Drug raid tactics criticized

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

The remainder of the 15 cases were less noteworthy, ending with suspended terms or probation.

In March, the unit helped arrest 22 people who police say were responsible for putting 50 pounds of drugs a month into the Baltimore-Washington area. A month later, the unit helped break up a drug ring that had 44 ounces of PCP, valued at $22,000, in its Elkridge hide-out.

Terrifying experience

But police aim to snuff out even the smallest amount of drug activity in communities.

"There are a lot of people who aren't rich drug dealers who are still dangerous to the community," Lieutenant Spaulding said.

To be on the receiving end of the tactical unit can be a terrifying experience, drug defendants say.

This month, Anthony Leo Raymond Sr. was fined $25 in Howard County District Court after officers found marijuana seeds and stems in his trash and the tactical unit found three partially smoked marijuana joints and rolling papers when it raided his Columbia townhouse.

Mr. Raymond testified at his trial that members of the unit crashed into his house just as he was falling asleep. The force of the police battering ram was so great that the doorknob became lodged in the wall. He said the officers pointed a submachine gun at him and forced him to lie naked on the floor. His girlfriend, wearing a negligee, was ordered to lie beside him.

Most of the cases that have gone through Circuit Court have involved small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and crack. One of the more significant cases involved more than a half-pound of marijuana and several "hits" of LSD taken from an apartment in Columbia's Long Reach village in April 1994.

One man who pleaded guilty to drug possession and received a 60-day jail term after a raid said his fear was replaced with annoyance.

"I really don't see why they had to break the door down and come in with automatic weapons," said the Clarksville man, who didn't want his name used. "But I understand that they have a job to do . . . [and] can understand they're worried for their safety, too."

A man arrested along with the Clarksville resident said tactical unit members burst into the apartment about 2:30 a.m., rousing him and his wife from their bed.

He said he thought the officers were burglars -- because of their masks and weapons -- until they handcuffed and arrested him.

The man, who also wanted his name withheld, said he, his wife and their friends were ordered against a wall for about 45 minutes while police rummaged through the apartment. He said the officers weren't violent but weren't polite, either.

"They kind of made fun of us because we had long hair," said the man, who pleaded guilty to drug possession and was given probation before judgment.

"They broke every door in the house off the hinges. . . . They're not the most polite people. They're kind of rude."

Corporal Wagner, an 11-year veteran, said officers never know what's on the other side of the door they are bashing in.

"You get butterflies on every single one, but you just go in and do your job," he said. "We see everything. You're constantly scanning back and forth so you don't miss anybody.

"Suspects don't have rules they have to follow. They can go out and get anything they get their hands on."

Lieutenant Spaulding recalled a case in which a man reached under the sofa for a handgun, only to be stopped at the last second by a keen-eyed tactical officer.

Sergeant Joyce said most of Howard's tactical team members carry the standard police 9 mm handgun with a mounted light. Corporal Wagner said he also carries a submachine gun, and another member carries a 12-gauge shotgun. Authorization to carry M-16s ended in 1989, police said.

Officers in nearby counties also equip themselves for violent encounters, which they say are often inevitable. The operative rule is that it's better to be safe than sorry.

'Ninja gear'

In Anne Arundel County, members of the three tactical squads don't wear masks, hoods or other "Ninja gear," said Officer Randy Bell, spokesman for that department. Instead, the 20 officers wear helmets, goggles and sometimes gas masks.

Officer Bell said hoods such as those used in Howard rarely offer extra safety and sometimes endanger the officers wearing them.

"We don't want to appear like a masked bandit," Officer Bell said. "We want people to know we're the police."

Like Howard County's team, members of Baltimore County Police Department's unit wear "hoodies" -- cloth coverings that encircle but don't conceal faces. The Baltimore officers also wear goggles and other protective gear.

Lt. Lawrence R. Suther, commander of Baltimore County's unit, said the squad typically evaluates the likelihood that suspects might come outside so that a raid can be avoided. When there is a raid, however, battering rams are used nearly every time, he said.

Some departments, including Baltimore's, refused to discuss the specific arms carried by their tactical officers for fear of helping criminals update their weapons.

"It's a safety concern," said Sam Ringgold, spokesman for the city department. "We don't want [the unit's] technique out there."

Howard State's Attorney Marna McLendon said tactical units are necessary. Without the quick action by these units, she said, prosecutors often would lose evidence against drug suspects.

In one case, police found a bag with cocaine residue floating in a toilet seconds after a raid. In another, officers found shredded bags of crack in a garbage disposal.

"It just shows how destructive a few minutes can be," Ms. McLendon said.

While acknowledging the concerns of defense attorneys, she said the tactical unit's methods seldom negate the key issue of whether a suspect is found guilty in court.

Often, undercover officers buy large amounts from people who are later arrested during a raid with just a small amount of drugs. Police say that's because low-level dealers often sell the bulk of their stash by the time officers arrest them.

'An imperfect system'

"It's an imperfect system," Lieutenant Spaulding said. "Drug violations are a clandestine offense. Intelligence gathering depends on a lot, and luck plays a part."

Even small arrests can achieve the results Howard County police hope for, discouraging those involved with drugs from spending time here. But the police tactics have left others, such as Ms. Johnson, with skeptical questions.

Ms. Johnson -- who now lives in another Columbia neighborhood -- says she and her front door didn't deserve the rough treatment by storming officers.

"Why'd they have to come in like that?" she asked. "These police are dangerous."

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