War on Drugs

Houston Drug Raid Records


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.