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."