When arrest warrants go bad

When Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank held a press conference recently to apologize to a 76-year-old woman whose house his officers busted into by mistake, it raised feelings of horror, along with a host of questions.

How could police have gotten the location of suspected drug dealers so wrong?

How can the department really ever make up for the trauma it caused a woman after violating the sanctity of her home?

How seriously did they compromise their investigation into the real bad guys?

These are good questions, but they have to be weighed against the extreme danger police face while investigating drug crimes, which themselves present an extreme hazard to public safety.

And while we ponder those and other questions, we can take some comfort in the fact that Burbank at least apologized and took responsibility promptly.

That can’t be said about every jurisdiction in which no-knock search warrants go bad.

Take this story out of New York state. Police from three agencies busted down the door of Fred Skinner’s house earlier this year and started handcuffing him. Skinner, like the Utah victim, is 76 years old. His health isn’t so good. He can’t hear too well and he recently had a stroke.

One of the officers noticed some mail on Skinner’s table and asked if the name on the address was his. Convinced of their mistake, they dashed out the door and into another house nearby.

This report in Reason magazine says police did not apologize for that incident until two local TV stations got involved. They have since paid to replace the front door.

If you read the 9WSYR.com report, you will see that Auburn Police Chief Gary Giannotta says he “only” remembers police raiding a wrong house four times in the last 16 years. Maybe once every four years is acceptable, but it’s certainly not comforting to law-abiding citizens who like to feel safe in their homes.

It might have been better PR for him not to bring up that statistic.

Not all botched no-knock warrants can be settled with an apology and a repair of damages. This story out of Lake County, Fla., is about an early morning raid of an apartment in which the occupant was found pointing a gun at deputies. They shot him dead.

However, the officers never identified themselves when they entered, and they had the wrong apartment. It isn’t unreasonable for a person who legally owns a firearm to try to use it in self-defense when he has reason to believe people are breaking into his home.

There are no solutions to this other than for police to be extremely careful about addresses when executing a no-knock warrant. In addition to caching bad guys, they need to instill confidence in the public they serve, not fear.

That said, they have difficult jobs. No-knock warrants are inherently dangerous. So, for that matter, are traditional warrants in which officers announce themselves. Members of the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force in Utah lost an officer and saw five others shot earlier this year when entering the correct home of someone they believed was cultivating marijuana plants. They had loudly announced themselves repeatedly before entering the home, according to an internal review.

It’s easy to forget these hazards in the face of elderly people who were needlessly terrorized. Chief Burbank’s public apology was the correct step toward making things right.

Categories: Crime, Utah issues
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About the Author

Jay Evensen

Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist for the Deseret News. He has 32 years of journalism experience covering politics and a variety of other assignments at news organizations ranging from United Press International in New York City to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Deseret News, where he has worked since 1986. During that time, he has won numerous local, regional and national awards. Most recently, he was given the Cameron Duncan Media Award, given annually in Washington, D.C., by the advocacy group RESULTS, to the journalist judged to have done the most to further the cause of the world's poorest people.

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