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Police Re-Examining Policy of 'No-Knock' Searches


From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY.

An 88-year-old woman was shot and killed in Atlanta last month, as police entered her home without announcing themselves. Her death has sparked outrage over the use of so-called no-knock warrants.


NPR's Kathy Lohr has the report.

KATHY LOHR: A federal investigation continues into what happened the night of November 21st. Police got a search warrant to enter the home of Katherine Johnston. The warrant said police were looking for cocaine, weapons, computers and money.

Police say a confidential informant had bought drugs in the home, but what they found instead was an 88-year-old woman, who had a rusty gun armed to protect herself. Johnston fired and police fired back.

She was killed instantly. Three police officers were injured. A few days later, the informant, who said he bought drugs at the house recanted, and said police asked him to lie.

Reverend Markel Hutchins, a civil rights leader and spokesman for the family, says it's easy for police to get no-knock warrants, but it's hard for residents to tell the difference between the cops and the criminals.


Reverend MARKEL HUTCHINS (Civil Rights Leader): In this environment with an alarmingly number of home invasions by people claiming to be law enforcement officers victimizing everyday ordinary Americans, knocking on their door saying that they're police and going in and robbing or burglarizing, we ought to take a serious public policy look at how we use these no-knock warrants.

LOHR: The use of no-knock warrants where police don't have to wait or announce themselves before entering grew during the 1980s, during police efforts to fight the war on drugs.

Radley Balko is a former policy analyst for Cato Institute, who has studied police use of force.

Mr. RADLEY BALKO (Columnist): I think the war imagery has really been taken to heart in a lot of ways. I think a lot of police officers really do feel like this is a war. And of course, there's a danger in that, because when we send soldiers off to war, they're sent with a very specific mission, which is to kill people and break things, whereas, the police officers have a decidedly different mission, which is to keep the peace to protect our rights, basically.

LOHR: In the early ‘80s, Congress agreed to give surplus military equipment to local police departments. Since then, millions of dollars and equipment has been sent all over the country. So Balko says it made sense for police to take advantage of it and to expand the use of SWAT teams.

Mr. BALKO: I think that the case in Atlanta is a classic example of why these types of tactics are just - are simply inappropriate for a non-violent offenses, like drug crimes.

LOHR: According to Balko, there's been a huge increase in the use of SWAT teams from 3,000 a year in 1981 to 40,000 a year by 2000. That means on average more than 100 times a day in the U.S., a SWAT team is breaking into a home or business. It's difficult to say how many of these raids go wrong, but there are some prominent cases.

In 2003, based on a tip from an informant, police broke down the door to Alberta Sproul's(ph) apartment in Harlem. The 57-year-old woman had a heart attack and died after the SWAT team entered using flash grenades.

In 1999 in Denver, police entered the home of Ismael Mena using a no-knock warrant. They were looking for drugs. They shot and killed Mena, but found no drugs.

John Gnagey with the National Tactical Officers Association acknowledges mistakes have been made, but he says there is a place for no-knock warrants.

Mr. JOHN GNAGEY (National Tactical Officers Association): You don't want to take away an option for law enforcement, because if you have those circumstances, you know, if you're going after an individual that's a mass murderer, something like that, and there's a potential - high potential that he's going to be shooting at you or you don't want to necessarily announce your presence when your going in to arrest him.

LOHR: In Atlanta, police would not discuss the Johnston case, while the federal investigation is ongoing. But the police chief has promised to cooperate and to review the use of no-knock warrants.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.