On Jan. 28, a Houston narcotics team conducted a no-knock raid on the home of Dennis Tuttle, 59, and Rhogena Nicholas, 58. The police claimed to have received an anonymous tip that the two were selling drugs. They also claim they sent an informant to the house to attempt a controlled buy, and that informant returned with heroin.
According to the police account, as they broke down the door, a dog charged them, and they shot it. They say Tuttle then charged at them with a handgun, wounding multiple officers. After the police opened fire, he retreated to a backroom. The police say Nicholas then charged a wounded officer and attempted to grab his shotgun. They opened fire again, killing her. They say Tuttle then reemerged, firing his gun, at which point they killed him, too. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo initially claimed the house was “hardened,” or fortified, possibly with surveillance cameras. He also claimed that the police arrived with their sirens and flashers activated, inferring that the couple should have known they were being raided by law enforcement. In the end, the story went, five cops put their lives on the line to get a heroin-dealing couple off the street. (My colleagues here at The Post published an editorial praising Acevedo for using the incident to call for gun-control laws that might keep firearms out of the hands of criminals.)
But since then, the official story has started to unravel. It’s increasingly looking as though something went horribly wrong on Harding Street, and that Tuttle and Nicholas were not hardened drug dealers, but at most recreational drug dealers who were invaded, shot and killed in their own home. Here’s a quick rundown of what we now know:
· The Houston Chronicle reported Friday morning that an Houston Police Department officer has been “relieved of duty” due to “ongoing questions” about his involvement in the raid.
· The police obtained a no-knock warrant. That would seem to contradict Acevedo’s claim that the officers arrived with their sirens and flashers on. The entire purpose of a no-knock raid is to take suspects by surprise. That surprise is spoiled pretty quickly if you provide notice of your arrival.
· Tuttle and Nicholas had lived at the same house in the 7800 block of Harding Street for 20 years. The police apparently didn’t bother to do much investigating, because they didn’t even know the names of either of the home’s occupants when they broke down the door.
· According to police, the informant claimed to have seen lots of plastic baggies filled with black tar heroin and a 9mm semiautomatic handgun. The raid didn’t turn up either. They did apparently find a small amount of pot, a revolver and a small quantity of powder that might have been cocaine (or might not).
· Acevedo initially claimed that after the raid, “The neighborhood thanked our officers because it was a drug house. They described it as a problem location.” Yet in the days that followed, neighbors and family of the couple came forward, stating that they were shocked to hear the allegations of drug dealing. They described the couple as “easygoing,” and said they rarely saw visitors. The neighbors’ testimonials seem particularly troubling, since it was allegedly a neighbor’s anonymous tip that sparked the initial investigation.
· Neither suspect had a significant criminal record. The only criminal history for either was a decade-old bad check charge against Nicholas that was dismissed about a month after it was filed.
· Despite what the police department claimed early on, the house was not fortified, nor did it have surveillance cameras. One local police watchdog group pointed out on YouTube that while the targeted home on Harding Street didn’t appear to be either fortified or equipped with surveillance, a separate home with the same street number on Hardy Street was both fortified and equipped with extensive surveillance gear. During a news conference after the raid, Acevedo himself used both “Hardy” and “Harding" in describing the street where the raid went down.
· Acevedo initially claimed that the officers were met with gunfire immediately upon entering the house. Later, he said the police fired first, killing Tuttle’s dog.
By last week, activists began to speak out, noting these inconsistencies in the official narrative and questioning why the police needed to use such violent tactics in the first place. Some even began to question whether the police were telling the truth about what happened. This sparked a backlash from law enforcement. Acevedo dismissed what he called “crazy conspiracy theories,” adding, “I guarantee you we got the right house.” Police union president Joe Gamaldi blamed the shooting on “anti-police rhetoric,” then issued what sounded an awful lot like a threat: “If you’re the ones that are out there spreading the rhetoric that police officers are the enemy, just know we’ve all got your number now, we’re going to be keeping track of all of y’all, and we’re going to make sure that we hold you accountable every time you stir the pot on our police officers.” To his credit, Acevedo criticized Gamaldi’s remarks.
But Gamaldi may soon need to spend more time defending his dues-paying members than tracking and threatening police critics. The Chronicle’s report notes that the officer’s punishment comes “amid a probe into questions over whether the sworn affidavit used to justify the no-knock warrant may have contained false information.” Acevedo told the paper, “I know that in addition to the officer-involved shooting itself, many have questions regarding the circumstances surrounding the search warrant. All of these questions are part of our ongoing criminal and administrative investigations." Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg says she’s also looking into the matter.
Drug cops often face a lot of pressure to raid houses, seize illicit drugs and rack up arrests. We saw this in Atlanta in the Kathryn Johnston case, where the police got a tip about a stash house, and instead of waiting to find an informant, conducting a controlled buy, and requesting a warrant, they skipped the first two steps. They made up the drug buy, lied to a judge, got their warrant and killed an innocent 92-year-old woman in her own home. They then tried to cover it all up. Just a few months ago I reported that drug cops and Little Rock had lied about a controlled buy to a judge, then conducted an extraordinarily violent no-knock raid on a man who happened to be innocent. (Acevedo said his department serves more than 1,700 search warrants per year — more than 4.5 per day. It seems safe to assume that the vast majority of those are drug warrants.)
I’ve been writing about these tactics for more than 15 years now. And while there has been some movement on the margins — groups such as the National Tactical Officers Association now recommend that when it comes to serving drug warrants, police attempt apprehend suspects outside their homes instead of attempting “dynamic entry” — the raids haven’t stopped, and the pile of dead bodies keeps growing.
The arguments against these raids are self-evident. They create violence and confrontation where there was none before. They sow confusion and chaos, and thus have a very thin margin for error. By design, they inflict punishment on people who have yet to even be charged with a crime, much less convicted of one. They also inflict punishment on any innocent people who might be inside. They subject everyone — cops and suspects — to unnecessary risk. Combine all of that with a drug war that by necessity operates on dirty information from shady informants and anonymous tips, and you have a recipe for needless death and destruction. And there’s little evidence that these tactics make the community any safer.
I could write a book of examples. But here are just a handful from the past several years:
· Even as the drama continues to play out in Houston, in another part of Texas, Marvin Guy is about to be tried on murder charges in the killing of a police officer during a 2014 no-knock drug raid. The police first broke a window, causing Guy to reach for his gun. They then broke down Guy’s door, at which time he allegedly shot and killed Officer Charles Dinwiddie. The police found no drugs in Guy’s home. He’s facing a possible death sentence if convicted. (I’ll have more about Guy in a post next week.)
· The same year as the raid on Guy, another Texas man, Henry Magee, shot and killed Deputy Adam Sowders during a raid on Magee’s home. Unlike Guy, Magee did have illicit drugs in his home — marijuana plants. Magee maintained the shooting was done in self-defense, and a grand jury declined to charge him in Sowders’s death. It’s worth noting that Guy is black, and Magee is white.
· The same year as those raids, Jason Wescott of Tampa was shot and killed during a police raid on his home. An informant claimed to have bought some pot from Wescott. The same informant later said he had lied about the purchase — at the encouragement of Tampa police.
· In yet another case from Texas, in 2016 a jury in Corpus Christi acquitted Ray Rosas for shooting at police during a no-knock drug raid on his home. The police were looking for his nephew. Rosas had good reason to be afraid — he had once testified against a gang member.
· Last year, a jury in Austin (where Acevedo was previously the chief of police) convicted 18-year-old Tyler Harrell of assault for shooting at police during a no-knock raid on his home. Harrell and his mother said they had no idea the raiding officers were law enforcement. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
And the beat goes on. Just days after the deadly raid in Houston, a state trooper and a suspect were both killed during a raid in Virginia.
Police officials like to have it both ways. They want to use tactics designed to confuse and disorient people — to take people by surprise. But when someone in the midst of that chaos mistakes police for armed intruders and tries to defend himself, officials say they should have known that the armed intruders were law enforcement. Over at Reason, Jacob Sullum notes that there was a good reason Tuttle and Nicholas may have believed otherwise: There has been a rash of recent incidents in Houston in which armed criminals have posed as police.
On top of all of that, there’s a huge double standard at play here. Police who mistakenly shoot unarmed or innocent people in these raids are inevitably forgiven by police chiefs, prosecutors and judges, owing to the volatility of the circumstances. Of course, the police created those circumstances. And yet the targets of these raids — the people the tactics are designed to confuse — are rarely afforded that sort of leniency. The Magee case notwithstanding, if you shoot at the police as they raid your home, you’re almost certainly looking at criminal charges that will put you in prison for a long time — provided you live through the raid itself.
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