The Houston Police Department will largely end the practice of forcibly entering homes to search them without warning, the police chief said this week, following a deadly drug raid last month that the agency conceded might have been based on faulty information.
The change, announced Monday night, came days after Chief Art Acevedo said an officer had lied about using a confidential informant to justify searching the home. Two civilians were killed and four officers were shot during that raid, on Jan. 28.
Now, so-called no-knock warrants — a widespread but often-criticized tactic in criminal investigations — will largely be prohibited, Acevedo announced at a town-hall meeting on Monday. If officers want an exception to search homes without warning, they will need his express permission.
“We’ve had four officers shot, two civilians killed,” Acevedo told reporters Monday. “I don’t see the value in them. So that’s probably going to go by the wayside.”
It is unclear how the Police Department had decided in the past to employ no-knock warrants, as opposed to trying other investigative tactics.
On Tuesday, a police spokesman declined to elaborate on the chief’s comments at the meeting. Acevedo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Typically, when police officers try to search homes, they must first knock and announce their presence. But the special no-knock warrants seek to use the element of surprise to catch drug dealers and other criminals off guard.
Some argue that they are the safest way to clear out fortified drug houses and to catch criminals with contraband needed for successful prosecutions. The use of no-knock warrants has particularly been supported by an epidemic of opioid abuse and a threat of domestic terrorism.
But the practice has also been widely criticized for putting police, suspects and bystanders in avoidable, potentially deadly, situations. A 2017 investigation by The New York Times found that at least 81 civilians and 13 law enforcement officers died in no-knock and other similar raids in the country from 2010 through 2016.
The Times investigation found no-knock searches often start with unreliable informants and cursory investigations that produce affidavits signed by unquestioning judges. Many searches yield only misdemeanor-level stashes. Some come up empty.
Officers have been killed in confrontations with suspects who have no history of violence.
Robert Louden, a professor emeritus of criminal justice and homeland security at Georgian Court University in New Jersey, said he did not think other police departments would follow Houston’s example. He said no-knock warrants were a necessary police tactic, provided they are based on sound intelligence, which might not have been the case in the Houston raid based on the allegation that an officer had lied to get the warrant.
“We know if what he said then is not true, we know now they can’t properly be prepared to make their entry,” Louden said.
Still, he said Acevedo’s reaction was consistent with other police departments seeking to do post-mortems on deadly encounters.
“Nobody wants this to happen,” Louden said. “When it happens, you have a reaction: ‘Let’s hold off, let’s not do this anymore.'”
The Jan. 28 drug raid and the high number of police casualties had fixated attention on the country’s fourth-largest city. The police identified two suspects who were killed, Dennis Tuttle, 59, and Rhogena Nicholas, 58. The two had fired on officers entering the home, police said.
But what initially seemed like tragic show of the dangers of law enforcement has raised serious questions.
Acevedo had previously said police found small amounts of cocaine and marijuana in the house. Over the weekend, he maintained that the police had reason to investigate the home, but that there were “material untruths or lies” in an affidavit for a search warrant that led to the raid.
One of the officers who was part of the team searching the home, Officer Gerald Goines, said in his original search warrant affidavit that he watched a confidential informant go to the house, meet with a man inside and leave with “brown powder” that appeared to be heroin.
As part of an internal investigation, the police interviewed “all of the confidential informants” who had worked with Goines and “all denied making a buy” at that location, according to sealed affidavits obtained by local news outlets.
Acevedo said over the weekend that Goines, who has been with the department for more than 30 years, and a second officer, who was mentioned in the original search affidavit, had been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation.
Goines may face criminal charges, the chief said.
Nicole DeBorde, a lawyer representing Goines, said comments about what charges might be filed against the officer were “very premature as the investigation in still pending.” She said he was still hospitalized and recovering from his gunshot wound.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.