Drug War

The Cops Were the Aggressors in This Week's Deadly Houston Drug Raid

Even if Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas were selling heroin out of their house, the government's violent response cannot be morally justified.

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Houston Police Department

On Monday evening in Houston, a dozen armed men broke into the home of Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas, a middle-aged couple who had lived in the house at 7815 Harding Street for at least two decades. The first man through the door, who was armed with a shotgun, used it to kill one of the couple's dogs. Tuttle responded to the home invasion by grabbing a revolver and shooting the man with the shotgun, who collapsed on a sofa in the living room. As Nicholas tried to disarm the intruder, his accomplices shot her. Tuttle returned fire, and by the end of the shootout he and his wife were both dead. Four of the assailants were hit by gunfire, while a fifth injured his knee.

Many people will be reassured to learn that the men who stormed into the house on Harding Street were police officers serving a drug warrant. I am not one of those people. Let me explain why, starting with some fishy aspects of the official police account and ending with the immorality of responding to peaceful, voluntary transactions with violence.

At a press conference on Monday night, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo initially said the address of the raid, which began around 5 p.m., was in the 7800 block of Hardy Street, about 12 miles from the actual location. Acevedo said "Hardy Street" three times, and he seemed to be reading the address from a stack of papers. By the end of the press conference, he was saying "Harding Street." Which address was on the search warrant? I am waiting to hear back from the Houston Police Department on that point.*

Acevedo said the the plainclothes narcotics cops serving the warrant "announced themselves as Houston police officers while simultaneously breaching the front door." Meanwhile, uniformed officers waiting in or near a "marked police unit" outside the house "hit the siren and hit the lights so they knew that police officers were there." Maybe that's true, but it is possible that Tuttle did not hear the siren or did not connect it to the men bursting into his house. It is also plausible that the officers' announcement, which by Acevedo's account happened at the same moment that they were knocking down the door, did not register amid the noise, confusion, and shotgun blasts.

"Immediately upon breaching the door," Acevedo said on Monday, "the officers came under fire from one or two suspects inside the house." But as he revealed during a press conference the next day, it was actually the police who fired first, killing what he described as "a very large pit bull that charged at that officer."

When a reporter asked whether Tuttle and Nicholas knew they were being raided by police, Acevedo said "a lot of drug houses have surveillance systems that are better than what businesses use," because "they want to know when the cops are coming." Contrary to the implication, KHOU, the CBS affiliate in Houston, reports that the house had no security cameras, although "a house next door to the Tuttles' home does have surveillance video," and "police took that footage for evidence." Acevedo said the officers involved in the raid were not wearing body cameras.

According to Acevedo, the investigation that led to the raid "began because a neighbor had the courage to say, 'We're not going to put up [with this]. We think that they're dealing dope out of this house.'" That tip was passed on to the narcotics division, which "was able to actually determine" that "street-level narcotics dealing" of "black-tar heroin" was happening at the house. Acevedo said police "actually bought black-tar heroin at that location," although "we didn't find any" on Monday. Instead the search discovered an unspecified amount of marijuana, along with a white powder that police thought might be cocaine, or maybe fentanyl.

"The neighborhood thanked our officers because it was a drug house," Acevedo said. "They described it as a problem location." But according to the Houston Chronicle, Tuttle and Nicholas, who had been married 21 years, "kept to themselves" and "didn't seem like troublemakers." Tuttle's sister, Elizabeth Ferrari, told the paper she talked to her brother, a disabled 59-year-old Navy veteran, last week, and he seemed fine. She had never seen any indication that he and his wife were involved with drugs. "I don't buy it all," Ferrari said. "Not one hot minute." Other relatives and friends "offered similar disbelief."

KHOU reports that "Tuttle apparently had no criminal record," while the only mark against Nicholas was a misdemeanor "theft by check" charge involving $145. After she paid restitution, the charge was dismissed. One neighbor told KHOU "they never had company," while another said, "There was never traffic at that house. Never." Neighbors interviewed by the station said "they never noticed suspicious activity."

Maybe other neighbors had different impressions. Maybe Tuttle and Nicholas really were selling heroin out of their house. But if so, they were not doing anything that justified the government's violence. Since exchanging intoxicants for money violates no one's rights, the police were clearly the aggressors in this situation.

Acevedo tried to disguise that reality by arguing that the illegal drug trade drives violence in Houston. "While people think drugs is a harmless crime," he said on Monday, "the industry is not harmless, and a lot of the shootings we see in our city are drug rips or people fighting over gang territory." But crimes like those are not inherent to the drug business; they are a consequence of prohibition, which creates a black market in which participants cannot rely on legal protection and tend to resolve disputes with violence.

Acevedo used the deadly drug raid as a pretext to push gun control, saying politicians should enact policies to curtail "the proliferation of firearms in the hands of people that have no business having guns." The only specific example he mentioned was requiring background checks for anyone who buys a firearm at a gun show, whether or not the seller is a federally licensed dealer. But if the local press reports are correct, neither Tuttle nor Nicholas had a criminal record that would have disqualified them from owning guns.

In addition to the .357 Magnum revolver that Tuttle reportedly fired, police found two 12-gauge shotguns, a 20-gauge shotgun, a .22 rifle, and a Remington 700 bolt-action rifle. That's not a lot of guns for Texas, and there is nothing about this collection that suggests criminally violent intent. The fact that Tuttle used his revolver in self-defense during a home invasion hardly proves he was a public menace.

Joe Gamaldi, president of the Houston Police Officers Union, seized on the occasion to condemn people who criticize cops. "We are sick and tired of having targets on our back," he said on Monday night. "We are sick and tired of having dirtbags trying to take our lives when all we're trying to do is protect this community and protect our families. Enough is enough. And if you're the ones that are out there spreading the rhetoric that police officers are the enemy, well, just know we've all got your number now, and we're going to be keeping track of all y'all, and we're going to be making sure we're going to be holding you accountable every time you stir the pot on our police officers."

Tuttle did not go looking for cops to shoot. He was responding to a violent attack by men he may not even have recognized as police officers, men who knocked his door in, repeatedly fired a shotgun, killed his dog, and fatally shot his wife. If police officers don't want to be portrayed as the enemy, they should stop acting like the enemy.

*Update: According to a police spokeswoman, the address of the raid, 7815 Harding Street, is the same as the address on the search warrant, which she says will be publicly released soon.