Drug raid tactics criticized

July 02, 1995|By Ed Heard and Alan J. Craver | Ed Heard and Alan J. Craver,Sun Staff Writers

Eleanor Johnson is afraid of the police.

In February, a half-dozen officers clad in jet black slammed through the front door of her Columbia townhouse brandishing weapons, wearing masks and ordering her and six relatives and friends to the floor.

Ms. Johnson cringed as the officers pointed guns at the group.

Howard police officials say such no-knock drug raids by Howard County's six-member tactical squad are an important weapon in the battle against drugs.

But those raided and their defense attorneys complain such surprise raids by hooded officers are "overkill" in a county largely unscathed by America's violent drug war.

"I was scared to death," said the 56-year-old woman, recalling the Feb. 1 raid of her home in the Rideout Heath neighborhood in Columbia's Harper's Choice village.

"I thought I was going to have a heart attack. They didn't have to come in like that."

Officers reported finding cocaine residue and $1,000, and arrested two people at the home on drug charges. A judge later ruled that Ms. Johnson had no knowledge of the drugs that police say informants bought at the home.

The haul might seem skimpy, but Howard police say they must keep up the pressure to prevent the drug problems of Baltimore and Washington from seeping into the county.

They say their heavy weaponry, dark hoods -- covering their heads except their faces -- and 90-pound battering rams give them the leverage they need to combat criminals who use potent weapons, attack dogs and reinforced doors to stall raiding officers.

In a raid, most suspects look like "deer struck by headlights," the tactical squad's Cpl. Robert Wagner said. "They usually just stand there shocked."

And without the element of surprise, criminals would have time to destroy evidence, officers say.

"All we're doing is making it less difficult to do our job and put off danger," said Maj. Mark L. Paterni, the county Police Department's second in command.

"We're not in the business of terrorizing people," he said. "We outfit our people appropriately. We want to be effective."

Baltimore County police also don dark hoods, but some jurisdictions, such as Anne Arundel County, consider them a hindrance.

'Overkill'

And Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in Baltimore, accused police tactical units of going too far.

"Wearing costumes, wearing masks and jumping out at people is certainly overkill," Mr. Comstock-Gay said. "That kind of thing is just inappropriate anywhere. That's not the way the police should be behaving."

Defense attorneys interviewed for this article say that what they find most offensive are the uniforms worn by members of the tactical unit. One attorney described the uniforms as "Nazi regalia."

"Even assuming the need for such a unit, it escapes me why you need to have black hoods and masks," said Columbia attorney Jonathan Scott Smith.

"It's not about preserving evidence," asserted Clarke F. Ahlers, a Columbia attorney who represented a man raided and later fined $25 for possessing marijuana. "It's about terrorizing people. . . . The police conduct is far worse than the crime of possession of marijuana."

Ellicott City defense attorney Jason Shapiro said he believes Howard's tactical unit acts within proper bounds, considering the danger its members face during a raid.

"It sounds kind of zealous, even overzealous," Mr. Shapiro said. "Yet these guys will tell you stories of many close calls. . . . They are aware that many of these drug dealers are armed."

He noted that one officer in a nearby county had parts of his fingers cut off when a drug suspect swung a samurai sword at him during a raid.

Sgt. Mark Joyce, supervisor of the tactical team, said its members take off their hoods once they make sure a home is free of danger, so that the residents can feel at ease and begin to cooperate.

Howard tactical officers said they take cues from the problems law enforcement officers in Baltimore, Washington and other areas face.

"As the bad guys react to our tactics, we react to their tactics," said Lt. Jeffrey Spaulding, head of the Vice and Narcotics Section.

In the face of a greater threat of violence from the criminals they pursue, Howard County police ask judges to approve no-knock raids, which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld as legal in late May. When the warrants are served, it's most often by the tactical squad.

Last year, there were 70 search warrants from the vice and narcotics unit, and most of the 42 warrants served by the tactical squad were for suspected drug offenses, police said.

And this year, 17 of the 18 tactical missions through June 22

were drug search warrants, said Sergeant Joyce, who has been on more than 200 raids.

Of the 15 cases that have gone through Howard Circuit Court this year, three defendants were given jail terms. One was sentenced to four years in prison, another to three years and the third to 60 days with work-release.

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