War on Drugs

Houston Narcs Were 'Clearly Labeled' During Deadly Drug Raid, Police Spokesman Says

In light of armed robberies by criminals posing as cops, that might not have been enough.


Houston Police Department

A Houston Police Department spokesman said the narcotics officers who broke into a middle-aged couple's house last week and killed them in the ensuing shootout were wearing "tactical gear clearly labeled 'police'" on the front as well as the back. That detail is important because it helps illuminate the question of whether Dennis Tuttle, who fired at an officer who had just broken into his house and killed his dog with a shotgun, knew the intruder was a police officer.

Last week Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said narcotics officers executing search warrants "don't show up in uniform, but they do show up with plenty of gear that identifies them as police officers." But since he said that "gear" included "patrol officers that are out in front of the house," who would not necessarily be visible to people inside the house, it was not clear whether the men knocking down Tuttle's door were marked as police officers.

Houston Police Foundation

Kese Smith, an HPD public information officer, said they were. Depending on exactly what gear they were wearing (compare the vest front on the left, for instance, with the vest front shown in the photo above), Tuttle might still have overlooked the word police in the heat of the moment. According to Acevedo, the officers announced themselves while "simultaneously breaching the front door," which was immediately followed by shotgun "rounds" that killed the dog. Tuttle responded by shooting the shotgun-wielding officer with a revolver. When the officer slumped onto a sofa, Rhogena Nicholas, Tuttle's wife, reportedly tried to disarm him, at which point one or more of the other cops shot and killed her. Tuttle returned fire with his revolver and was killed as well.

Smith did not know what color clothing the officers were wearing or whether their faces were covered. He said he would check on those details and get back to me. But whatever the officers' appearance, the no-knock "dynamic" entry was reckless, especially in light of Houston's recent experience with armed robberies committed by criminals disguised as cops. There have been several such incidents in recent years, including at least three home invasions in late 2013; two shootings, one of them fatal, on the same evening in 2016; a 2017 attack in which "four men wearing tactical gear ordered people on the ground, attacked them, and then ransacked the house"; and motel-room robberies last year.

Somewhat less alarmingly, four men were arrested in Houston last year for pulling over motorists while pretending to be police officers as part of a YouTube prank. They were equipped with "flashing lights" and a "police badge." It's fair to say that a Houston resident would have ample reason to doubt that armed men forcibly entering his house, killing his dog, and shooting his wife were police officers even if he heard them say so or noticed the word police on their vests.

This sort of operation is designed to catch suspects off guard, partly to prevent them from disposing of evidence. But notwithstanding the advantage of surprise, the cops found none of the heroin they claimed Tuttle and Nicholson were selling. Bursting into a home without warning is also supposed to create alarm and confusion, making suspects easier to subdue. But that alarm and confusion can have deadly consequences, as this case illustrates.