“As long as the police carries out the will of the leadership, it is acting legally.”
— Werner Best, director of Legal Affairs, German Secret Police, ca. 1936
A No-Knock raid is when a police force breaks into a home or business without first announcing themselves. They simply break down the door and enter the building, guns drawn. The raids are often conducted in the early morning hours, when the targets are likely to be asleep. What happens after the door is breached and the officers enter is yelling, confusion, property damage, and often, gunfire. This is done, it is said, to protect the officers when there is suspicion of armed suspects inside, or when there is risk of a suspect destroying evidence critical to the case.
Protecting officers is a worthwhile goal. In the case of No-Knocks, it comes at the cost of creating a high pressure, low information situation for the target of the raid. Sometimes, the officers pick the wrong house. Sometimes, the officers get the right house, but the suspect is innocent. Sometimes, in the confusion, innocent people or their property are destroyed.
Last week we read the storyof a SWAT team No-Knock in St. Paul, MN. Police broke into the home in the early morning while the mother was getting ready to go to work. They shot and killed both family pets; one of them was just a few feet away from the father and children, who were thankfully not injured.
The police trashed the house. Nobody was arrested. No weapons were found. No drugs were found. No charges have been filed.
Sadly, in the spectrum of No-Knock raids, this is what you’d have to call a “happy ending”, because despite the property damage, the terror inflicted on the children, and yes, the contemptuous destruction of two family pets… despite all that, at least this time, no innocent humans were killed.
Across the nation, in many other No-Knock raids — usually motivated by suspicion of drug possession — the endings aren’t as “happy”. Innocent people continue to be killed by No-Knock raids, and yet police departments continue to perform them, and judges continue to sign the warrants that allow them.
In 1981, there were around 3000 No-Knock raids per year in the US. In 2006, there were over 50,000. By 2011, the annual number was over 70,000.
America is moving in the wrong direction.
Does it make sense to limit or discontinue using a police tactic, even if there _are_ crimes being committed? It’s happened before. Many police jurisdictions no longer continue high-speed car chases for certain suspects. Society has concluded that escalating a normal chase into a high speed chase seems to result in increased injury and property destruction to innocent bystanders, and that for certain types of offenders, these elevated risks aren’t justified.
I think a similar argument can be made that police shouldn’t execute No-Knocks at the homes of persons not suspected of a violent crime. Additionally, because of the extraordinary nature of No-Knocks, and the intense situations they create, the evidentiary standard for issuing a No-Knock needs to be higher than it apparently is. Many No-Knocks are executed at the wrong address, or are based only on tips from informants — tips that turn out to be wrong.
Frustratingly, officers involved in No-Knocks gone wrong never seem to face any consequences or repercussions. The most appalling scenario was the case of a raid where a No-Knock was executed at the home of Jose Guerena, a US Marine. The veteran, alerted to unknown intruders trying to break into his home, picked up his legally owned firearm and prepared to meet whatever danger was about to come his way, as he had been trained to do.
When the officers saw him in his home with a weapon, they began firing on him. Initially, officers claimed that the Marine fired at them first. They had to retract this lie after it was found that he had fired no shots, indeed, his weapon was still on “safe”.
What happened next was even more outrageous. Paramedics were on the scene within minutes to try and attend to what should have been a case of an accidental shooting of an innocent war hero. Instead, the officers who shot the veteran forbade the paramedics to enter the home and attend to the victim for hours. The marine bled to death in his home while emergency responders waited outside, helplessly. A medical examiner later stated that there was no evidence of any medical intervention having been attempted on Guerena’s body.
I suspect our war veterans have done enough gunfighting inside houses that they’d be perfectly fine not doing any more of it. I think we owe it to them to provide a society that is markedly better than the battle zones they so recently returned from.
None of the officers or departments involved in killing Guerena admitted any wrongdoing, nor were any of them punished.
So far, Americans have had little success in stemming the tide of No-Knock abuse. In Georgia, a bill was introduced in 2007 to define and place legal limits on No-Knocks in that state. The bill failed, with severe opposition by police lobbyists. After the recent story of a flash grenade going off on a baby’s face in that same state, the bill is expected to be reintroduced in the next legislative session. Encouragingly, the judge who approved the warrant that led to the disfigured baby has announced his resignation.
It seems that Americans have at least three options for addressing the excessive use of No-Knocks, and I encourage you to get involved with at least one of them in your own area.
First, we can and should advocate for legislative limits and definitions that govern when No-Knocks can be issued, as is being attempted in Georgia. We should codify in law that the information justifying the warrant be of sufficient quality, perhaps with multiple corroborating sources. The law should exclude certain classes of suspects and offenses from consideration for a No-Knock. When we find a situation where a No-Knock warrant was issued, there was a terrible outcome, and the actions of the responding officers and other involved parties were found to be compliant with the law, we should adjust the law. We should keep adjusting the law until the carnage from No-Knocks shows some sign of slowing down.
Secondly, today, No-Knocks cannot happen without a judge approving the warrant. We should hold each judge accountable for any No-Knocks they authorize. That might include tabulating data on which judges approve of which warrants, and how those warrants were ultimately executed. This data, as well as any misuse of No-Knocks, should be an aspect of each Judicial re-election and re-appointment. It is our duty to help judges retire early when they demonstrate poor judgement.
Thirdly, police forces have great latitude in what kind of warrants they ask for and what kinds of tactics they employ. Police departments are lead by elected officials who should be held accountable for the actions of their officers. We should demand that police departments make available data on how frequently warrants of different types are requested, authorized, and executed. We should demand that police departments make available data about how often SWAT and other militarized teams are deployed, and for what sorts of alleged infractions they are requested. We should, for each execution of a No-Knock warrant or deployment of a militarized team, understand what criminal activity, if any, was ultimately confirmed.
Critically, when Sheriffs and other elected officeholders who set police policy do not meet our expectations about responsible usage of No-Knock powers, we should encourage their early retirement via the ballot box.
There may be a proper place for No-Knocks, but that place is not in the homes of innocent people.
“In all cases when the King is party, the sheriff may break the party’s house, either to arrest him, or to do other execution of the King’s process, if otherwise he cannot enter. But before he breaks it, he ought to signify the cause of his coming, and to make request to open doors…”
— Sir Edward Coke, Semayne’s Case, English Common Law, 1604