At around 6 a.m. on Feb. 27, 2019, the front door to James Scott Reed’s Killeen, Texas, apartment was nearly blown open.
Reed, then 41, had been expecting trouble. Weeks earlier, someone drove by his one-story duplex on West Hallmark Avenue and opened fire on his bedroom window. Reed’s home sat on a long street lined with humble, one-story houses with wide porches and empty asphalt lots that manage to look the same gray-brown color as the flat patches of grass growing along the road. After someone fired at his house, Reed bought a silver .380 Cobra handgun to defend himself.
The sun hadn’t yet risen when there was a bang at Reed’s door. Seconds later, his bedroom window was shattered. But this wasn’t another drive-by shooting. A flashbang device was then thrown into the broken window, followed by about a dozen Killeen Police Department SWAT agents descending on the tiny home. They’d obtained a warrant to conduct a “no-knock” narcotics raid on his house.
Reed likely didn’t know the men were officers when the flashbang flew into his bedroom. And it’s possible he still didn’t know they were law enforcement when they fired at least 23 bullets at him—including one that pierced his torso just under his right armpit. The bullet tore through both his lungs, severed his aorta, and later killed him.
In a series of varying—and in some cases contradictory—statements, some of the officers claimed Reed stuck his gun out of his bedroom window and fired a series of shots at them. But a woman staying with Reed at the time, Eva Marie Brocks, repeatedly told local media and investigators that she never saw Reed fire or point his gun at anyone. Instead, she says Reed was reaching for his dresser when he was shot to death by the police. In interviews with law enforcement officials, Brocks stated that the officers only announced they were law enforcement after the gunfire ended. Ballistics evidence also shows that Reed’s handgun was jammed and had a full magazine inside when police recovered it. According to a family lawsuit filed in May, no fired .380 cartridges were recovered from the scene.
“Somebody said ‘shots fired,’ and he didn’t even fire shots,” Brocks told KWTX, a Waco TV station, in 2019. “And that’s when all of them went to shooting.”
Despite the similarities of Reed’s case to the March 13 no-knock raid that killed Breonna Taylor—where plainclothes Louisville, Kentucky, police officers burst into her home, did not announce who they were, and killed her in her bed—Reed’s case has received little attention outside of Texas. One of the three officers who fired their guns that morning, Anthony Custance, initially denied shooting at Reed at all before admitting to Texas Rangers investigators that his story was false. Custance, who resigned from the department shortly after the shooting, was later indicted for tampering with the case’s evidence by hiding the rifle magazine he used during the shooting and reloading his gun to make it appear like it had never fired. In September 2019, Custance entered a guilty plea in the case and was sentenced to six years’ probation. He was also stripped of his law enforcement license.
On May 27, two days after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, Reed’s mother filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city and the officers involved in the raid. In legal filings, Reed’s family alleges that four officers involved—Richard Hatfield, Fred Baskett, Christian Suess, and Custance—conspired to cover up a botched raid. The family, which has participated in marches in Killeen during the recent Black Lives Matter uprisings, believes Custance isn’t the only officer who should be punished for Reed’s death.
“This horrible tragedy was 100% preventable: The [Texas] Rangers investigation proves that all four Defendant officers lied about the shooting in an effort to cover up their failures to act in an objectively reasonable manner,” the suit alleges. “Officers Custance, Hatfield and Baskett unlawfully shot and killed Reed without any warning, although they were not in imminent danger and when less deadly alternatives were available.”
Killeen Police Department representatives for the three still-employed officers named in the lawsuit did not respond to requests for comment from The Appeal. But in mid-July the officers and the city moved to dismiss the suit in federal court, arguing in part that they were justified in shooting Reed dead because he allegedly fired at them. On Aug. 14, attorneys for the city and the defendants again urged the court to dismiss the lawsuit.
All four officers, including Custance, said in court filings they believe they’re entitled to qualified immunity—the much-criticized legal doctrine by which American public officials cannot be held liable for misconduct unless they violate “clearly established” law.
The no-knock raids that killed Breonna Taylor and James Scott Reed occur routinely in America. Since the Los Angeles Police Department created the first SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team in the 1960s, the units have largely been used to serve drug warrants and conduct narcotics raids. In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union found that, in 79 percent of cases, SWAT teams are deployed to serve warrants, and in 62 percent of total cases, SWAT officers are responding to some sort of drug case. In 2015, Vox reported that American cops conduct 20,000 no-knock raids per year, despite the fact that they are, by nature, dangerous and can turn deadly in a moment’s notice.
Nearly 15 years before Taylor was killed, Atlanta police killed Kathryn Johnston, 92, during a no-knock raid. The raid was spurred by a man who was looking to get out of trouble after police planted drugs on him—he falsely said that there would be drugs at Johnston’s residence, and officers lied on an affidavit to secure a search warrant on Johnston’s home. No-knock raids—even when they result in fatalities—persist in part because courts allow them to. On Aug. 26, an appeals court in New York reversed a gun possession conviction stemming from a September 2014 no-knock raid based on information an NYPD detective received from a confidential informant. When the appeals court asked the NYPD to prove the informant existed, the informant who showed up offered testimony that so wildly differed from how a detective described them that the search warrant was thrown in question. But prior to the ruling, a trial judge had handed down a conviction based on evidence obtained with the seemingly unreliable warrant. Even the appeals court decision did not name the officer involved in the case which public defenders worry will help him avoid accountability.
Reed’s case isn’t the sole fatal no-knock incident in Killeen in the last decade. According to his family’s lawsuit, the police department executed at least 81 no-knock raids since 2012 “without instituting any additional training or precautionary measurements.” In 2014, Killeen SWAT officers conducted a predawn raid on the home of Marvin Guy after a confidential informant told police that Guy may have been selling cocaine. When officers tried to climb into his window, Guy, who was armed, allegedly began firing at the police. One officer, Charles Dinwiddie, was killed. Guy was arrested and charged with multiple felonies, including capital murder. Six years later, his case has still not gone to trial.
Since Taylor’s killing in March, numerous cities, including Louisville, have moved to ban no-knock raids. In mid-June, Killeen suspended no-knock raids for 90 days as protesters chanted Reed’s name through city streets. Reed’s family is still asking the city to ban unannounced SWAT raids entirely.
Reed’s case began similarly to the 2014 raid on Guy’s home. According to documents filed in the Reed lawsuit, police stated they received a tip from a confidential source that he may have possessed cocaine. Police also executed a simultaneous raid on a hotel room where an informant said Reed may have been present with cocaine—but Reed was not inside the room, and Killeen police arrested a woman for drug possession instead.
Reed’s mother stated in the federal complaint that the confidential “source” may also have been connected to the drive-by shooting that had previously occurred outside Reed’s home.
Alexandra Natapoff, a Harvard Law professor who has written extensively about criminal informants, told The Appeal that, although she could not comment specifically on the Reed case, it is common for informants to offer information to law enforcement on rivals or enemies.
“While we lack data, we do know, based on how the institution of informant use works, that it’s common for criminal informants with access to government resources to take revenge using the resources of the state,” she said.
Killeen police stated that they needed to conduct a no-knock break-in due, in part, because Reed was tasered by its officers in a separate no-knock raid that occurred in 2010.
According to the lawsuit, Brocks, the only non-police witness that day, told Texas Rangers investigators that it was virtually impossible for Reed to have fired his gun at the officers, given the speed with which they began shooting.
“In a written statement offered outside of the hysteria of the scene and the stress of being under arrest, Brocks reiterated that the police did not announce themselves before the shots began,” the suit stated. “As mentioned above, she also stated that Reed did not shoot at officers. In fact, she indicated that Reed would have not been able to fire any shots as fast as the unannounced shooting commenced.”
Only two officers—Hatfield and Baskett—initially admitted firing their guns that day. Both claimed to have seen Reed’s hand shoot out from his bedroom window, but the suit notes that another officer who’d helped break the window open said he “did not observe the target, Reed, fire or which officers returned fire.”
During the investigation, Custance initially told his superiors that he did not fire into Reed’s house. He showed the investigators a full magazine that he said had been left untouched the day of the shooting. But Custance had concealed his real magazine from investigators. Despite the fact that he pleaded guilty to evidence tampering in September, on July 10 Custance argued in court that he was still entitled to qualified immunity for his actions during the shooting and therefore should not be held liable for the incident in civil court.
“To begin with, the police action directed toward Reed was excessive force, even if no bullet struck him,” Darryl Washington, the Reed family’s lawyer, wrote in a July 24 court filing. “Moreover, while Custance now claims Reed had a gun and fired it at officers, it is highly disputed whether: he actually saw or could have seen Reed with a gun; Reed actually fired a gun or did anything threatening; or Custance ever issued a warning before using deadly force. These factual disputes do not entitle Custance to qualified immunity.”
“Likewise,” Washington added, “the no-knock, no-announce raid itself violated the Fourth Amendment”—so the operation was illegal from the start.