The Trail of Dead
Executing a warrant at a private residence is among the most risky of all police operations, because it's almost impossible to know what lies behind a closed door. Although many police agencies believe the SWAT-style "dynamic entry" is essential to the effective service of both "knock and announce" and "no knock" drug warrants, the practice has been implicated in a host of botched raids – a number of which have resulted in the death of civilians, officers, or both. Many policing experts say these raids simply aren't necessary, because there are plenty of other tactics for serving such warrants that are at least equally effective but far less risky to everyone involved. "There seems to be this absolute casualness to it that says, 'These things happen,'" says Hoover fellow Joseph McNamara. "And no one [ever] questions the basic policy."
A brief selection of dynamic-entry lowlights:
May 1999: Nine police officers in SWAT gear conducted a predawn raid on the San Marcos home of Alexander "Rusty" Windle, accused of providing marijuana to an informant. Officers gave differing accounts as to whether or not they announced themselves. When Windle awoke to a disturbance in front of his home and answered the door with a rifle, an officer fired four rounds from his semiautomatic weapon, hitting Windle three times and killing him. Police later discovered that Windle's weapon was unloaded, with an activated safety mechanism. They found less than an ounce of marijuana in his home.
February 2001: Travis Co. Sheriff's Deputy Keith Ruiz was shot and killed while assisting members of the now-defunct Capital Area Narcotics Task Force in executing a knock-and-announce drug warrant at the Del Valle home of 23-year-old Edwin Delamora. Members of the raiding party later testified in court that they'd clearly identified themselves as police before Ruiz moved in with his "hooligan tool" to pry open the front door. Delamora, however, said he didn't know whether it was police or robbers who were actually trying to force entry. As the officers struggled to open the door, Delamora fired a single shot through a small window, striking Ruiz. Police seized just more than an ounce of marijuana and about 25 grams of methamphetamine. Delamora was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison.
May 16, 2001: Austin police officers raided the home of Maria Flores, a grandmother; a flash-bang grenade shattered her window, and the SWAT team kicked in her door. Flores was pushed to the ground, bound, and held at gunpoint while police tore apart her home searching for cocaine. They had mistaken her house for the one next door. Flores was taken to the hospital with internal bruising.
Dec. 20, 2001: A Travis Co. SWAT team stormed a mobile home on a no-knock drug warrant. Nineteen-year-old Tony Martinez, nephew of the man named in the warrant, was asleep on the couch. Martinez was unarmed and was never suspected of any crime. When he rose from the couch as police broke into the home, Deputy Derek Hill shot Martinez in the chest, killing him.
Nov. 21, 2006: Atlanta police officers shot and killed 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston while attempting to serve a no-knock raid at her home after allegedly receiving a tip that drugs were being sold there. The plainclothes cops cut through burglar bars and stormed through the door, where Johnston, thinking the men intruders, fired a .38-caliber revolver, hitting no one. The police unleashed 39 rounds, striking her multiple times. In the aftermath, the police planted marijuana in Johnston's house and bullied another informant into claiming he'd given them the tip. The Atlanta Police Department subsequently enacted a moratorium on all no-knock warrants and beefed up oversight of their narcotics units. In April, two of the raiding officers pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges in connection with Johnston's death.
July 12, 1998: Acting on a random tip and no search warrant, Houston police raided the home of Pedro Oregon Navarro; the intruders woke Navarro, who, startled, grabbed for his gun. Police shot Navarro 12 times, killing him. In 2005, two of the officers involved in the raid were fired.
(Many more examples can be found in Radley Balko's report "Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America," online at www.cato.org. The full interactive map from which this one is excerpted is at www.cato.org/raidmap.)