(KWTX) Law enforcement agencies in Central Texas for the most part shy away from serving so-called “no-knock” search warrants because they’re dangerous, but there are situations when nothing else will do.
“Occasionally we do (serve no-knock warrants), but it takes a lot of leg work and we train very specifically for each one planned,” Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton said.
A no-knock warrant, issued only by a judge, allows police officers to enter a property without immediate prior notification to the residents by knocking or using a doorbell, however law enforcement officer must announce themselves immediately before they force entry, state law mandates.
“It’s important that officers follow the plan and that they be easy to recognize as police,” McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said.
“We try to make sure there are police cars with lights on outside that can be easily seen by people inside the house and that our uniforms have white or bright yellow letters that say ‘sheriff’ on the front and back.”
Such a specific warrant is issued under the belief that anyone inside, with prior notice, could destroy the very evidence officers are seeking.
The very short notice reduces the time a suspect might have to destroy evidence before officers can secure it.
A second issue with no-knock warrants, every officer or official said, is officer safety.
Since 2013, two Killeen police officers have been killed during service of no-knock warrants, at least six injured, and one has been indicted for inappropriate conduct in a no-knock raid during which a suspect died.
“(Killeen police) Chief (Charles F.) Kimble recognizes that a no-knock warrant at times is a necessary tool to keep the public, potential suspects and officers from being injured,” a statement provided Tuesday by Killeen police spokeswoman Ofelia Miramontez, said.
“Any recommendations for no-knock warrants are not authorized until reviewed by the office of the chief of police.”
A Waco police officer, too, was injured during a warrant service when he was run over by a suspect, and that driver also died as a result of police gunfire, Swanton said.
“There is no completely safe way to serve any warrant,” Swanton said.
“There always is inherent danger when police serve a search warrant.”
Some Texas cities have suspended no-knock warrants
Some municipalities in Texas have suspended the use of no-knock warrants because of the danger to both police and citizens, suspects or not, after a group of veteran Houston police officers gathered outside a Bayou City home to serve a no-knock warrant in search of suspected drug dealers.
Within seconds the raid turned bloody, the aftermath leaving five officers injured and the home’s residents, Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas, and their dog, dead.
No agency in Central Texas will say it has suspended use of such warrants, but all say they use them with sparing care and only after extensive study.
“People get hurt. We’re getting away from that,” Bell County Chief Deputy Chuck Cox said.
“We have to improve on the cowboy mentality we’ve had in law enforcement around here for years. We just can’t act like that anymore.”
“I can count on one hand the times we’ve used a no-knock warrant here,” Lacy Lakeview police Chief John Truehitt said, after which he said his officers, assisted by the SWAT team from Waco police, served a no-knock warrant in the city just last week.
The task force on June 5 raided a home inside the city where they recovered seven pounds of marijuana, a large amount of cash and a “rock-and-roll”-ready firearm, Truehitt said.
Those things are extremely dangerous and should be used only in extreme circumstances and only after extreme case study.
“This one involved extensive planning with Waco (PD) SWAT and we detailed the potential for things to go wrong because it was high risk,” Truehitt said.
Police had prior intelligence that the 19-year-old suspect they sought might be armed, Truehitt said.
“We had an initial report that he might have an AK-47 (assault rifle) and we found it there under his bed … locked and loaded.”
That raid was a success, the chief said, because the suspect they sought was arrested, evidence was recovered and “everybody went home safe.”
But Waco police weren’t so lucky on August 3, 2017, when an officer was run down by a fleeing suspect, who died from later police gunfire, during a warrant service attempt.
William Graeber, 40, an eight-year veteran of the Waco Police Department, suffered three broken ribs, a broken pelvis, a broken collarbone, a collapsed lung, a concussion and burns to his arm.
Graeber was walking toward an SUV after a traffic stop at North 23rd Street and Olive Avenue when the driver ran him down and he ended up pinned beneath the SUV.
Police later named Kerry Demars Bradley, 37 of Waco, as the man other officers shot to death after Graeber was run down. A
A preliminary autopsy report said he died of multiple gunshot wounds but provided no further information.
The warrant officers were trying to serve was issued on July 31, 2017 and authorized a search of not only the GMC Yukon that Bradley was driving, but also a home in the 3200 block of North 24th Street, and a 2009 Dodge Charger.
The warrant said Bradley had been under investigation for about two months for distribution of heroin and said a confidential informant had made heroin buys from the suspect.
Killeen police, however, recently have paid the highest price.
Detective Charles “Chuck” Dinwiddie, an 18-year veteran of the Killeen police force and S.W.A.T. team leader, was shot May 9, 2014 while he and other SWAT officers were attempting to serve a “no-knock” search warrant on the home of Marvin Louis Guy at 1104
Circle M Dr. Apt. C.
When police raided the home looking for drugs, Guy opened fire and Dinwiddie was shot, along with Officer Odis Denton, a 9-year veteran of the department, who was shot in the thigh and underwent surgery at Scott & White Medical Center, and officers David Daniels and Xavier Clark, who also were shot but avoided injury because of their ballistic vests.
Dinwiddie died two days later.
Guy, 53, today is named in an indictment that charges capital murder and three counts of attempted capital murder in connection with the raid.
Guy originally was set for trial in January 2018, but that date was passed, as was a second trial date in February 2019, leaving him still waiting his day in court five years and 33 days later, still in custody in the Bell County Jail in lieu of $4.5 million in bonds.
Dinwiddie was the second Killeen officer to die, just 11 months after Officer Robert “Bobby” Layden Hornsby, 32, was shot and killed on July 14, 2013 when, while serving a search warrant on a residence, Pfc. Dustin Billy Cole, 24, of Oklahoma, opened fire on police with an AK-47.
He was the first Killeen police officer to die in the line of duty.
Officer Juan E. Obregon, 33, was critically wounded but survived.
Killeen SWAT officers shot and killed Cole at the scene.
Both officers were taken to Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center where Hornsby, a four-year Killeen police veteran, died.
Just last week a Bell County grand jury indicted former Killeen police Officer Anthony Custance in connection with a fatal officer-involved shooting that occurred while police were serving a no-knock warrant.
On Feb. 27, 2019, the Killeen Police Department served a search warrant at 215 West Hallmark Avenue and during the operation, James Reed was killed.
After the shooting, the Texas Rangers began investigating the incident and their effort revealed bullets were fired into the back of the home and although they did not hit anyone, the actions were not in compliance with the planned operation and that it was Custance, who was a member of the Killeen Police Department Tactical Response Unit, who fired the shots.
He resigned from the department after the shooting.
The court document states during the investigation Custance “intentionally or knowingly concealed a rifle magazine with missing rounds with the intent to impair its availability.”
The indictment also states Custance handed over a 30-round capacity rifle magazine with 28 rounds in it, knowing that it was false and with the intent to affect the course of the investigation.
Value vs. risk
The issue comes down to evidentiary value vs. risk, police commanders say, and it’s a test that is critical in deciding whether a no-knock warrant is called for.
“I’ve only signed one since I’ve been on the bench,” said Judge Grant Kinsey, in 440th District Court, in Gatesville, “and it was based purely on the police’s fear of destruction of evidence.”
But, he said, “It is important that those issue be carefully studied and debated because no-knock warrants can put both police and citizens’ lives in jeopardy.”
“I can understand someone’s willingness to defend their home and property and the Fourth Amendment to the (U.S.) Constitution calls for every American’s guarantee of security in their homes,” Lacy Lakeview Chief Truehitt said.
Retired from years’ service with the FBI, Truehitt once was stationed in Montana where he was part of an FBI SWAT team that regularly served surprise warrants, and “we never got to pick the house,” he said.
“There is absolutely no safe way to serve a warrant like that and it can very quickly go bad either way,” Swanton said.
“We have to be able to protect ourselves if we’re going to do our sworn duty to protect the public.”
“The department uses various methods to arrest criminals and secure evidence that normally do not involve the use of no-knock warrants,” Miramontez said, to which she added: “The department takes no- knock warrants very seriously and we believe they should be used under extreme circumstances.”
“It’s always a dangerous deal and it worries me,” McNamara said, “it sure does.
“That’s why we employ special tactics like flash-bang (grenades) or bright lights, just to get a couple of seconds’ advantage over a bad guy.
“Of course, we always have to be aware if we think there are children or elderly individuals inside.”
McNamara said, while serving warrants is risky, the no-knock warrant has a place in the police gadget bag because sometimes “the element of surprise is what makes a warrant successful.”