Reason Magazine

Botched Raids Not Rare

Little oversight, bad information a deadly mix

Radley Balko | December 6, 2006

The botched Atlanta raid that ended in the shooting death of 88-year-old Kathryn Johnston was sad and tragic, but unfortunately, it was neither uncommon nor unpredictable.

After taking a year to research and write a paper for the Cato Institute on the proliferation of forced-entry, paramilitary-style raids, I'm sorry to say Johnston is just one of at least 40 innocent people killed in botched raids over the last 20 years in America. Worse, there are dozens more cases of low-level offenders, bystanders —- and police officers killed or injured.

In 2005, for example, Baltimore's Cheryl Lynn Noel, a mother and churchgoing woman, was shot to death when she mistook raiding police officers for intruders. She was holding a legal handgun when they kicked open her bedroom door. That raid was conducted after police investigators found marijuana seeds in the family trash.

Last January, Fairfax, Va., optometrist Sal Culosi was accidentally shot and killed when a SWAT team apprehended him. He was under investigation for wagering on football games with a group of friends.

The Johnston raid isn't even the first such tragedy in Georgia. In 2000, Riverdale's Lynette Gayle Jackson called the police after her home had been invaded by burglars. While investigating the break-in, police found a small amount of cocaine that belonged to Jackson's boyfriend.

A few weeks later, police raided Jackson's home, looking for her boyfriend. Jackson, understandably afraid after having been robbed less than a month earlier, was holding a gun when police entered her bedroom. The raiding officers opened fire and shot her to death.

In 2005, Stockbridge's Roy and Belinda Baker were startled from their sleep by a raiding police team that destroyed the couple's front door with a battering ram. The Bakers were handcuffed and made to stand on their porch at gunpoint. Police had mistaken the Bakers' home for the house next door.

It's almost certain that there are others. This newspaper reported that several participants at a rally last week told similar stories of mistaken raids on their homes.

Forced-entry raids breach the centuries-old idea that a man's home is his castle, and that the government can only violate that sanctity under the most extreme of circumstances. Yet over the last 25 years, we've seen a staggering 1,300 percent increase in paramilitary style forced-entry raids in the United States —- there are about 50,000 per year now. The majority of these raids are for proactive drug policing, such as executing search warrants.

What's more, the very nature of drug policing requires investigative tools that frequently produce bad information. One example is the use of informants, notoriously shady characters often involved in the drug trade themselves. Police maintain that they rarely use a single informant's tip as the basis for a drug raid, but dozens of botched raids and a stack of innocent bodies over the years suggest otherwise.

Combine this propensity for bad information with violent, highly confrontational forced-entry raids, and the lack of oversight and real accountability that pervades the entire process and you've created a system ripe for tragic outcomes such as the one we saw Nov. 21 in Atlanta.

SWAT teams, forced entry and paramilitary tactics should be reserved for extreme, emergency situations where a suspect presents an immediate threat to the community —- hostage takings, armed robberies or apprehending fugitives, for example. In these cases, police home invasions are warranted because the objective is to defuse an already-violent situation. Home-invasion raids on drug offenders, on the other hand, create potentially violent confrontations where none previously existed. It's an important distinction.

Even assuming that the police in the Johnston case are telling the truth and the informant is lying (a generous assumption at this point), Atlanta police still then concede that they conducted a high-stakes, forced-entry raid on a private residence, based solely on the word of an informant they now say is a liar and a career criminal. That's a terrifying thought. One can't help but then assume that the Johnston case is far from the first time a "wrong door" raid has happened in Atlanta.

The tactics the police use to apprehend a suspect ought to fit the crime the suspect is accused of committing. Which means nonviolent suspects shouldn't be met with violent police tactics.

Radley Balko is senior editor of Reason magazine.  This article originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.