In response to a disastrous raid that killed a middle-aged couple and injured five officers on January 28, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo announced yesterday that his department will stop routinely using "no knock" warrants for drug searches. "The no-knock warrants are going to go away like leaded gasoline in this city," Acevedo said at a town hall meeting organized by the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice. "I'm 99.9 percent sure we won't be using them. If for some reason there would be a specific case, that would come from my office."
Acevedo had earlier indicated he was leaning in this direction. "After I've had four officers shot and two suspects killed," he said at a press conference on Friday, "we'll be tightening that up." Avoiding the destruction of evidence is usually cited as a reason for police to crash into homes without warning. But "if somebody flushes all the evidence" because police have to knock and announce themselves, Acevedo observed, "you probably didn't have all that much evidence in there to start with."
In this case, police found no evidence of drug dealing, notwithstanding a search warrant affidavit describing many bags of heroin in the home the day before. It turned out the "controlled buy" that was the basis for the warrant never happened. But even if it had, the execution of the warrant would have been reckless. After undercover narcotics officers broke into the home of Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas at 7815 Harding Street, one of them immediately killed the couple's dog with a shotgun, setting off an exchange of fire in which Tuttle and Nicholas were both killed. Under the circumstances, it is plausible that Tuttle, who reportedly fired at police with a .357 Magnum revolver, did not know who the armed intruders were—a possibility that Acevedo implictly acknowledged by citing the raid as a reason to eschew no-knock drug raids.
If Acevedo follows through on his commitment to make no-knock warrants the exception rather than the rule, the new policy could help avoid situations like this—but only if police announce themselves in a way that gives occupants a realistic chance of answering the door. If cops say "police" a second or two before knocking the door down, it will not be much of an improvement. The point is to avoid the chaos and confusion that can have lethal results when armed men suddenly burst into a home.
Yesterday Acevedo also reiterated his intent to equip officers executing search warrants with body cameras so there is an independent record of the operation, which is especially important when the "suspects" are not around to dispute the official account. Acevedo's views on this subject, like his opinion of no-knock warrants, have noticeably evolved in the last few weeks.
"We do not have cameras on us when we make these entries," Acevedo matter-of-factly announced the day after the raid. At a press conference two days later, he attributed that situation not to policy but to a lack of funds. "The likelihood that we won't land on 'we're going to have body-worn cameras' is pretty slim for search warrants," he said, "because most of the times we're going to be doing the right things and we want to capture that." Now he is saying police entering homes will soon have body cameras.
Video of the raid could have shed light on the question of whether Tuttle understood that the men who shot his dog and his wife were police officers. It also might have clarified details of the shootout. After the dog was killed, Acevedo has said, Tuttle fired a .357 Magnum revolver at the officer with the shotgun, who collapsed on a couch. When Nicholas moved to disarm the officer, his colleagues fatally shot her, and Tuttle returned fire, striking three other officers before he was killed. A fifth officer suffered a knee injury in the tumult.
Contrary to this account, the inventory of items seized from the house did not list a revolver or any other handgun, just two shotguns and two rifles. Was the revolver removed from the scene before the inventory? Did police somehow confuse a long gun with a revolver? Video surely would have helped resolve that issue.
That Tuttle managed to strike four police officers with a six-round revolver while under fire seems pretty improbable. Yet Acevedo reacted indignantly on the night of the raid when a reporter asked if any officers had been injured by "friendly fire." He was less dismissive last Friday, saying "at this point, I don't think there's any indication of that, but we still have a lot of work to do."
Acevedo has been a cop for more than three decades and surely is aware of the controversy over no-knock raids and the utility of body cameras in resolving disputes about the use of force. It should not have taken a deadly, flagrantly botched raid like this one for him to come around on these issues.