Austin police rely heavily on controversial "no-knock" search warrants for drug cases. But is all that firepower necessary?
Earlier this year, Austin police got a tip that a Central Austin teen living in his parents’ house was a “large-scale drug dealer” and opened a major investigation in hopes of dismantling the narcotics operation.
Over the next several weeks, officers secretly sifted through the family’s trash, finding evidence of illegal drugs and high-power rifle ammunition — clues they said supported their drug-trafficking theory. A judge agreed, and granted police permission to conduct a surprise raid on the house.
In the pre-dawn hours of April 14, a heavily armed Special Weapons and Tactical Unit — a SWAT team — wearing military gear busted into the family’s home, detonating a series of flash-bang grenades.
It did not go as planned.
The teen, who later told detectives that he didn’t know the intruders were police officers and feared for the safety of himself and his family, began shooting with an AK-47, striking an officer in the leg. The family’s dog was killed in the carnage.
And, in the end, the massive operation yielded minimal reward: Officers recovered 1.2 ounces of marijuana.
“It could have been handled very differently without our house being destroyed,” said Peter Harrell, a retired state employee, whose son, Tyler, was the 18-year-old suspected drug dealer. “Why all of this?”
The incident raises questions about the use of risky military-style tactics by municipal police, occasionally for lower-level offenses. The issue has been part of a national policing conversation for several years, but the case illustrates how Austin police deploy SWAT resources in what some critics say is a troubling trend.
A little more than once a week, on average, generally under the cover of darkness, heavily armed Austin officers force their way into a home in search of evidence to help build cases. The majority of such cases involve suspicion of narcotics.
Police say they use “no-knock” search warrants when they think officers are in danger or if an investigation will benefit from a surprise search. Prior warning could cause suspects to dispose of evidence or present a danger if they have an opportunity to arm themselves.
Officials and court records said Harrell’s decision to shoot at them proved the legitimacy of their fears of an attack — officer James Pittman is still recovering — and that the amount of drugs detectives found is irrelevant to the level of danger the officers faced.
Lt. David Socha, an organized crime division supervisor who was one of several to approve the no-knock operation, said officers had additional evidence of Harrell’s drug dealing that hasn’t been disclosed in court records, but he declined to elaborate because of the ongoing case.
“I think people will be surprised by what the facts are when they all come out,” said Socha, who added that the nature of drug-dealing often means a supplier may not have a large stash at the time of a raid.
Yet critics say the raid on the Harrell home highlights the risks of paramilitary operations that can be approved on a pretext too thin to justify the high level of force. To justify the Harrell raid, police cited plastic baggies with “marijuana residue,” according to court records, and possible weaponry.
“Obviously, more advanced work should have been put into whether this was a drug cartel or some kid who had drugs,” said Dennis Kenney, a former Florida police officer and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Harrell has been charged with no drug-related crimes. The only charges he faces are in connection with his response to the police breaking into his home.
An arrest warrant accusing him of attempted capital murder says officers used loudspeakers from outside and repeatedly yelled “police” upon entering. Investigators say it is impossible that he didn’t know law enforcement officers — not intruders — were inside.
His parents said the family legally owned the gun and that their son had never had a clash with law enforcement. “If they felt Tyler was a danger, scoop him up when he’s outside and then issue the warrant on our household,” said Tyler Harrell’s mother, Lisa. “I get it for dangerous criminals. But do your homework.”
No numbers on no-knock searches
In Texas, the use of search warrants by law enforcement is generally divided into two categories: when police knock and announce themselves, and when they don’t. In both, the U.S. Constitution requires them to have a legitimate reason to enter a home without violating a citizen’s rights concerning illegal search and seizure.
In “knock and announce” searches, uniformed officers show up at a home, announce who they are at the front door and notify occupants that they are there to serve a warrant. If no one answers, officers can then force their way inside.
In no-knock warrants, officers coordinate a raid that typically involves them entering suddenly while simultaneously announcing their presence. Once inside, officers fan out through every room and detain any occupants.
Over the past three decades, courts have given police guidance for when it is appropriate to use “no-knock” versus “knock-and-announce” searches.
Rulings have said that generally officers should notify an occupant of their authority and purpose before entering. But a Supreme Court ruling in the 1980s said officers may forcibly enter a home without announcing themselves when they have “reasonable suspicion that knocking and announcing their presence … would be dangerous or futile or that it would inhibit the effective investigation of a crime.”
“If officers can articulate this suspicion with good reasons, entry will still be considered reasonable even if they do not knock and announce,” former Harris County Assistant District Attorney L.E. Wilson co-wrote in a 2009 article for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. “Officers may determine when these circumstances are present or applicable either before acquisition of the warrant or during its execution.”
Socha said Austin police determine the need for a no-knock warrant based on several factors, including the size of a suspect’s home, who else lives in the house and the potential danger, such as whether a suspect has a history of assaulting or fleeing police. Once narcotics unit supervisors approve an operation, they seek the assistance of the SWAT team, which also must agree to participate.
The extent to which the use of no-knock search warrants has grown in Texas in recent years is unknown. But a June 2014 report by the American Civil Liberties Union said researchers found no-knock search warrants have grown nationally, in part as local law enforcement agencies increasingly have used federal funding to purchase military-type equipment for SWAT teams.
Although such teams were originally formed to handle active shooters and hostage situations, the ACLU report found that in 2011 and 2012, drug searches made up 62 percent of all SWAT operations.
“The use of SWAT teams to serve search warrants could perhaps be justified if there were reason to believe that these situations truly presented a threat to officer safety,” said the report. “Unfortunately, reasonable standards for deploying SWAT teams appear virtually nonexistent.”
In recent years, both in Texas and nationally, homeowners and officers have been injured or killed during such operations.
A SWAT raid in 2014 in Burleson County, about 90 miles east of Austin, turned deadly when a Somerville police sergeant was shot and killed while helping serve a no-knock search warrant for drugs and weapons.
Police found a small number of marijuana plants and seedlings and the homeowner’s legally owned guns, according to published reports. A grand jury declined to indict the property owner for the homicide. (The man was indicted for possession of marijuana while in possession of a deadly weapon, a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. That case is still pending.)
Father warned son
The Harrells, who describe themselves as avid hunters and staunch defenders of the right to protect their home and property, said they had suspected for several months that their son was involved in drugs.
In December, Tyler Harrell informed his parents that he had been at the home of another teenager when an intruder came in with a gun and yelled, “Give me all your drugs, give me all of your money.” Peter Harrell said the gunman fired a single shot that whizzed past Tyler’s head, and that his son wrestled the gun away from the perpetrator and disposed of it.
While the Harrells said that Tyler didn’t report the incident, they believe police might have learned their son’s identity from some of the other participants. They said they warned their son to “get out of whatever he had been doing,” Peter Harrell said.
By this spring, records show Austin police were building a case to search the Harrell home. A warrant seeking permission to raid the house said that, after receiving a tip, officers conducted three “trash runs” and found “food saver bags with marijuana residue,” “a black container labeled ‘Ground Swell Cannabis Boutique,’” and two package casings for ammunition, among other items.
“The multiple small individual sized baggies and suspected marijuana evidence (indicate) likely distribution occurring inside the home,” the warrant said. It said police intended to use a “no-knock” approach “based on the presence of an assault rifle ammunition in the trash and possibly of armed suspects residing in the home.”
Just before 6 a.m. on April 14, officers burst into the two-story home on Morrow Street, west of Lamar Boulevard in North-Central Austin.
At the time of the raid, Peter Harrell was already at work as an Uber driver. But Lisa Harrell, a state employee, said she was coming out of an upstairs bathroom when, “all of a sudden, I heard ‘bam!’ It was flash-bang, flash-bang, flash-bang,” she said. “I went in my bedroom and laid on the floor and put my hands up, just waiting for them to do what they were going to do.”
Lisa said that as she dove for cover she caught a glimpse at the dimly lit bottom of the stairs of what she said appeared to be a person outfitted in military clothes. She said only then did she realize the intruders might be police.
Then she saw her son dash from his bedroom and begin shooting downward, from near the top of a staircase, toward the front door — a view that is partially blocked by a wall.
“I screamed, ‘Stop! Stop, Tyler!’” Lisa said. “‘I think it’s the police.’”
She said she only heard police announce themselves about a minute later. “I know my son thought there was an intruder in the house,” she said. “Tyler would not shoot a cop knowingly.”
In an interview with detectives, Tyler Harrell said he kept the recently purchased AK-47 — his parents said he bought it for personal protection after the December incident — by his bed.
After hearing a loud bang and “his mother scream that someone was coming in … he said he fired his rifle down the stairs approximately 15 to 20 times and that when he heard the loud speaker say, ‘APD,’ he stopped firing,” according to an affidavit.
But police said they announced their presence immediately upon entering the home. Police declined to make video and audio recordings of the raid available, but an affidavit said a lieutenant can be heard on recordings of the incident using a loudspeaker repeatedly announcing that they were serving a search warrant.
“It was a worst-case scenario, and our SWAT team did a fantastic job,” Socha said.
Two months later, the Harrells said they remain disturbed by the decision to enter their home with such force and are now devoted to aiding their son’s criminal case, and learning from it. Lisa said she hopes the Austin Police Department will use the case to develop better procedures about when and how to raid a home.
“I’d like to say to the general public, ‘It could be you next,’” Peter Harrell added.