After Atlanta raid tragedy, new scrutiny of police tactics

Police are reviewing their use of 'no-knock' warrants after an octogenarian was killed after officers burst into her home.

Kathryn Johnston, neighbors say, was scared.

Drug activity had moved down from the seedy "Bluff" neighborhood in northwest Atlanta onto her street. In the past year, she put up burglar bars and installed extra locks. At some point, she had gotten herself a gun.

But in a case that is raising increasing questions about police conduct and the use of "no-knock" warrants, the octogenarian Ms. Johnston ended up using the gun on police, rather than hood-wearing thugs. Last Tuesday, a team of police, who were conducting a "no-knock raid" in search of a drug dealer, burst into her home. Johnston opened fire. Three officers were wounded. Johnston was killed.

Raids in which heavily armed police enter suspected drug dens in an overwhelming rush have become a regular occurrence as embattled officers try to clear neighborhoods of drugs and violent crime.

But around the US, a growing list of botched raids has prompted critics to call for a rollback. And Atlanta is now added to the list of a small but growing number of cities who are scrutinizing such practices.

"The question that society has to answer is: How much risk are we willing to take in order to get violent drug dealers, knowing we're going to make mistakes and shoot innocent people?" says David Moran, associate dean of the Wayne State University Law School in Detroit.

The number of no-knock raids has increased from 3,000 in 1981 to more than 50,000 last year, according to Peter Kraska, a criminologist at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond.

Botched raids are relatively rare, but since the early 1980s, 40 bystanders have been killed, according to the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.

As the FBI and US Attorney's office launched an investigation Monday night into Johnston's death, it's becoming clear that such raids are fraught with complexity. Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington says the raid was based on an anonymous informant known only as "Sam," who has since denied ever buying drugs in the house and alleges that he was asked to lie by police. This week, Chief Pennington announced that his department will review its policy regarding no-knock warrants. He has placed the city's entire eight-man narcotics team on administrative leave.

"We are reviewing all of our procedures, how we obtain warrants and how we apply them," he says. "I promise that the complete truth [about the raid] will eventually be known."

Most experts don't believe that a national reform movement is imminent, but in cities like Atlanta where innocent people have died, local debates often lead to departmental reform, including, in some places, civilian oversight of SWAT teams. Modesto, Calif.; New Haven, Conn.; and Denver are among a growing number of cities that have cut back on the use of no-knock raids. After the death of an elderly woman in a botched raid in 2003, New York City promised deep reforms, as well, though critics say an oversight board has cited 15 cases of "wrong-door" raids this year.

As in Johnston's case, raids can be dangerous for police as well. In September, a Mississippi man, Cory Maye, was taken off death row after an appeals judge found inconsistencies in his case. He was convicted of killing the son of a police chief in a late-night no-knock raid on a warrant naming another man who lived in the other half of a duplex. Mr. Maye and his daughter were sleeping in the room when police burst in, and he opened fire on what he says he thought were intruders.

Today, about 80 percent of SWAT team deployments are for "proactive drug enforcement," according to the Cato Institute.

"The problem is that there's such a small margin of error – you're creating a violent situation, not defusing it," says Radley Balko, a senior editor with Reason magazine who has written extensively about no-knock raids.

But it's also clear that a police presence is needed in the gangland avenues of places like Atlanta's "The Bluff," a historically rough area a block from Johnston's house.

"A lot of drug-dealing goes on in the African-American community, and most African- Americans would like to see the drug dealers moved," says David Bayley, a criminologist at the University at Albany in New York. "As anybody would, they're against unjustified shootings, but they're not all that opposed to police working in a hard-edged way against people who are destroying their security."

Nevertheless, in Atlanta, Johnston's death has hurt relations between the police and a community sorely in need of their services, locals say.

"It's not just a tragedy, it's a great tragedy," says Gene Nelson, one of Johnston's neighbors.

The legal precept for knocking before entering goes back to the Middle Ages. But US courts have allowed no-knock raids, with some limits. In June, the Supreme Court upheld a previous no-knock decision that said police should wait at least 15 seconds for an occupant to answer before bursting through the door. (A longer wait might give a drug dealer time to flush evidence down the toilet.) But in the same decision, the court decided by a 5-to-4 vote to allow evidence gained in raids that used less time than that.

The upshot, says Mr. Moran, who argued that case for the plaintiff in front of the Supreme Court, is that "we'll see a lot more of these [no-knock] raids in the future."

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