Militarization of Police

Houston Drug Raid Records

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A couple of weeks ago, I started sending off open records requests related to drug raids to various cities across the country. My initial goal was to review the warrants and return sheets for these raids, for several reasons.

First, I want to see how many times police mistakenly raid the wrong home. Second, I wanted to see just how often forced entry raids occur. Third, I wanted to see if the police are doing the proper amount of corroborating investigation before breaking into people's homes or if they're, as I suspect, using boilerplate language about drugs and/or weapons to get a no-knock or knock-and-announce warrant (which would technically be illegal). And finally, I wanted to see just how often police found what they claimed they were looking for in the warrants themselves. How many of these raids actually found drugs or weapons? How many found enough to result in something more than a misdemeanor charge?

I got my first reply back late last week, from the police department in Houston. Unfortunately, it looks as if any thorough review of search warrants, or of how many warrants hit the wrong address, is going to be cost prohibitive. My request from the Houston PD records office was for one or both of the following:

• A copy of the warrant, affidavits, and evidence return sheets for every forced-entry drug raid (no-knock or knock-and-announce) performed in the city since January 1, 2004.

• A copy of all complaints against he Houston police department regarding a narcotics warrant served on the wrong house since January 1, 2001.

Houston PD's open records officer told me that the cost to comply with the first request would be around $45,000. The cost for the second would be $55,000. Which means a survey of the couple dozen cities I had hoped to eventually do would likely cost several million dollars. So that won't be happening.

Still, some interesting information did come out of the request.

First, the reason my request for the second item was so expensive is that HPD doesn't have a code for a complaint that a warrant was served on the wrong house. That in itself is pretty interesting (and should probably be remedied). So to comply with my request, they'd have to pull every complaint filed after a narcotics warrant was served, then read through the complaint to see if it was based on a "wrong door" raid.

What I did learn was that over the last seven years, there have been 43,456 complaints filed in Houston in response to the service of a warrant. I'm guessing that includes all warrants, not just drug warrants. Still, it's a really high figure (17 per day?). In fact, I thought perhaps they'd misunderstood, and run a search for all police complaints in that time. But the records officer specifically said that those were the complaints related to warrant service. Make of that what you will. I'm sure a large percentage of them were frivolous. It's just too bad there's no way of figuring out how many complaints are related to a wrong-door raid without shelling out $55,000.

Second, and more disturbing, I learned that HPD has served about 16,000 forced-entry narcotics warrants in the last four years. The number is an estimate because the warrants are packed up in boxes, and the compliance officer guessed by multiplying the average number of warrants per box by the number of boxes. But it's not likely off by too much either way.

Eastern Kentucky University's Peter Kraska surveyed SWAT team deployments ranging from the early 1980s to the late 1990s. Kraska estimated that by the end of his survey, SWAT teams were being called out about 40,000 times per year in the U.S., a huge increase from about 3,000 times per year just twenty years prior. That breaks down to about 110 SWAT raids per day.

The data I just received from Houston suggests Kraska's figure from about 2000 could be dwarfed yet again today. If the estimate I was given is correct, over the last four years, police have been conducting about 11 forced entry drug raids per day in the city of Houston alone.

A couple of caveats: Not all forced-entry drug warrants are served by SWAT teams, and not all SWAT deployments are for drug warrants (though a large percentage of them are). Sometimes narcotics cops kick down doors on their own, without the SWAT team. And sometimes SWAT teams are deployed for what I would consider legitimate reasons—barricades, hostage takings, bank robberies, etc.

Still, the number from Houston is pretty striking. Eleven times a day in that city alone, the police get permission from a judge to break into someone's home to enforce a consensual drug crime.

NEXT: Havana Con Cojones

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  1. And sometimes SWAT teams are deployed for what I would consider legitimate reasons-barricades, hostage takings, bank robberies, etc.

    I’d be willing to bet that the number of deployments for those reasons is under 1 per day. (My gut says under 1 per week.)

  2. Do the complaints exist as text or paper only? It can’t take $55k to
    > egrep -ic “(wrong door|wrong house|wrong address)” | grep -v “:0”

  3. Seriously, have these folks heard of computers?

  4. johnl,

    judging by the caring attitude and user friendliness I’ve seen in the Houston city government (and by extension their law enforcement division), these records probably exist in a leaky basement and would require decontamination and a forensic scientist to reconstruct what they used to say. In that consideration, I’d say they’re giving Radley a discount, probably because they like his face.

  5. This is what great journalism looks like. Blog post of the year.

  6. This is fascinating Radley.

  7. LIT,

    I believe the boxes are stored in the room with a “Beware of Leopard” sign on the door.

  8. It sort of reminds me of the old canard that the press is only free to people who own one. I suppose a major paper *might* be able to shell out the required dough to take a sampling of cities’ records, but no way they would unless there was a pretty big clue already they would find something front-page worthy.

    With obscure enough or badly organized enough records, it’s amazing people find out anything about the disposition of issues by police and gov’t officials.

  9. Anybody know any reporters at the Houston Chronicle? I’m sure they’d be interested in what Radley has found. (Not that I want anyone to steal Radley’s thunder, but if he has to let it go due to cost considerations, I imagine the Chronicle could make some real noise about this if somebody there got interested.)
    And I don’t think you’ll run into this problem in every city, Radley.

  10. HPD doesn’t have a code for a complaint that a warrant was served on the wrong house. That in itself is pretty interesting

    They don’t care.

    This research project sounds like an excellent job for slave labor graduate students.

  11. I imagine the folks at the Chronicle would consider the stated cost ridiculous — see for example http://blogs.chron.com/houstonpolitics/2008/03/adventures_in_public_informati.html

  12. Radley,
    Why not raise the money? Contact the ACLU (I’m sure they’d love this information) and maybe some HNW activists (George Soros?). Somebody has to blow a whole in these police tactics and it pains me to think it won’t go any further than this.

  13. According to that Chronicle columnist I linked to above, Texas state law (which Houston and Houston PD adhere to) sets a price for research/records retrieval for open records requests at $15 an hour. I think the cops are trying to rip you off, Radley.

  14. According to that Chronicle columnist I linked to above, Texas state law (which Houston and Houston PD adhere to) sets a price for research/records retrieval for open records requests at $15 an hour. I think the cops are trying to rip you off, Radley.

    or more frighteningly…they’re not. ~3000 man-hours later, Radley receives an entire truckload of documents from Houston.

  15. pablo has the right idea. set up a website to accept paypal donations and spread the word to all the ron paul money bombers on digg.

  16. I take from this that SWAT teams are being employed as often as possible in the interest of “officer safety,” to apprehend non-violent drug offenders, and that is what has led to such a dramatic increase in the use of SWAT teams and tactics.

    Also, how convenient for them that it’s cost-prohibitive to audit their own records. Sort of accomplishes useful things like, I don’t know, warding off pesky snooping journalists and other citizens who want to know what the police are doing.

  17. Radley,

    Convince them it is worth their while to investigate this on their own behalf. Granted, they may not share the information publicly, but if the net effect is they examine their procedures and implement changes that’s just as good, except no byline. Is the Houston PD currently in the Texas Law Enforcement Recognition Program?

  18. I think this is a standard “throw out an outlandish dollar figure to the out-of-town reporter and hope he goes away” ploy.
    I applaud Radley for gleaning as much as he has from the “non-answer.” That, indeed, is real reporting.

  19. Houston is a really big city. Are those numbers really that outlandish?

    And it’s not the police who write the laws. Thank your local congressmen.

  20. I wonder how many “wrong door” home invasions take place where a complaint is never filed, because they victims know that at best it won’t do any good and at worst it might mark them for future retaliation?

  21. 11 times per day? It’s really hard to believe that they are all mini-warlords that are armed to the teeth.

  22. I’m a former executive secretary now working as a database support specialist, and I live in Houston. I also assisted, four or five years ago, the gal who ran the “Assist the Officer” program (a charity for helping police officers hurt in the line of duty when the costs weren’t covered by the usual sources). Policemen are not my favorite people in the world, but I can get along with them better than, say, the local commercial real estate brokerage cluster… uh, you know. Would it be more cost effective to hire me (or someone like me) to go through them? Would they let us do it in the name of a research project?

  23. I’m beginning to noodle on the design for a house I will be building sometime in the next several years. Thanks to Radley, the budget for doors has gone through the roof (so to speak). I’m wondering if I can put the doors into alcoves that don’t give room to swing one of those rams they use.

    My brother the architect built what I can only call a Rustic Modern house for my folks that, entirely by accident, has only a few windows that a person could actually fit through. In kind of a Mission/post-Frank Lloyd Wright thing, the windows along two sides of the house look a lot like gunports. A good liberal, he was somewhere between amused and horrified when I pointed this out.

    You can guess who will be designing my house.

  24. If the data were properly maintained in a database, you could have your result list in seconds. You can even scan in paper docs and then attach identifying codes/keywords for searching. If the reports are typed you can scan them, OCR them into Word docs or pdfs, and SQL Server (and probably others) will store them and actually search against the documents themselves as binary objects using whatever search criteria you want.

    It’s fascinating how the “justice” system wants to establish DNA databases, no-fly lists, and other technological tracking methods for the peasants, but won’t even store their own records on anything but paper.

  25. Radley, sorry to keep repeating myself but you’re doing an incredible job with this. Strongly second the “real reporting” remark above.

    Also agree with the posters above who urge you to not give up. Even if you can’t afford to get the info you want, I think it would be useful to determine how widespread the “sure it’s available, but it will cost you” syndrome is for this sort of records.

    Please, please keep on keeping on with this.

  26. speedwell —

    You have to be authorized to look at those records. After all, they have people’s names, addresses, and phone numbers on them. You can’t just have people willy-nilly thumbing through those sensitive reports like the common phone book.

  27. Get GAO on the case, they compile info like this all the time. It may take a year but it’ll get done. Call your congressman!

  28. I pledge $50 towards this effort. (if i lived anywhere near houston, i’d offer more..)

  29. It’s actually shocking that none of this is digitized. Instead of training and arming yet another SWAT unit, they should put that money towards scanning and processing these records into an easily searchable database.

    It’s almost like they want it to be difficult to locate the information.

  30. I think it’s more that they have no incentive to make it easy to locate the information.

  31. Very interesting article. Sounds like they would just prefer you to go away because this has a strong smell of sloppy police work.

    I was with most of you until someone mentioned the ACLU….

  32. I applaud Radley for gleaning as much as he has from the “non-answer.” That, indeed, is real reporting.

  33. You think 11 warrants a day is a lot? Please, in a sanctuary 4+ million city so close to the border (drug trade) and the port of Houston that sits on I-10 between New Orleans and El Paso, which shoots straight west to Phoenix and LA (not to mention the northern highways), I think you should reconsider and aleast spend some money for research.

  34. Is there an echo in here, Firmalar?

  35. Seriously, have these folks heard of computers?

    Really, you wouldn’t expect a law enforcement agency to waste taxpayer money on computer records that would let said taxpayers see what they’re paying for, would you?

    It’s fascinating how the “justice” system wants to establish DNA databases, no-fly lists, and other technological tracking methods for the peasants, but won’t even store their own records on anything but paper.

    Several states have proposed laws to serial number bullets and cartridge cases.

  36. Is there an echo in here, Firmalar?

    It would have cost him ~$15 an hour to come up with his own response.

  37. Citizen Nothing, I just don’t see this passing the basic common sense test if you knew this area. The echo seems to be yours just praising this story being the gospel.

  38. Please,

    I don’t see anything about 11 warrants/day…where are you reading that?

    And yeah, there are probably alot of deportation notices that fly around Houston, but that’s hardly a warrant for arrest?

    You’re making some wild assumptions about how many people should be served each day with arrest notices without looking into anything yourself, so I can hardly credit your argument that Radley shouldn’t question the large numbers out there as being “abnormal” or “excessive”.

  39. Uh, Please, I think you missed the point. I just found it weird that someone would use my exact wording as their own.

  40. That someone being Firmalar. Had nothing to do with your post.

  41. Off-topic, but a couple of Miami cops have been charged with starving and beating their own police dogs to death.

    Apparently, its a felony for a cop to kill a police dog, but business as usual for a cop to kill a family pet.

  42. Lost In Translation Quote: “If the estimate I was given is correct, over the last four years, police have been conducting about 11 forced entry drug raids per day in the city of Houston alone.” We don’t know the amount, due lack of funds… But I was commenting generally… And my arguement isn’t about Radley questioning (go for it), it is about his reasoning and lack of information to insinuate that 11 a day is too much.

  43. Lost in translation: You missed my point, I wasn’t talking about deportation… I was talking about illegal drug trade in a sanctuary city in a 4+ million internation hub area adjacent to borders, ports, and major interstates. I was asking the question: (which you guys seemed to more opposed to than me) Is 11 drug warrants a day really that much in this area? Disclaimer: I have friends doing this work.

  44. Citizen Nothing: Ok, my bad… I went and found where he grabbed your line… that was funny…poor guy.

  45. Is 11 drug warrants a day really that much in this area? Disclaimer: I have friends doing this work.

    It’s not 11 drug warrants a day. It’s 11 forced entry drug warrants. I question the need to break down people’s doors with guns at a rate once every 2 hours, even in Houston. I would tend to think more drug warrants are served that don’t result in forced entry, but I could be wrong. Maybe they do storm in with flash bangs when the guy that got tagged for POM doesn’t show for his court date.

    Upon reflection, in this town they might. HPD is not a bastion of effective, or even particularly competent, police work.

  46. “Apparently, its a felony for a cop to kill a police dog, but business as usual for a cop to kill a family pet.”

    It’s because the police dog is equipment, the family pet, well caring about that is just emotional baggage letting the drug dealers and users win.

  47. Please- keep in mind that the vast majority of regular posters (and writers) here oppose the drug war. However, even for those accepting the drug war rationale, the question remains as to whether the inherently violent forced entry tactics should be employed.

  48. BakedPenguin, Thanks, but the opposition it is pretty obvious. That is why I ask the question: is it really a lot? This group tends to be biased and could be seen trying to find proof anywhere they can create it. Goodness, this guy sends a letter off to Houston HPD and with one response he has estimated a million dollar tab to research every city, then comes to a conclusion that they are hiding something. Why not try an different angle before coming to such a damning conclusion? Everyone is praising this guy for good reporting. I don’t see it. I need more.

  49. Please,

    “I was talking about illegal drug trade”

    “I have friends doing this work.”

    Cool, how much for a ball?

    🙂

  50. Please – Radley has done a lot of work on wrongful arrests, wrongful prosecution, police brutality and excessive force. He’s been doing this for (I believe) about three or four years.

    You’re right – there’s a lot more work to be done in this case before anyone can state with certainty that the smoke in Houston is coming from a fire. Most of the people applauding him here have been following his news stories, especially about forced entry victim Cory Maye and corrupt medical examiner Steven Hayne, for a long time, and they know he will tenaciously go after the story.

  51. “Goodness, this guy sends a letter off to Houston HPD and with one response he has estimated a million dollar tab to research every city, then comes to a conclusion that they are hiding something. Why not try an different angle before coming to such a damning conclusion? Everyone is praising this guy for good reporting. I don’t see it. I need more.”

    I would expect any PD asked to provide raid data should come up with it without laying down a smoke screen, by making the information so expensive and hard to find. Pure bureaucratic behavior, which implies the truth would hurt.

    The LEO’s should be held accountable and not be given a pass over these isolated incidents. They are acting like Saddam when the UN asked to look at WMD sites. How dare the mere proles ask to look at how the holy law givers are doing their jobs?

    IMHO, any data will be released when it is properly cooked and cleaned for public consumption.

  52. Bigbigslacker — oh my! that was funny… i like you.

    BakedPenguin — I went to dinner with my wife, she thinks 11 a day is highly unlikely. Are you talking about HPD and/or DEA? I have a friend on one of these teams in HPD. I am going to call him this afternoon. But I use to work in the Galleria area here in Houston for a couple of years (2003-2005), which was right next to the DEA offices. We would go down to the Jack-in-the-Box for lunch. THe DEA offices are in-between my office and the Jack. Anyway, the DEA guys that dress up commando style to do these raids, would meet in the JackInBox parking lot before raids in Ford Explorers and head out from there to go on raids. These guys traveled in groups of two per Explorer. We saw them on occasion in the parking lot, but not at the volume of to get to these numbers.

    zig zag man — you sound like you have been doing what bigbigslacker is proposing and are a little paranoid.

  53. Balko,,,

    You’ve gotten more info than the local (1 paper town) rag ever revealed.

    I’ve not got 100 grand to go after this, but, in light of absolute incompetence and corruption at HPD’s crime lab, locals should not be surprised.

    I hope hizzoner, mayor Bill White (whose residence tax valuation was recently reduced from 2.8 to 1.8 mm), us weeing his trousers.

    Cheers

  54. During the early and mid 1980s, Lt. Colonel North was instrumental in organizing the transportation of cocaine and marijuana from the various sites in Central and South America into the United States as a means of funding the Contra rebels. Congressional records show North was tasked with finding funding “outside the CIA” after the Boland Amendment cut off funding for the Contras in October, 1984. [5] Declassified interviews taken during Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh ‘s investigation into Iran-Contra, as well as North’s handwritten journal entries, detail an extensive operation involving civilian and military personnel from the U.S. and various Central American countries.

    On February 10, 1986, Robert Owen , North’s liaison with the Contras, wrote North regarding a plane being used to carry “humanitarian aid” to the Contras that was previously used to transport drugs. The plane belonged to the Miami-based company Vortex, which is run by Michael Palmer, one of the largest marijuana traffickers in the United States. Despite Palmer’s long history of drug smuggling, Palmer receives over $300,000.00 from the Nicaraguan Humanitarian Aid Office (NHAO) — an office overseen by Oliver North, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams , and CIA officer Alan Fiers — to ferry supplies to the Contras.

    North’s own handwritten journals provide valuable insight into the mechanics of the operation as well. In his journal entry for August 9, 1985, North summarizes a meeting with Owen. They discuss a plane used to transport supplies from New Orleans to Contras in Honduras. North writes: “Honduran DC-6 which is being used for runs out of New Orleans is probably being used for drug runs into U.S.”

    North has consistently denied any involvement with drug trafficking, stating on Fox’s Hannity and Colmes , “?nobody in the U.S. government, going all the way back to the earliest days of this under Jimmy Carter, ever had anything to do with running drugs.”

    North has been banned from Central America’s leading democracy, Costa Rica , for drug running.

  55. Wingtip: I bet Bush Jr. was flying the plane for North. Why don’t you tell us about John Negroponte too?

  56. It’s almost like they want it to be difficult to locate the information.

    They do. They pull something similar when a defendant wants to appeal a conviction and needs a copy of his/her trial transcript. It costs a small fortune – therefore only the wealthy can afford to appeal their case (or someone who has the backing of a wealthy organization.)

  57. If you haven’t read it in full yet, take a look at the statute in question, the Texas Public Information Act. I think the statute itself has a section with a fee schedule (specifying something like $0.10 per photocopied page, etc.). That suggests a $45,000 request represents 450,000 pages of paper. Can that be right? The TPIA also has a provision providing the public access to data stored electronically. I don’t know how the Houston PD stores its warrants and whatnot, but if there are electronic records, compliance with the request should cost very, very little.

  58. Warrants aren’t recorded digitally?

  59. Perhaps you should not be going after records in big cities.

    Try small towns with 50,000 people in them….the drug war is being fought there as well.

    Hell you could probably look at adjoining towns to big cities and still get a good idea.

  60. Contact the ACLU (I’m sure they’d love this information) and maybe some HNW activists (George Soros?). Somebody has to blow a whole in these police tactics and it pains me to think it won’t go any further than this.

    I am hoping that these astronomical figures start to come in handy in lobbying for a law that forces police to track these forced entry raids in a central database. I seem to recall that Mr. Balko has testified before Congress before. Maybe he will again, with a whole bunch of these ridiculous figures in hand.

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