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November 22, 2006

POLICE IN ATLANTA have shot and killed a 92-year-old woman in what appears to be another wrong-house no-knock raid. As I've said before, these raids should only occur when there's reason to believe that lives are in immediate jeopardy. And police should be liable, civilly and criminally, without any shield of official immunity, in cases where these no-knock raids go wrong.

UPDATE: The police claim that they knocked and announced. However, as Radley Balko has noted, often such behavior is pretty notional, with the door being kicked down immediately thereafter. Do the police have video that would support their story? Because in cases like this, I think the burden should be on the government to demonstrate that it acted appropriately. Home, castle, and all that.

Meanwhile, reader Harold Williams emails:

Reading the reports by professional journalists confuses me about what actually happened. The 3 plainclothes men were shot "as they approached the house." The woman shot "from the inside." That's different than an alternative description 'as they broke in the door.'

For a 92 year old lady to hit 3 fast-moving with a handgun in a surprise no-knock probably means that the detectives were less than 10 feet from her. If this is the case, then I would think that the relative positioning of everyone and time/distance would have let at least one detective overwhelm her.

Anytime an innocent person is killed it is a tragedy. In this case more so by the addition of a variety of factors. Could the police have been so STUPID as to break in a door in a troubled neighborhood without at least one clearly uniformed authority figure?

Let's give the facts a day to clarify themselves, then assign blame. And I mean heads roll if stupidity and negligence resulted in an innocent death.

Heads, alas, don't roll nearly often enough in such cases. But we should certainly try to figure out what happened. Of course, if raids like this were routinely videotaped we wouldn't have to wonder quite so much who to believe.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Tamara K. comments:

Look, if three burly dudes in street clothes start banging on my door one night and try and force their way into my home, I don't care if they're yelling "Police!" or "Singing Telegram!", that's why I keep a loaded M4 carbine in the house. They're not dressed like cops, and I can think of no reason the police would need to get into my house, so my natural assumption would be that these were home invaders of some sort. If the real police need to talk with me, they can get two guys in stopsign hats and 1 Adam 12 outfits to come knock on my door like civilized people. I, a civilized person myself, will then answer it.

They will either say "Miss K., we have a warrant," in which case we'll all go for a ride to the station, call up some lawyers, and get everything as squared away as we can, since this is obviously a mistake, or they will say "Is Mr. Gonzales here? We have a warrant for his arrest," whereupon I will reply "Why, no; you have the wrong address. Would you like to come in for milk and cookies and to look around and reassure yourselves that there is no Mr. Gonzales here?"

That makes sense to me.

MORE: More background here. Note that the officers weren't in uniform.

And Radley Balko has more thoughts.

STILL MORE: Radley Balko watched the press conference and reports:

According to the Atlanta assistant chief of police:

1) The search warrant was in fact a no-knock warrant.

2) Police claim there was an undercover buy at the residence. The seller was apparently a man -- obviously not Ms. Johnston.

3) "Suspected narcotics" were seized from the home, and have been sent to a crime lab for analysis. The assistant chief wouldn't say how much of the suspected narcotics they found.

4) He also wouldn't speculate if Johnston herself was involved in dealing drugs, or knew if drugs were being dealt from her home, saying only that both were "under investigation."

5) He maintains that despite the no-knock warrant police still announced themselves before entering, though he acknowledged moments later that the announcement came as police were battering down the door.

It isn't at all difficult to see how a 92-year old woman may not have heard or comprehended the announcement. A reader reminds me that the incident is pretty similar to a police shooting in Alabama this past June, where an innocent, elderly man was shot when police forced entry into his home while looking for his nephew. The man -- who had done nothing wrong -- also mistook the officers for criminal intruders, and met them with a gun. Fortunately, he survived.

Even assuming the controlled buy, the incident still illustrates the folly of these raids. Paramilitary tactics don't defuse violent situations, as police groups and their supporters sometimes claim. They create them. They make things more volatile for everyone -- cops, suspects, and bystanders. Does anyone honestly believe that Ms. Johnson would have opened fire had a couple of uniformed officers politely knocked on her door, showed her a warrant, and asked if they could come inside?

Meanwhile, reader John McGinnis emails:

Go to www.zillow.com. Enter 933 Neal St. Atlanta, Ga in the address bar. In the house pop up click the “bird’s eye view” link. You should get a two pane display. One overview satellite shot and a tighter shot of just that house. If you are like me the first that that should pop out is that there is a wheel chair ramp right up to the front of the home. I would have hoped that that substructure would have given the cops some pause if they had done some pre-site surveillance.

This link should get you the photo. Unless crack houses are taking the handicap-accessibility laws more seriously than I had thought, this might have sounded a cautionary note.