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."
Team preparation before the warrant service also can aid in a positive outcome. DiFranza recommends a briefing process before the mission detailing what each team member will be responsible for, verifying phone numbers of support staff, reviewing target information, etc. The team then should perform a warm-up or dry run — go through doorways and around corners in any building, even in the office, with or without weapons. He compares this to a football game where the players would not hit the field without first preparing their bodies and going over the game plan.
"It doesn't take very long to do, but it is ultimately important because you are going to make mistakes in the very beginning," says DiFranza. "If we can minimize those mistakes when we're actually on stage, then that would be much better."
At the Salinas PD, the SWAT team takes it upon themselves to scout the location and research pertinent information on the targets after the warrant is secured, but before it is served.
"The investigator may come to us and say this is what he wants, but it may not fit what we are going to do," explains Kimm, a 20-year veteran for the Salinas SWAT team. "Our main goal is to look at the case itself and see if we can achieve the objective of the investigator as safely as possible, taking into account law enforcement personnel and also community members."
In the best case scenario, Kimm prefers a few days notice to prepare for the mission. In the worst case, the team is called to the scene in the moment, and that is when officers really rely on their training, experience and the guidance of their team leader.
Best laid plans can go awry
Even with the utmost preparation, sometimes a no-knock goes bad. In those situations, there are steps officers and a department can take to make the best of a bad situation.
Smith recalls an example where the wrong door in a series of townhouses was breached. Inside, the SWAT team found a male third-year law student and a female newspaper reporter instead of cocaine dealers. Being awoken from their beds, the woman, only wearing a T-shirt, was ordered to lie on the floor. A quick-thinking officer, realizing that these people did not match the description of the suspects, pulled the blanket from the bed and covered her lower half.
"The reason we came out of that so well is because the officers conducted themselves very professionally, not using harsh language or excessive force," says Smith. "That was the real difference in us having to pay a substantial amount of money or a small amount of money."
DiFranza recounts an incident where, based upon intelligence provided to the SWAT team, the officers prepared to serve a no-knock to a small block house that was supposed to have four people inside. Instead, there were 17. The entry team was greatly out-numbered, but luckily nobody inside fought back. It's because of these types of unpredictable situations that "you want to give officers as much leeway as possible when training," he says.
Both of these potentially disastrous scenarios ended peaceably, but sometimes that is not the case. In November 2006, after shooting and wounding three police officers involved in a no-knock entry, an 88-year-old woman was killed. An informant had erroneously identified the woman's home as the location of a drug dealer.
"This woman lived in a bad neighborhood, in a bad house and that type of environment contributes to the fact that she is going to make the decisions she made," notes DiFranza.
A large part in defending a no-knock gone badly is public and media perception. "I'm a firm believer that even if something went bad, you still give the media as much information as you can because most of it is going to be public information anyway by the time you book the individual," advises Gnagey. "Get your side of the story out first, which is usually the correct side. Tell the media and the public what you were doing, why you were doing it and what went wrong. Then say how you're going to correct that so it doesn't happen again and follow through with making sure it never happens again.
"If something goes wrong, departments only hurt themselves by immediately going into a cloak of silence."
To serve or to protect
Even when a no-knock warrant is secured, this shouldn't be viewed as a mandate of what must be done, but rather as an option available to the team. "No-knocks are a tool not to be abused," cautions Gnagey. "You only want to use them in exigent circumstances."
Kimm notes that at the Salinas PD, depending on the circumstances, they will instead secure a perimeter, evacuate residents around the perimeter and try to negotiate the suspect out versus forcing a shoot out. DiFranza also recommends rouse and compliant entries as other options.
"The question I always ask the investigators in the case is how much dope is worth somebody getting hurt?" questions Kimm. "In my opinion, there is no amount."
Gnagey agrees the dangers to the officers must be extreme and the evidence or people to be secured endangered.
"If you need a high-risk, no-knock warrant to recover three rocks of crack cocaine to make a narcotic officer's case, then advise him to go out and work the case some more, because we are not going to risk our officers' lives and the lives of innocent bystanders for three rocks," says Gnagey.
No-knock warrants are an essential piece of the tactical arsenal, but they must be used judiciously.
"Just because the court has given you the authority to perform a no-knock doesn't mean you have to use it," says Gnagey. "If you get over zealous with these things and use them when you shouldn't, then the court may take that privilege away from everyone, and law enforcement doesn't want that."
Officers and tactical team leaders need to do what they can to make sure the next time they knock on the door, the answer to "Who's there?" is only the three-strike candidate and not the scared grandmother defending her home.