February 4, 2014
Watch this video, taken from a police raid in Des Moines, Iowa. Send it to some people. When critics (like me) warn about the dangers of police militarization, this is what we’re talking about. You’ll see the raid team, dressed in battle-dress uniforms, helmets and face-covering balaclava hoods take down the family’s door with a battering ram. You’ll see them storm the home with ballistics shields, guns at the ready. More troubling still, you’ll see not one but two officers attempt to prevent the family from having an independent record of the raid, one by destroying a surveillance camera, another by blocking another camera’s lens.
From the images in the video, you’d think they were looking for an escaped murderer or a house full of hit men. No, none of that. They were looking for a few people suspected of credit card fraud. None of the people they were looking for were inside of the house, nor was any of the stolen property they were looking for. They did arrest two houseguests of the family on what the news report says were unrelated charges, one for a probation violation and one for possession of illegal drugs.
A couple other points about this story. First, note that the police say they knocked and announced themselves before the raid. The knock and announce requirement has a long history in U.S. and English common law. Its purpose was to give the occupants of a home the opportunity to avoid property damage and unnecessary violence by giving them time to come to the door and let the police in peacefully. As you can see from the video, the knock and announce today is largely a formality. The original purpose is gone. From the perspective of the people inside, there’s really no difference between this sort of “knock and announce” and a no-knock raid. (The covering of the officers’ faces is also troubling, though also not uncommon.)
Historically, the other purpose of the knock-and-announce requirement is to avoid the inevitable tragedy that can result if homeowners mistake raiding police for criminal intruders. As the requirement has been eroded, allegedly to protect the safety of police officers, we’ve seen plenty of tragedy — and many of those tragedies have been the deaths of police officers. There was another one just last December. And it almost happened here:
Prince’s son, Justin Ross, was in the bathroom when police burst in, and he was carrying a gun that he has the legal right to carry. “I stood up, I drew my weapon, I started to get myself together to get out the door, I heard someone in the main room say police. I re-holstered my weapon sat back down and put my hands in my lap,” Ross recalls.
Ross says he didn’t hear the police announcement until after one officer had already attempted to kick in the door. Had that officer been successful, there’s a good chance that Ross, the police officer, or both would be dead. The police department would then have inevitably argued that Ross should have known that they were law enforcement. But you can’t simultaneously argue that these violent, volatile tactics are necessary to take suspects by surprise and that the same suspects you’re taking by surprise should have known all along that they were being raided by police. Well you can, and police do, and judges and prosecutors usually support them. But the arguments don’t logically coexist.
Finally, note that police department officials say they “do not have a written policy governing how search warrants are executed.” That’s inexcusable. Most police departments do. But whether or not they’re governed by a formal policy, the use of these kinds of tactics for nonviolent crimes like credit card fraud is hardly unusual, and it’s happening more often, not less. I’ve reported on jurisdictions where all felony search warrants are now served with a SWAT team. At least one federal appeals court has now ruled that under the Fourth Amendment, there’s nothing unreasonable about using a SWAT team to perform regulatory inspections. To be fair, two others have ruled that such tactics are not reasonable. But it’s concerning that this would even be up for debate. We have plenty of discussion and analysis about when searches are appropriate. We also need to start talking about how.