It's the opening line to some of the oldest jokes. As law enforcement officers, the answer to "Who's there?" could reveal anything from an 88-year-old, gun-totting grandma to a third-year law student or a prison-bound drug dealer. And in the case of the drug dealer, "You're standing at the door waiting, giving him the opportunity and means to shoot you, endangering the lives of law enforcement personnel or even innocent civilians," cautions Det. Kyle Kimm of the Salinas (California) Police Department.
Although the majority of warrants served are knock-and-announce, the implementation of no-knock or quick-knock warrants can provide a tactical advantage for law enforcement. As the names imply, knock-and-announce warrants require officers to knock on the door, announce who they are and their intent or purpose, and then wait 30 seconds before entering the premises. No-knock warrants allow law enforcement to enter without knocking or announcing first. Instead, officers announce who they are as they pass through the threshold of the building and upon contacting people within.
No-knock warrants allow officers to maximize the element of surprise, which provides a tactical advantage but also raises other issues. "It is surprising someone in their residence and all they can see is this dark figure with a gun coming down the hall," remarks Kimm. "So is it the cops or is it a home invasion?"
Who's knocking at my door?
The visual and verbal identification of officers serving no-knock warrants is highly important with the increase in home invasion-style burglaries. Drug dealers are often the victims of these types of burglaries because users or other dealers know they have large quantities of controlled substances, money and possibly weapons. Many times warrant service teams that do not properly identify themselves can be mistaken as burglars.
"Some agencies have undercover officers who look like anything but police performing no-knock warrants," comments Lenexa (Kansas) Police Department retired Capt. Steve Smith. "With the increase in the number of people misrepresenting themselves as police officers to do drug rip-offs, it opens the door to misidentification and legal problems."
As John Gnagey, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), explains, by serving a no-knock, the plaintiff's attorney can claim that if the police had knocked, his client would have peaceably surrendered because he is a "law-abiding" citizen. If a gun fight ensues following the entry, the attorney can again claim that his client was merely defending his home. "It gives them an issue to raise to the jury," he says.
Each department has its own policy as to who should perform no-knock entries. In many cases, if there is a SWAT team in place, they are given the task. In other cases, narcotics units, criminal apprehension teams and investigative teams who secure the warrant also perform the no-knock.
"You need to have the right people who have the right training, equipment and are identifiable as being the police serving the warrants," says Smith, an NTOA instructor.
Greg DiFranza, tactical enforcement unit coordinator at the Institute of Police Technology and Management in Jacksonville, Florida, cautions that looking the part is not necessarily the silver bullet for the problem. "Regardless of whether they are highly visible as police or not, you have people who are responding to the sounds, actions and movements — not necessarily the verbalizations of the officers. This is the unpredictable nature of people's response," he says.
Preparing for the unpredictable
Training and preplanning are the only ways dynamic entry teams can hope to prepare for the unpredictable.
"We make our training as flexible and adaptable as possible, allowing the officers to make decisions as they are going through the training exercises," explains DiFranza. "We give them as many different looks as possible, that way they think on their feet."