Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo announced on Wednesday the implementation of a new department policy on no-knock raids, and said that the FBI has officially begun a formal civil rights investigation into a botched drug raid last month that left two civilians dead and four police officers injured.
Acevedo expanded on his comments from earlier this week that he intended to end HPD’s use of no-knock raids, reading aloud the department’s new policy. “Effective immediately, prior to seeking judicial approval for a no-knock search warrant, the chief of police or his designee must approve the request,” Acevedo said at a press conference, while flanked by Mayor Sylvester Turner. “To the extent this policy conflicts with any other policy, this will supersede.”
While the new policy introduces an additional level of oversight before a no-knock warrant goes before a judge, it falls short of implementing stricter guidelines that would truly ensure the tactic is used more sparingly. It also remains unclear what, exactly, Acevedo (or his two assistant chief designees) might take into account when considering a no-knock warrant request. Rather than eliminating the tactic entirely, it seems HPD will continue to use no-knock raids to some extent.
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“I know some folks want to do away with them 100 percent of the time, but you just simply can’t do that,” Acevedo said at the press conference. “We have to maintain the ability to do this when you truly need to use it—for example, when you have a hostage rescue situation, you don’t want to knock and say you’re coming in [during] the middle of the night, you’re going to do a no-knock entry.”
Two days earlier at a heated town hall meeting, Acevedo said that the use of no-knock entries would “go away like leaded gasoline in this city,” according to the Houston Chronicle. “I’m 99.9 percent sure we won’t be using them,” Acevedo added.
The policy change is the direct result of a disastrous drug raid by a veteran task force in the department’s narcotics division last month, in which four officers were injured by gunfire and a middle-aged couple with no criminal background were shot and killed in their own home by police. Prior to the raid, police had told the judge who approved their request for a no-knock warrant that an informant had bought heroin at the house and saw large quantities of the drug and guns inside, but the raid only yielded small amounts of marijuana and no heroin. Neighbors and activists immediately questioned HPD’s conduct before and during the raid, while the Houston police union framed those questions as an attack on the police.
The weeks that followed have only raised more questions as more details have come to light. The Chronicle originally reported that the officers on the task force had histories of violence. The newspaper quoted sources who cited the officers’ scars from past gun battles as though they were badges of honor. A former police union official called the incident “a sobering reminder of just how difficult and dangerous” the job is. Of the raid’s lead case agent, veteran narcotics officer Gerald Goines, Acevedo said, “The only thing bigger than his body, in terms of his stature, is his courage,” adding that he is as “strong as an ox” and “tough as nails.” Mayor Turner characterized the injured officers as a “reflection of the spirit of Houston.”
Now the narrative has completed a 180-degree shift. Immediately after the shooting, family and neighbors of the couple killed in the raid—59-year-old Dennis Tuttle and 58-year-old Rhogena Nicholas—began to publicly question the department’s conduct, noting that the couple showed no signs of being the dangerous drug dealers the department had made them out to be. People were searching for answers, but the lack of body cameras on the officers—along with some of them being hospitalized for injuries and unable to talk about what happened—only exasperated the public’s concern over the department’s actions during the raid. When Acevedo announced that officers found only a small amount of marijuana and no heroin in the house, it became clear that the department had killed two people and endangered its own officers for nothing.
But the biggest bombshells came last Friday, when the Chronicle examined the violent records of the officers involved through a far more critical lens than it had immediately after the raid and reported that the informant cited in the warrant may not even exist. Citing internal police records, the Chronicle’s Keri Blakinger and St. John Barned-Smith wrote that Goines “had been involved in multiple shootings, racked up a smattering of written reprimands, faced several lawsuits and is currently accused of fabricating a drug deal then lying about it in court to win a conviction against a man who has long maintained he’s innocent.”
The same day, the Chronicle reported that HPD’s internal investigators found that Goines allegedly lied about using a confidential informant to buy drugs from the house. In the warrant, Goines wrote that the informant went inside and bought two bags of heroin and told Goines there were large packages of the drug inside the home along with guns. Goines wrote in the warrant that the informant had “proven to be credible and reliable on many prior occasions.” The informant anecdote served as the main basis for the no-knock request, which was approved by a judge three and a half hours prior to the raid. According to the Chronicle, internal investigators have not been able to find the informant. All of Goines’s previous informants have denied that they were used in the controlled drug buy. At a press conference last week, Acevedo said that investigators are reviewing Goines’s past cases and conducting “a very extensive audit” of “our entire narcotics operation out there, in terms of the street level units.”
Acevedo took it a step further on Friday, saying Goines would likely face criminal charges. “We know that there’s already a crime that’s been committed,” Acevedo said. “It’s a serious crime when we prepare a document to go into somebody’s home, into the sanctity that is somebody’s home. It has to be truthful, it has to be honest, it has to be factual. We know already there’s a crime that’s been committed. There’s high probability there will be a criminal charge.”
It was an unprecedented turn of events, as law enforcement officers in Texas are rarely held accountable when no-knock raids go wrong. The controversial tactic is frequently used in Texas and often results in violence, which we wrote about earlier this month. Proponents of criminal justice reform across the country have long called for the practice to be eradicated. “This policy change is a major step in the right direction,” Terri Burke, executive director for the ACLU of Texas, said in a statement released Wednesday afternoon. “Additionally, we expect Chief Acevedo to demand accountability from those in the raid. His support of proportionate consequences for those responsible, up to and including dismissal and criminal prosecution, should include public transparency about all the elements that contributed to this tragic event and a commitment to make any further policy changes needed to prevent similar tragedies in the future.”
It remains unclear how often HPD utilized no-knock warrants in the past and what internal policies they have used to determine whether to employ them. Even as Acevedo has repeatedly promised transparency and accountability following the deadly raid, his department is fighting the public release of narcotics search warrants. At a press conference earlier this month, Acevedo said that he pulled every search warrant executed by the narcotics division from January 1, 2014, through December 31, 2018, and found that out of those 1,736 search warrants, only one resulted in an officer-involved shooting. Texas Monthly filed an open records request seeking those warrants, but HPD has kicked the request to the state attorney general’s office, a tactic commonly used by local governments to attempt to withhold public records or simply delay their release.
While Acevedo’s decision to personally oversee the department’s use of no-knock warrant requests is a welcome response for local activists, it comes far too late for Dennis Tuttle, Rhogena Nicholas, and however many more civilians may have been victimized by the police tactic in the past.
“I just want to see change, that’s it,” Aurora Charles, whose brother was killed during a no-knock raid in Houston in 2013, said at Monday’s town hall meeting, according to the Chronicle. “They’ve got to do their homework before they go in with these warrants.”