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How A No-Knock Raid in Austin Turned Into a Lethal Shootout

‘There were explosions everywhere … I had no idea who was in the house.’

Michelle Mildenberg

In the minutes before 6 a.m. on Thursday, April 14, 2016, an Austin, Texas, SWAT team set up outside of 1002 Morrow Street, #1. The house was a duplex whose two front doors were on the opposite ends of a shared curved entry. The first unit’s rooms were arranged long and thin, with a stairway in the dining room leading to the upstairs bedrooms.

Outside, about  20 officers assembled, with two rows of officers in green uniforms and full-body armor with white letters spelling POLICE lined up at the front and back doors. They carried assault rifles with flashlights attached. Three vehicles set up around the house. A BearCat, an armored vehicle frequently used by SWAT teams, was parked in the driveway. Mounted on top of the BearCat was long-range acoustic device, known as an LRAD, designed to broadcast communications over long distances.

The officers were executing a “no-knock” narcotics search warrant on a high school student who was living with his parents. According to records and affidavits by the Austin Police Department, the SWAT raid was necessary because Tyler Harrell, 18, was a “major drug dealer” who posed a substantial threat to officers.

Nearly a dozen officers knocked down the front door, yelling “Breech,” and another group went around to the backyard where they tossed one flash-bang grenade—which explodes with the intent to blind and deafen its targets temporarily—into Harrell’s bedroom and another into the upstairs hallway. Additional flash bangs went off upstairs and downstairs. As the officers entered the home, they yelled “Police” and “Police search warrant.”

According to police statements filed in court, as the raid began, Commander Lt. K. Pruitt used the PA system to announce their arrival. “Police search warrant,” she said over and over. The group of officers who entered through the front door swept the lower level, covering the dining room, living room, and a bedroom, before approaching the stairs, which led upstairs from the kitchen area and had a small landing at the base. The officers testified that they shouted “police” and “police search warrant” as they swept the home. Downstairs, the  family’s elderly dog was shot, leaving a winding trail of blood

In his bedroom upstairs, Harrell was sleeping when he heard noises downstairs. According to his mother, Linda Harrell, who had gotten up to go to the bathroom, there were loud sounds from the flash grenades and the battering ram used to break down the front door. She screamed and dove under her bed. In later testimony, she said that she thought someone was breaking into the house. Harrell’s father, who often slept downstairs, had already left for work that day and wasn’t home.

When Harrell heard people inside the house, he grabbed his new AK-style semiautomatic rifle, which was already loaded, and ran to the top of the stairs. “Who is it? Who is it?” he shouted. Looking down into the darkness, Harrell fired several rounds from his weapon. (A later search found about 20 shell casings from the rifle.) Bullets hit Officer James Pittman. Another officer shot back at Harrell but missed. The officers inside the house retreated, pulling out Pittman. Someone yelled, “Abort!” The announcements outside stopped. Officers gathered at the doors.

Just a few minutes later, another officer began the announcements again without the LRAD, then with the LRAD. Within five minutes, Harrell and his mother came downstairs and exited the front door with their hands up. (The affidavit submitted by the police says Harrell and his mother came down within “10 to 20 minutes.”) The Harrells said they did not realize it was the police executing a search warrant until the second round of announcements. They were handcuffed and taken into custody wearing their pajamas.

In later court testimony Linda Harrell described her confusion. It had only been 26 seconds from the battering ram to the shooting. “It terrified me. I have never been so terrified in my life. I didn’t know what was going on. There were explosions everywhere, and Tyler came out shooting and then they finally announced later. We had no idea—I had no idea who was in the house. It was terrifying. In fact, it was so traumatizing that I’m still having issues dealing with it.”

Harrell was immediately taken into custody and charged with attempted capital murder for shooting Pittman. He waived his Miranda rights and gave a statement saying that he did not know he was shooting at police but thought they were intruders. He thought perhaps his father, an avid gun owner, was shooting at an intruder downstairs. Both Harrell and his mother would later say that that they couldn’t hear the first round of announcements, so they had no idea that the SWAT team thought they were catching a criminal off guard. (In her initial statement to police just after her arrest that morning, Tyler’s mother said she saw people in “military uniforms downstairs and [she] assumed they were police.” In cross-examination at trial, Linda Harrell said that she was “confused that morning” and “[i]t all happened too fast,” meaning that she couldn’t have seen much detail in 26 seconds.)

The next day, officers recovered the drugs they were looking for: 34.27 grams of marijuana leaf (just a bit more than the legal amount permitted in California) and around 60 pills of Xanax, the prescription anti-anxiety drug, along with related paraphernalia, according to police records. (Harrell was prosecuted for felony drug possession in a separate indictment and pleaded guilty to a second-degree felony.)

No-knock raids—in which SWAT teams arrive with armored personnel carriers and forcefully enter a residence wearing body armor and using flash-bang grenades—have become a signature of the so-called war on drugs. Documents from the Austin Police Department in response to an information request show there were 44 SWAT raids in Austin in 2016 and 84 in 2017—more than one per week in a city that has consistently been one of the safest in the U.S.

In making the case for more firepower, police departments have argued that drug dealers tend to be heavily armed, a stereotype not supported by evidence. In theory, the raids permit officers to sneak up on suspects who might pose a risk to officers or might destroy evidence. They rely on the increased availability of military equipment through special federal programs such as the Department of Defense’s 1033 program. Some agencies also promote a militaristic mindset, instilled in many officers through training programs like those run by “killologist” David Grossman who once did around 100 trainings in two years, glorifying “righteous violence.”

These raids are very dangerous. A New York Times investigation found that between 2010 and 2016, 83 civilians and 13 law enforcement personnel died in no-knock raids. And, often, the deaths occur during raids that yield little evidence of criminal activity. For example, in 2014, Jason Wescott, a Florida man accused of being a pot dealer, was killed by officers who ultimately found less than $5 worth of marijuana in the raid. In 2011, a former Marine in Tucson was shot over 20 times in a SWAT raid, and no illegal substances were found. The county and law enforcement ended up paying the family over $3 million in damages as part of a settlement in which they admitted no wrongdoing. At least 36 percent of the time when executing search warrants for drugs, police do not locate any contraband, according to a 2014 ACLU report. According to the ACLU report, law enforcement correctly predicted the presence of guns roughly half of the time.

Some deaths are collateral damage, like 7-year old Aiyana Stanley-Jones in Detroit who was shot in the head by police during a SWAT raid while she was sleeping next to her grandmother. (The officer in this case was charged with involuntary manslaughter, but, after two hung juries, the charges were dropped.) Others are wounded by gunshots and flash grenades, and cope with post-traumatic stress disorder after the shock and trauma of the raid. Police sometimes shoot family pets.  Police departments are not responsible for cleaning up the mess, paying to repair a broken front door, or compensating residents for any other losses.

Targets of SWAT raids will sometimes attempt to defend themselves. And in some cases, residents who say they shot at police thinking they are intruders are charged with crimes and face prison time or even the death penalty. In Killeen, Texas, Marvin Louis Guy currently faces the death penalty for shooting and killing a SWAT officer during a 2014 no-knock raid. In February 2015, Ray Rosas of Corpus Christi shot and injured several SWAT officers; he was charged with attempted capital murder like Harrell and was acquitted by a jury. Although civilians have been charged with crimes—often capital crimes—after no-knock shootouts, officers rarely are. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, officers shot and severely injured a 30-year-old man who turned out to possess eight ounces of pot. (The injured man had a handgun and reached for it, but there was no evidence he fired it.) Very few officers have been charged with a crime even when evidence emerged that the victim was unarmed or never attempted to attack.

Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who is a law professor at University of South Carolina and an expert in police use of force, says SWAT tactics are deliberately disconcerting. In an amicus brief for Andrew Cornish, a man killed in a SWAT raid in Maryland in 2005, Stoughton explained how the tactics give rise to situations where people might reasonably respond with force and confusion: “A half-century of experience and work by police departments across the country have resulted in the development of sophisticated tactics that are designed to confuse and disorient the occupants of a building that is being searched.” Cornish, who was alleged to be selling marijuana, was raided in the wee hours of the morning, like Harrell. Police claimed that Cornish approached the officers with a knife. Cornish’s father sued the police for his son’s death and won at trial. The verdict was overturned on appeal because the court found that no reasonable jury could have found the police liable, and Cornish’s father received no compensation for his son’s death.

Before the SWAT raid, Tyler Harrell had no criminal history and had never been arrested although his parents did suspect their son was involved in using drugs and providing them to his friends.

Harrell came to the Austin police’s attention through an anonymous tip. The tip was made through the Citizen Observer,  a website operated by the police department, in two emails dated March 6 and March 10, 2016. According to police documents, the tipster called Tyler Harrell by name, knew his address, and described him as a “large-scale drug dealer.” The tipster also mentioned a 16-year-old friend of Harrell’s as well as various Snapchat videos that allegedly contained images of Harrell and his friend shooting a weapon and holding large quantities of cash and weed.

That information was passed to Detective Steve Hawkins, who used the tip to obtain a search warrant to comb through the trash outside the Harrell home. The trash runs turned up no actual drugs, but did find prescription pill bottles, plastic baggies that later tested positive for cocaine residue, a few wrappers from marijuana products and some shake, or leafy debris. There was also some packaging from Tyler Harrell’s ammunition for his new rifle, which he had purchased legally from a popular gun store. The receipt was found when police later searched the home.  At trial, Harrell’s lawyer argued that Hawkins and the police department had not found enough evidence of drug activity to justify the no-knock warrant.

Michelle Mildenberg

Support for calling Harrell a big-time drug dealer seemed dubious at best. On one visit to search the Harrells’ trash, for example, police found a sandwich-size plastic baggie with stems inside, which an officer testified under oath was “green leafy substance consistent with [the] appearance and odor of marijuana.”

The police made three separate trash runs. The department also surveilled the Harrell home, according to police documents and testimony, but saw nothing unusual. According to Stoughton, the law professor and ex-police officer, as well as testimony submitted at Harrell’s trial, police at this point might conduct what’s called a “controlled buy” by sending in an informant. In this case, an officer testified in a pretrial hearing that this wasn’t possible, but he was unable to elaborate on his answer because prosecutors objected. During this time period, from mid-March through the April 14 raid, Harrell continued going to school.

Ultimately, the Austin officers decided to seek a no-knock warrant from a judge to search the Harrells’ home. Detective Hawkins, who wrote the search warrant and accompanying affidavit, cited his breadth of experience as a narcotics investigator and SWAT team member, and described his team’s findings as  “evidence consistent with a person engaging in the possession and distribution of illegal substances.” This was enough to persuade Judge Ronald Meyerson of the Austin Municipal Court to sign the warrant giving the police permission to search for marijuana and cocaine as well as anything associated with the sale of those drugs, like baggies, scales, and bookkeeping.

No-knock raids are typically executed by a Special Weapons and Tactics, or SWAT, team. According to the most recent version of Austin Police Department Standard Operating Procedures received by The Appeal in response to an information request, the SWAT team was created in 1979 to “professionally resolve life threatening critical situations,” like active shooters or hostage situations in addition to “high-threat warrant service,” although this is left vague.

Today, SWAT teams are regularly used nationwide to execute search warrants. According to a 2016 law review article by Timothy MacDonnell, over half of the 60,000 SWAT deployments each year are for search warrants. The phenomenon has been well-documented by journalist Radley Balko, who has argued that SWAT raids constitute an excessive use of force with almost no net gain. In 2014, the ACLU found that nationwide, 62 percent of all SWAT raids were for drug warrants. In instances where police alleged the presence of firearms, they were wrong just less than half of the time.

The evolution of Supreme Court doctrine on search warrants—especially the requirement that police “knock and announce” before entering—correlates with the war on drugs as SWAT raid numbers increased nationwide. In general, the Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches, but case law starting in the 1990s began to carve out exceptions for SWAT raids based on the idea that an officer’s knock on the door gave people enough warning to flush their stash. As a result, law enforcement argued, surprise searches—using “no-knock warrants”—were necessary to prevent the destruction of evidence.

Michelle Mildenberg

Currently, the law on no-knock raids requires that police justify the invasion by proving they have a “reasonable suspicion” that there’s a risk to officer safety or that the suspect might dispose of the evidence. Practically speaking, this is mostly shown through a controlled buy, according to Stoughton, in which an informant makes a purchase to confirm that someone is selling illegal drugs. But federal law is broad enough that it allows for no-knock raids even in cases of misdemeanor marijuana possession and sale. And, over time, the incentive for law enforcement to take extra steps to justify SWAT-style raids diminished as the Supreme Court made decisions giving more leeway.

In the 2003 decision United States v. Banks, a unanimous Supreme Court held that waiting about 15 to 20 seconds after an announcement before breaking down a door was enough warning when police had reasonable fears that incriminating drugs would be flushed down the toilet. This case also affirmed the reasonable-suspicion standard and asserted that damaging property wasn’t enough of a concern to place stricter limits on SWAT deployments. In 2006, the Court held in  Hudson v. Michigan that even if the police ignore the knock-and-announce requirement, anything found was still admissible as evidence.

But, as the Harrell case shows, the reasonable-suspicion standard is subject to interpretation and generally relies on police statements about the likelihood of weapons or large amounts of drugs.

At trial, as in other cases where people have been charged with assault or murder for shooting during SWAT raids, one of the major disputes centered on whether Harrell and his mother heard the police’s announcement. In the video, the entire raid and shooting last about 30 seconds.

Some neighbors, in addition to Harrell and his mother,  testified that, even though they heard the shooting and flash bangs, they did not hear the announcement over the LRAD. Other neighbors testified that they heard everything. Defense experts at trial suggested that the LRAD was pointed at the wrong house before the raid. After Pittman was shot, the armored vehicle moved to a different location and adjusted the LRAD to point toward the Harrells’ home. At this point, the second round of announcements, Harrell and his mother came out of the house immediately.  The prosecution and law enforcement argued in court that the LRAD was functioning properly and that law enforcement announced themselves as they entered.

The prosecution argued that Harrell knew police were entering the home. Beth Payan, one of the assistant district attorneys on the team that prosecuted Harrell, said she took every piece of the case into consideration: “The case was presented to a Travis County grand jury and they found sufficient evidence to move forward. Upon my receipt of the case, I reviewed the entire file looking at every detail from every angle.  You cannot review a case with tunnel vision and focus only on one aspect of it. I was looking at the big picture. In terms of the SWAT aspect, I needed to evaluate that and review that area of the law.”

According to an officer’s affidavit, the police returned to the Harrell house the day after the shooting to re-enact the announcements using the LRAD. Their process determined that it was possible to hear the announcement even if the house doors and windows were closed. The defense pointed out that the armored vehicle had already been repositioned for the re-enactment, so there was no accounting for the placement of the vehicle the first time.

After the trial and a prolonged jury deliberation—notes from the foreperson indicate that there was “one single hold out juror” and deliberations went on for several days—the jury found Harrell guilty of assault and sentenced him to 13 and a half  years in prison plus $7,000 in fines. (He was acquitted of attempted murder.) Harrell’s attorney, Edmund Davis, told The Appeal that he felt his client’s trial hadn’t been fair. For example, on the day of closing arguments, 17 uniformed SWAT members packed over half of the courtroom in a show of solidarity. Davis, who is Black, is no stranger to controversy and during Harrell’s trial, got into a dispute with the prosecutor Chari Kelly (who was elected in November to the Texas Third Court of Appeals) when he said Kelly had made a racist joke comparing him to a monkey. Kelly, in turn, alleged that Davis had grabbed and twisted her arm while they were in the courthouse parking garage. There was a closed hearing where other lawyers testified about what they heard Kelly say. These events led Judge Karen Sage to enter a gag order during the trial.

Harrell is now appealing his verdict. His primary arguments focus on the judge’s decision to exclude evidence, including the source of the anonymous tip—which police said they could not trace—and medical evidence showing that Harrell was struggling with symptoms of PTSD since being robbed just a few months before the raid. During that robbery, he was jumped by two armed assailants in masks. In court documents, his attorney argued that he was undergoing treatment for PTSD and startle reflex, which made him particularly prone to overreacting. This history, according to Harrell’s attorneys and court documents, made their client especially vulnerable as a target for a military-style raid. (There’s no indication that Austin police knew about this incident, which was not reported to the police, before the raid.) Harrell was not allowed to present any of this evidence at trial because the judge excluded any presentation of Harrell’s mental state.

Tyler Harrell’s best friend at the time, who was also present during the robbery, has a similar memory of being frightened and anxious after the incident. According to the friend, two men attacked him and Harrell at another friend’s apartment. There were also two girls there. “[One of the men] kicked open the door with a bandana on his face and waved a gun in our faces. When the guy wasn’t looking, Tyler grabbed the gun and began wrestling. I began helping Tyler by punching and kicking the guy.” Both of the assailants escaped to the car, but not before Tyler saw their faces. “Scared the crap out of me,” the friend told The Appeal via text message. “Tyler ended up buying a gun on his 18th birthday because he was actually scared. My mom had cameras installed … I wasn’t able to sleep for a long time because I’d hear leaves falling outside and think it was someone outside my window. Me and Tyler would talk about how [we] had the same problems.” He added that he and Tyler both attended therapy after the incident.

For now, Harrell remains in the Travis County jail near Austin, and his family remains hopeful that his appeal will allow him to present a stronger defense. Harrell’s friend said he had “lost connection” but hopes to continue being his friend. He recalled a time when Harrell came to his house on Christmas just because he was lonely. “Tyler had dreams to be a chef and do all these awesome things. I don’t think for a second Tyler would ever shoot anyone unless he thought it was to protect his family. … I just hope he’s able to bounce back from this.”

Lisa and Peter Harrell, Harrell’s parents, have tried to focus on their son even though they are also concerned that the public generally needs to be more aware of the dangers. “It could be you next,” Peter Harrell told the Austin American-Statesman. And Davis, Harrell’s lawyer, pointed out that the SWAT team seemed ill-prepared for the raid. “Someone got shot,” he said, adding that the casualties could have been much worse if Harrell had had more experience with his weapon. (The Austin Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.)

The injurious outcome of the 2016 raid has not resulted in any policy changes at the police department. In fact, according to its own records, the department ramped up the use of no-knock warrants in 2017 and 2018. And it’s likely that Austin isn’t any safer. Last year, a study found no link between SWAT deployments and public safety. Instead, the researchers found, increased police militarization simply influences the public to have negative opinions of police with no net gains.