holding police to a high enough standard that protects the officers AND our citizens. Too many times our legal system has let the rash actions of police go unpunished. It's a trend we need to put an end to.
A Break in the Trend:
Just last year, DeKalb County had their own “wrong house” incident. This time both the home owner and an officer were shot. The officer suffered critical injuries and the home owner was shot in the leg. Officers were dispatched to a burglary call by a neighbor on the same street. “The farthest house on the street” was the description given by the 911 caller. The police didn't make it to the farthest house on the street, instead the officers stopped at Chris and Leah McKinley's house which was the second house on the street. How did the officers make such a huge error in location? The description of the McKinley's home still matched the description offered by the 911 caller. I don't find this to be enough reason to excuse the error. Had the officers proceeded with more caution, confirmed the right location and thought before charging into a home with guns blazing, no one would have suffered injuries that evening. I will give credit to DeKalb county, this incident prompted the police Chief to review protocol for when-to-shoot training. The Chief still placed a substantial amount of blame on 911 callers giving poor descriptions but took the responsibility to train officers to investigate crimes rather than react. Bravo, Chief.
What are Police Doing Wrong?
DeKalb County got it right, they needed to change protocol. Police rely on outdated or bad information all the time. Sometimes the fruits of this information lead to strong criminal prosecution, other times it leads to Sallie Taylor's Sunday evening with “Bible Talk.” Regardless, we need a stronger investigation protocol to verify up-to-date information and we need a less violent raid tactics to reduce the number of injuries.
Officers have a hard job; there is no doubt about it. There are a lot of risks involved when officers charge into a home they believe to have drugs, weapons and unpredictable occupants. But how many times are we going to let police harm innocent victims based on bad information without asking more of them? There are small ways officers can decrease the number of “wrong house” mistakes. No knock raids are a practical police solution when fear of flight, violence or evidence destruction is at risk; I will never take away from the need to issue these types of warrants. My argument is that these no knock strategies can involve protocol with less intrusive and violent tactics. Bou Bou's case for example, did the officers NEED to throw a stun grenade into the room of a sleeping child? No, probably not. In the case of Katherine Johnson, did the officers need to fire warning shots into her home? Absolutely not, I can never support officers for firing blindly into a home.
What changes to protocol could offer more secure no-knock raids? First, officers Identifying themselves as officers is a great start. There is a presumption that this will lead to more evidence destruction and flight of the suspect. However other non-violent means can resolve these concerns. Secondly, officers can be trained to hold-off on firing their weapons. Lastly, a reasonable investigation can resolve a good portion of these mistakes.