D .C. POLICE don’t distinguish between search warrants based solely on an officer’s “training and experience” and warrants based on more substantive evidence gleaned from investigation. Judging from the troubling instances in which police get it wrong and law-abiding residents are needlessly terrorized, police — as well as prosecutors and judges who sign off on these warrants — should start drawing a distinction. Reassessment is needed: Do the meager results justify the costs, including lost trust among black communities that may be unfairly targeted?
An investigation by Post reporters found police acting on scant evidence in pursuit of drugs and guns, with the result that sometimes the wrong homes were raided and often only small amounts of drugs were found. Examining 2,000 warrants served by police between January 2013 and January 2015, Post reporters found that 284 cases, or about 14 percent, were the result of police arresting someone on the street for possession of drugs or a weapon and then following up with a warrant to search a residence based simply on “training and experience” rather than evidence pointing to criminal activity there. In about 40 percent of those cases, police left empty-handed; when illegal items (from drug paraphernalia to guns) were found, the amounts were small. In a dozen cases, police relied on incorrect or outdated address information.
There is no question that police need some latitude in doing their jobs and that there is value to instinct based on experience. But little seems to be gained when police act on what seems to be the barest of pretext. That the warrants — including those based on faulty data — were approved on several levels, including by prosecutors and judges, raises questions about whether they are being diligently reviewed or merely rubber-stamped. “They have turned any arrest anywhere in the city into an automatic search of a home, and that simply cannot be,” said Alec Karakatsanis, an attorney who is challenging the practice in federal court.
The raids can be terrifying. Often they damage property, and always they have the potential to do worse. So it is disturbing that Post reporters found almost all of them occurred in black communities. “Imagine these raids happening in Northwest . . . you can’t” was the succinct assessment to us by one defense attorney.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine what it was like for 63-year-old Sallie Taylor to have her door smashed in and a shotgun pointed at her face in a misguided raid highlighted in the Post report. It’s not at all hard to imagine why, still waiting a year later for police to repair the damage, she puts her respect for police in the past tense. D.C. police should rethink use of these warrants.