From Roger Stone to Houston drug busts, no-knock raids come under scrutiny
In January, the FBI showed up unannounced and raided the Fort Lauderdale, Florida home of Roger Stone, the self-described “dirty trickster” who was President Trump’s former political consultant. He was charged with obstruction, making false statements, and witness tampering and was released from custody a few hours later on a $250,000 bond. Stone and conservative commentators railed against the FBI’s surprise tactics, arguing that there were too many armed agents, and that Stone should have been given the chance to surrender voluntarily. (Investigators said they did not notify Stone to prevent him from destroying documents.) Stone complained: “To storm my house with greater force than was used to take down bin Laden or El Chapo or Pablo Escobar, to terrorize my wife and my dogs, it’s unconscionable.” (As Vox points out, “Both bin Laden and Escobar were shot to death when captured, bin Laden by SEAL Team 6 and Escobar either by Colombian police or by suicide.”) [Jane Coaston / Vox]
Five days after Stone’s arrest, Senator Lindsey Graham sent a letter to the FBI that demanded agents justify their tactics. Graham did not mention another violent raid that took place two days prior, on Jan. 28, when a Houston narcotics team, acting on what they said was an “anonymous tip” about drug sales, conducted a no-knock raid on the home of Dennis Tuttle, 59, and Rhogena Nicholas, 58. The police also claimed that they sent an informant to the house to attempt a controlled buy, and the informant returned with heroin. [Radley Balko / Washington Post]
According to law enforcement, Tuttle came at them with a gun, wounding several officers, but after police opened fire, he retreated to a back room. Nicholas then charged a wounded officer and reached for his shotgun, so they shot her dead. Then Tuttle came out of the room firing his gun, and they killed him. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo initially claimed the house was “hardened,” or fortified, possibly with surveillance cameras. He also implied the couple should have known the intruders were police because they arrived with their sirens and turret lights blaring. [Radley Balko / Washington Post]
“But since then, the official story has started to unravel,” writes Radley Balko for the Washington Post. “It’s increasingly looking as though something went horribly wrong on Harding Street, and that Tuttle and Nicholas were not hardened drug dealers, but at most recreational drug dealers who were invaded, shot and killed in their own home.” The police had obtained a no-knock warrant, which seems to contradict Acevedo’s claim that the officers arrived with sirens on. The police apparently “didn’t bother to do much investigating, because they didn’t even know the names of either of the home’s occupants when they broke down the door.” Acevedo initially said that following the raid, “The neighborhood thanked our officers because it was a drug house,” but neighbors directly contradicted him. The house was not fortified, nor did it have surveillance cameras. Neither suspect had a criminal record. [Radley Balko / Washington Post] Officers didn’t find any of the expected heroin that the informant supposedly saw, and internal investigators couldn’t even find the informant. The veteran narcotics officer who led the operation will most likely face criminal charges for lying about the informant to justify the raid.
“No-knock raids have become a ubiquitous, but increasingly controversial, tool of SWAT teams across the country over the last three decades,” write St. John Barned-Smith and Keri Blakinger for the Houston Chronicle. “But the practice has also been widely criticized for putting the police, suspects and bystanders in avoidable, potentially deadly, situations,” writes Mihir Zaveri for the New York Times. “A 2017 investigation by the New York Times found that at least 81 civilians and 13 law enforcement officers died in no-knock and other similar raids in the country from 2010 through 2016. The Times investigation found no-knock searches often start with unreliable informants and cursory investigations that produce affidavits signed by unquestioning judges. Many searches yield only misdemeanor-level stashes. Some come up empty.” [Mihir Zaveri / New York Times]
Last week, Police Chief Acevedo announced major policy changes in how the Houston police department handles raids. Now, no-knock warrants largely will be prohibited. If officers want to search homes without warning, they will need his express permission. This announcement came as Houston Democratic lawmaker Harold Dutton proposed legislation that would require agencies to equip SWAT teams with body cameras and institute policies designed to limit raids to situations involving an “imminent threat” of serious bodily injury to civilians or officers. [Mihir Zaveri / New York Times]
It is unclear what will come of the proposed legislation, and many are skeptical that other police forces will voluntarily follow Houston’s lead and restrict themselves. But for 32-year-old Amanda Montemayor, whose father was killed during a no-knock raid by the Houston police that turned up none of the promised drugs, the changes were “a long time coming.”