Let’s stipulate — again — that the entire reason for a no-knock raid, as stipulated by police themselves, is to catch suspects off-guard. The aim is to overwhelm and subdue everyone inside before anyone can really process what’s going on and react to it. That’s also the reason for the use of flash-bang grenades, which are designed to temporarily stun, blind and deafen everyone in the immediate vicinity of their detonation. The commando-style tactics are supposed to secure a building before the bad guys have a chance to reach for their guns, or to dispose of evidence.
The problem, of course, is that those same tactics elicit a very primal response in most people. Imagine you wake up to the sounds of armed men invading your home, screaming at you, pointing guns at you, blowing stuff up in your house. If you’re a bona-fide drug dealer, you’re likely to think you’re being robbed by a rival drug dealer. If you aren’t a criminal, you have even less reason to think the armed men in your home are police serving a warrant, and all the more reason to think you’re under attack — and to react accordingly. If you not only aren’t a criminal but also have testified against criminals, and criminals have shot at your home in retaliation for that testimony, you have every reason to fear for your life should you find yourself in the midst of such a raid.
And that’s the position in which Ray Rosas found himself in February 2015. So he reached for his gun, which he owned legally, and fired at the intruders. He shot and wounded three raiding police officers. He immediately surrendered after firing the shots. He told the police at the time that he didn’t know they were cops. He told them again at the police station. This has been his story from the start. Nevertheless, he was arrested, jailed and charged with multiple counts of attempted capital murder and aggravated assault on a public servant. The good news is that this week, a jury acquitted Rosas on all charges.
The bad news is that he was ever charged in the first place. And that police departments across the country continue to put themselves and the public at risk by conducting such volatile, high-stakes raids not just on people suspected of nonviolent, consensual crimes but also on people like Rosas, who aren’t even suspected of such crimes but merely happen to be related or connected to someone who is.
The state’s case against Rosas was weak. The cops did no surveillance on the house before the raid. They didn’t verify that Rosas’s nephew was in the home at the time of the raid. They subjected not only Rosas to the violent tactics but also his elderly, disabled mother, who could also have been injured or killed in the gunfire. The officers gave conflicting testimony about his demeanor after the raid. Some said he was uncooperative and profane (both of which would have been perfectly understandable, given the circumstances). Others said he was cooperative and apologetic. Before deliberations, the judge in the case instructed jurors to factor in the fact that the state had failed to produce some critical evidence and that they should consider that evidence unfavorable to the state. Prosecutors eventually dropped the attempted capital murder charges but pressed on with the multiple charges of aggravated assault.
Note the lack of introspection here. An innocent man and his mother were subjected to unimaginable terror. Both of their lives were put at risk. Rosas — who again had committed no crime and wasn’t suspected of any crime — was subjected to violent tactics deliberately designed to confuse and disorient him. When the police failed to secure the home in time to prevent Rosas from reaching for his gun, the state didn’t punish the officers for their lack of corroborating investigation, for their subjecting innocent people to unspeakable violence, for their incompetence in carrying out the raid or for their wildly disproportionate use of force. They punished Rosas for being disoriented and confused — for behaving in precisely the manner these raids are designed to make people behave.
One detail about this case really underscores the outrage. During the commotion and confusion of the raid, one of the police officers inadvertently shot one of his fellow officers in the leg. Like Rosas, that officer made a mistake that caused a police officer to get shot. But unlike Rosas, he wasn’t charged with a crime. Instead, prosecutors charged Rosas for the wounded officer’s injuries.
The police are allowed to make mistakes during these raids. They’re given enormous latitude, owing to the incredible volatility and high stakes of the situation — conditions that they created themselves. Yet regular people don’t get to make mistakes. They’re expected to react to unimaginable fright with wholly unrealistic restraint and impeccable judgment. The discrepancy is all the more confounding when you consider that a) the police are (allegedly) trained for precisely these types of situations; regular people aren’t, and b) the police have the advantage of being the surprisers here, while the people in the house are the surprised. This case took the outrage a step farther — not only was Rosas held accountable for his own, very understandable mistakes, prosecutors also tried to make him culpable for the mistakes of the cops who raided him.
This case bears a strong resemblance to that of Jason Westcott, a Florida man killed in a drug raid in 2014. Westcott’s home had been burglarized, and then he was threatened by the man who robbed him. He reported the incident to local police. (According to Westcott’s family, the police advised him to get a gun and “shoot to kill” if someone broke into his house.) Later, acting on an uncorroborated tip from a shady informant, the police raided Westcott on suspicion of selling marijuana. When Westcott reached for his gun, the raiding cops killed him.
There was no introspection or accountability in that case, either. Westcott was blamed for his own death, and the drug raids continued.