A harrowing investigation from my colleagues at The Post:
Sallie Taylor was sitting in her apartment in Northeast Washington one evening in January 2015 watching “Bible Talk” when her clock fell off the wall and broke. She turned and looked up. Nine D.C. police officers smashed through her door, a shotgun was pointed at her face and she was ordered to the floor.
“They came in like Rambo,” said Taylor, a soft-spoken 63-year-old grandmother who was dressed in a white nightgown and said she has never had even a speeding ticket.
The heavily armed squad thought they were searching the residence of a woman arrested two miles away the previous night for carrying a half-ounce vial of PCP.
Taylor, who did not know the woman, was terrified. Trembling, she told police that the woman did not live there. Officers spent 30 minutes searching the house anyway, going through her boxes and her underwear drawer. They found no drugs and left without making an arrest.
The search warrant executed at Taylor’s apartment cited no evidence of criminal activity there. Instead, in an affidavit to a judge, police argued that they should be able to search for drugs there based on their “training and experience” investigating the drug trade. They relied on an address they found in a court-records system for the woman arrested with PCP.
A Washington Post review of 2,000 warrants served by D.C. police between January 2013 and January 2015 found that 284 — about 14 percent — shared the characteristics of the one executed at Taylor’s apartment. In every case, after arresting someone on the street for possession of drugs or a weapon, police invoked their training and experience to justify a search of a residence without observing criminal activity there. The language of the warrants gave officers broad leeway to search for drugs and guns in areas saturated by them and to seize phones, computers and personal records.
In about 60 percent of the 284 cases, police executing the warrants found illegal items, ranging from drug paraphernalia to guns, The Post found. The amounts of drugs recovered were usually small, ranging from residue to marijuana cigarettes to rocks of cocaine. About 40 percent of the time — in 115 cases — police left empty-handed.
The investigation found that nearly all such raids are conducted on black residents. D.C. police chief Kathy Lanier told the Post that D.C. police got few complaints about warrant service. That isn’t surprising. The people on the receiving end of these raids often feel terrorized, intimidated, and frightened. They don’t typically have access to an attorney or have enough standing in the community to be taken seriously. And the few who did try to complain were mostly ignored.
Lanier also said that the police department doesn’t distinguish between warrants based solely on an officers “experience and training” and warrants based on more substantive evidence. Given the volatility and potential for tragic error in these raids, that’s a pretty striking admission. The Post investigation found damaged and destroyed property, guns pointed at children, and bullet-riddled dogs.
And it isn’t just for “hard” drugs like PCP. Shandalyn Harrison had her house raided by 20 officers, she told The Post, after they pulled over her ex-boyfriend “for having an obstructed license plate and found five ounces of marijuana, a misdemeanor.” Police “got an address for him in Northwest from his suspended D.C. driver’s license and a utility listing from December 2012, according to the affidavit. But the house was rented to Harrison, and she said she had previously told police that he had never lived there.” During the raid:
Harrison’s 11-year-old daughter was taking a shower when an officer pushed aside the curtain and pointed a gun at her, according to the mother and daughter. Police also held Harrison’s 21-year-old brother, Sterling, at gunpoint, Harrison and Sterling said.
“What they did was not right,” Harrison said. “I work hard to take care of my daughters and to protect them and raise them right, but they treated us like we committed a crime.”
The Post also found examples of people who had difficulty getting the city to compensate them for damage police officers did during these raids, even when it was clear they had raided the wrong home.
Of course, none of this is particularly new. Violent home raids for drugs or weapons based on little or no evidence have been a staple of the modern “war on drugs” going back to the Nixon years. Here, for example, is a passage from an early draft of my book (it was later cut in the editing process):
James Bigelow, a retired lieutenant with the Washington, D.C. Metro Police Department, awoke early one cold, February morning to the sound of his doorbell and a knock at the door. That was quickly followed by the sound of a sledgehammer smashing into the same door. As he and his wife ran downstairs, they were met by a team of narcotics agents—and their guns. Bigelow, 58 at the time, had a brother who was a former deputy police chief in D.C. His son was still a police officer with the department. Somehow, the cops had still managed to mistakenly raid his home.
Bigelow and his wife sat at gunpoint while police ransacked their home. They found nothing. They didn’t bother fixing the front door, which they had knocked clean off its frame.
At about the same time — 5 a.m. on Saturday, February 22, 1986 — Thomas Timberman awoke to a sharp knock at his door. When Timberman, a career foreign service worker, answered the door, he was met by two agents dressed in dark clothes, carrying shotguns. They didn’t tell him they were police. Instead, they told him he should go look at the door to the basement apartment he was renting out. That door too had been knocked off its frame. Timberman rented the apartment to a colleague, a senior official at the State Department. He was on vacation at the time. Eventually the officers admitted they had made a mistake. They had intended to raid the home next door.
And at about the same time, narcotics agents also raided the home of Ewan Brown, who worked for The Washington Post at the time. According to Brown, the police quickly looked over the house, after which the head of the raid team said, “I think we have the wrong house.” They spent the next two hours tearing the place apart, anyway. Brown tried to point out that his house didn’t match the description of the house described in the warrant. He tried to tell them that neither he nor the nephew who lived with him fit the description of the dreadlocked Rastafarian the police were looking for. They found no drugs, apologized, and left. “It was like the allied troops at Normandy,” he’d later say.
In all, 530 police officers — 12 percent of the Washington, D.C. police department, plus federal agents from the IRS, U.S. Parks Police, ATF, Immigration, and the IRS conducted 69 simultaneous raids all across the city. “Operation Caribbean Cruise” intended to target a ring of Jamaican drug smugglers. It was the largest planned police operation in Washington, D.C. history. They had anticipated making over 500 arrests, and seizing hundreds of pounds of marijuana, plus dozens of automatic weapons. The early morning raids were the culmination of a 16-month investigation.
The tally: 27 arrests, 13 of them merely for possession of marijuana. The cops also seized 13 weapons, and found $20,000 in illegal drugs. They were anticipating millions. In fact, the police department had assigned more people solely to handle the paperwork of the expected arrests than the number of people who were actually arrested. They found none of the alleged Jamaican drug dealers.
Here’s an excerpt from The Post after the raid:
The dismay of police was evidence soon after the raid began at 5 a.m., as officers, some solemn-looking and others laughing at their misfortune, congregated around police vehicles outside the targeted homes and packed away their shotguns, bulletproof vests, sledgehammers, and helmets.
Deputy Chief Shugart said that police had received a number of complaints from people who said that police had mistakenly raided their homes. He said that in those cases, the police had gone back to the source of the allegations and confirmed that the information in affidavits filed in support of the search warrants was accurate.
“They [the people who protested the police actions] don’t control all the people in their homestead,” he said, adding, “We will work with them to make repairs” of any unnecessary damage done during the raids.”
Borrowing from Winston Churchill, one D.C. official later quipped to the paper, “Never have so many gathered together to confiscate so little for so much overtime.”
Here’s another passage that didn’t make the final cut of my book, citing a 1992 Post article and a 1993 column by Courtland Milloy:
Harry Davis awoke to 15 police officers carrying assault weapons and wearing — as he put it to Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy — “some sort of ninja garb” breaking into his Fort Washington, Maryland home. They shoved Davis to the ground and put a shotgun to his head. They then pulled Davis’ girlfriend out of the bed, nude, and “spread her legs like she was hiding [drugs] up in her.” The search on Davis’ home was thorough. The police tore out drywall and crushed family photographs. Based on a tip from an informant, they thought he was part of a crack distributing, money laundering, murdering network called “The P Street Gang.” They found no drugs, weapons, or evidence of criminal activity.
By the time he had paid legal fees and endured the bad publicity, Davis had lost his car leasing business. The police also confiscated his car under forfeiture laws. When they couldn’t prove any drug charges against him, they turned the car over the bank. Since he had lost his business, Davis had fallen behind on his payments for a car the police possessed. Davis found temporary work as a car salesman after his arrest, but was later fired after a customer recognized him as the man the TV news had (falsely) identified as a drug kingpin.
It took more than a year for federal prosecutors to drop the charges against him. The assistant U.S. attorney in charge of the case later conceded, “The evidence did not have him in any actual drug transaction.” Davis protested in open court, “You break into my home, humiliate my friend, destroy my business, and after investigating me for a year, just drop the charges. What can you say to me?” The judge replied, “You’re free. Next case.”
Over the last several decades, D.C. police — often with help from federal law enforcement agencies — have regularly engaged in such massive drug raid operations, which can cover several blocks or entire neighborhoods. Another such operation in the late 1980s was “Operation Clean Sweep,” which resulted in thousands of arrests, but also lots of innocent people raided and terrorized. As Christian Parenti details in his book “Lockdown America”, these operations too tended to target low-level offenders, and for all that violence, barely registered a blip in the drug supply. They were more about winning positive PR for the agencies involved than about actually cleaning up neighborhoods. My favorite example is a planned 1995 drug bust that included more than 200 D.C. and federal police officers. The operation had to be scrapped at the last minute when a official from D.C.’s public housing agency got too excited and prematurely sent out a press release touting the raid’s success.
Of course, there’s nothing unique about D.C. here, either. The use of violent “dynamic entry” tactics to serve warrants for low-level drug offenses has become the norm all over the country — city and town, urban and rural, in blue states and red. Such tactics are increasingly being used for other low-level offenses as well, even to enforce regulatory law. (At least one federal appeals court has finally put its foot down on the latter.)
But let’s stick with the Washington metro area. Pan out to the D.C. metro area, and you get more examples. In 1988, The Post ran a piece called “Show of Force,” about a massive increase in police raids and other militaristic anti-drug operations in nearby Prince George’s County. Of course, that county has a long history of aggressive policing, and has spent long stretches of the last few decades under a consent decree with the Justice Department. The most notable recent example is probably the 2008 mistaken raid on the home of Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo. That raid, in which Calvo’s two black labs were killed and in which he and his mother-in-law were held face-down at gunpoint for hours, was also based on very little evidence and investigation. The Calvo raid inspired more reporting and more victims of such raids to come forward. Countless stories of violent raids, dog killings, and indifferent, often callous police agencies led to the Maryland legislature passing the first SWAT transparency bill in the country. Across the river in Virginia, there was the 2006 killing of Sal Culosi, a Fairfax optometrist gunned down in his own driveway by the local police department, which had sent a SWAT team to serve a gambling warrant. Culosi, who had no criminal history, was unarmed.
There is some good news in this most recent Post story: At least one federal judge is finally taking notice. In a ruling issued in January, D.C. district court judge James Boasberg refused to grant qualified immunity to D.C. police who staged one of these violent raids based entirely on one officer’s claim that his “experience and training” told him they’d find drugs at the suspect’s home. In this particular case, the police appear to have mistaken the man suing them for a man who had been arrested for possession. But plaintiff Jerome Davis also alleged that despite the “experience training” claims, the data just don’t back up the police contention that raids based on street arrests don’t lead to big drug seizures. From the ruling:
Davis alleges that “in the vast majority of cases in which MPD officers execute search warrants after a traffic or street stop based only on their ‘training’ and ‘experience’ and not actual evidence connecting the home to criminal activity, the warrant returns submitted by the officers themselves prove that MPD officers do not find the items that they seek.” More specifically, he submits that in the year preceding the search at issue here, MPD officers “failed to find any drugs, let alone the drugs they were looking for, in almost 66% of the cases” in which they executed training-and-experience search warrants. And “[i]f small amounts of marijuana are excluded, MPD officers failed to find illegal drugs that they were purportedly searching for in nearly 87% of cases” involving training-and-experience warrants. In Davis’s view, these dismal statistics reveal that Afari and his fellow officers “know through their training and experience that sophisticated drug dealers do not provide law enforcement with the location and address . . . where they keep their stashes and evidence of their crimes.” He further believes that Afari “knowingly and recklessly omitted from [his application] the poor success rate of such warrants” and thereby “deliberately misled the issuing judge.”
Boasberg also found for Davis in his complaint about the amount of force the police used to execute the warrant. That too is a pretty rare thing from a federal judge.
But Boasberg’s ruling only allows this case to go before a jury. And it seems likely that D.C. will appeal. Boasberg also cautions that Davis still has a long and difficult road to recovery. Even if Davis wins, it’s far from certain that it will change how police in D.C. conduct these raids — much less how they’re conducted in other cities across the country. All of which is to say we still shouldn’t entrust our constitutional rights to the courts. Pressure on local police departments and the politicians that (allegedly) oversee them is far more likely to bring reform.
But after 40-plus years subjecting suspects, innocent people and bystanders to violence and risk based on very little evidence of what are typically low-level offenses, it’s at least worth noting those few instances when a court finally gets it right.