The Justice Department’s announcement that it would open an investigation into Louisville’s police department just over 13 months after Breonna Taylor’s shooting death by officers in that Kentucky city following a “no-knock” entry recalled recent as well as past actions by the NYPD.
While Louisville officials banned the use of so-called no-knock warrants a few weeks after the 26-year-old emergency-room technician was shot and killed in a search for a man she had previously dated, NYPD officials have steadfastly defended the use of no-knocks as an essential law-enforcement tactic, and called a recent press conference to discuss its efficacy.
The department’s press offensive followed an NYPD raid discussed during a hearing of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee a few weeks earlier. In that instance, police conducted a dawn forced-entry raid on a Jamaica, Queens, home in search of narcotics and firearms. Police left after an hour after finding only a small amount of marijuana.
The homeowner, Tijuana Brown, told reporters that police never showed her a warrant and that officers had their badges covered to prevent their identification. Although one man, said to be Ms. Brown’s nephew, was arrested, charges were later dropped.
The department defended the raid, saying it was in response to neighborhood complaints about drug sales and the presence of guns at the home.
Chief of Department Rodney Harrison, countering what he said were “rumors” that the work of officers who take part in forced entries “is sloppy,” said: “I assure you, our Detectives are anything but careless."
'Work Closely' With DAs
Chief Harrison, who headed the Detective division until just a few months ago, said the department and officers “work closely” with District Attorneys’ offices and judges when seeking and securing warrants.
He said he was speaking not just as Chief of Department, but as a former undercover officer who worked narcotics cases, an investigator who tackled gun crimes and a former Detective who sought murderers.
“No-knock warrants are a critical tool to the NYPD...to keep narcotics off the streets and to seize illegal firearms,” he said. “It’s also critical for the safety of all New Yorkers, and for NYPD officers to be known and seen in these situations.”
The raid at the Jamaica home, as well as another in nearby Laurelton in mid-March, recalled a similar raid in 2003, when on the morning of May 16, cops broke down Alberta Spruill’s front door while the 57-year-old Harlem resident and longtime Department of Citywide Administrative Services worker readied for her workday downtown. Police, tipped off by an informant, were looking for a drug- and gun-dealing renegade. After setting off a concussion grenade, 12 officers stormed into her sixth-floor apartment on West 143rd St.
One handcuffed Ms. Spruill. Officers quickly realized they were in the wrong apartment and unshackled her. But the city worker, who initially appeared to be OK, had a fatal heart attack minutes later while on the way to Harlem Hospital. The Medical Examiner ruled her death, brought about by the police action, a homicide. The cops’ target, a paroled drug-dealer, had been arrested days earlier.
Most Warrants No-Knock
Ensuing City Council hearings revealed that the police were conducting dozens of raids at homes belonging to innocent residents. Then-Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly told the Council that the majority of search warrants secured by the NYPD were no-knock.
They still are. Of the 1,815 search warrants sought by the NYPD and approved by judges last year, 1,144 were “no-knock,” according to a department spokesperson.
Altogether, Chief Harrison said police recovered firearms in 792 instances and narcotics in 667. In 40 cases, no evidence was turned up.
Mayor de Blasio, responding in April to a question about a no-knock entry at a Far Rockaway family's home where children were getting ready for school a few years ago, said the tactic needed reevaluating.
The police, looking for a cocaine dealer, did not find what they were seeking. The family is now suing.
'Could Have Gone Bad'
“That could have gone in a very bad direction,” the Mayor said. “We got to figure out a policy that makes sense in light of everything we've learned over the years and some of the tragedies we've had...But I do think the previous policy needs to be re-evaluated.”
But Chief Harrison said no-knocks involve detailed preparations with officers trained in “dynamic-entry tactics.” They also call for numerous background checks to ensure the individuals sought are at locations specified in warrants.
“These reflect real-life situations: It’s not always simple or perfect. These are highly complex scenarios: They involve very, very dangerous circumstances with meticulous planning,” the Chief said. “The safety of those on both sides of the door is paramount, and overall our record in this work has been stellar.”
State lawmakers have for years, so far without success, tried to pass laws to curtail the use of no-knock warrants. This year's legislative session is no different. A bill sponsored by Queens State Sen. James Sanders Jr. and Manhattan Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell would limit the issuance and use of no-knock warrants to instances of when life is in jeopardy, or other similarly exigent situations.
Invoked Spruill Death
Both legislators mentioned Alberta Spruill when introducing their bill in December, with Mr. O’Donnell saying that the practice of no-knock entries had brought “pain and loss to far too many New Yorkers.”
“It is clear that the death and suffering caused by these raids has failed to justify their use,” the Upper West Side lawmaker said. “The time has come to end militarized no-knock raids in our state, before another New Yorker is killed.”
Chief Harrison, though, said no-knocks were critical if police were to properly address criminal activity. “The goal of a search warrant is to remove violent contraband from the streets and attempt to save an innocent New Yorker’s life,” he said.
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