Whitehead on real 'shock-and-awe' behind police raids
Fifty-seven-year-old Alberta Spruill was getting ready for work
on May 16 when a police raiding party in search of a drug dealer
broke down the door of her Harlem apartment, tossed in a “flash
bang” stun grenade and handcuffed her to a chair. After realizing
their mistake—the man they wanted lived in the same building but had
been arrested by a different police unit four days earlier—the
police uncuffed Ms. Spruill, checked her vital signs and sent her to
the Emergency Room. Spruill, however, who suffered from a heart
condition, died on the way to the hospital.
Unfortunately, this “tragic mistake” of police bursting into a
house, apprehending the residents and only after the fact asking
questions is merely one more example in the latest spate of no-knock
raids. Various news stories over the years document the fact that
police have on numerous occasions battered down doors, entered the
wrong houses and killed innocent people. These no-knock raids
illustrate just how little protection Americans have against being
subjected to unreasonable searches and seizures of their persons and
In Boston, 13 heavily-armed policemen in black fatigues smashed
into the apartment of Acelynne Williams, a 75-year-old retired
African-American preacher. Supposedly, they had been working off an
anonymous tip that four Jamaican drug dealers lived somewhere in the
apartment building. Williams died of a heart attack from the “shock
and awe” of being visited by commando-like cops.
Sometimes, even when confronted with obvious errors, law
enforcement officials proceed anyway. For example, after having his
house raided, Glen Williamson of Louisiana pointed out to the
arresting officer that the search warrant actually said “Glen
Williams,” not “Williamson.” In response, the officer added “on” to
the name on the warrant and arrested Williamson.
A law-abiding citizen might wonder what’s wrong with these
scenarios. After all, the police are trying to do their job—uphold
the law and put law-breakers behind bars. But there’s been a drastic
change in the role of law enforcement officials in our society, and
we would do well to remember the lessons of our founding
The desire to protect the American people from unreasonable
searches and seizures was so great that the framers of our
Constitution actually made it one of 10 amendments added as part of
the Bill of Rights. The early colonists knew what it was like to
have law enforcement officials and soldiers breaking down doors,
holding them at gunpoint, searching their possessions and wreaking
havoc in their homes. It was these searches that in large part
fueled the fury that gave rise to the American Revolution.
And now we’ve come full circle. Whereas the reigning philosophy
once was that “a man’s house was his castle,” it has since become
“the king’s keys unlock all doors.” Today, few individuals seem to
bat an eye when the courts and our government leaders insist that
no-knock raids and sneak-and-peek searches are for the good of the
Carried out in the name of the war against drugs and the war
against terrorism, these searches have succeeded in convincing many
law officials that they have a right to burst through a closed door.
In fact, all it takes for police officers to obtain a no-knock
warrant allowing them to enter your home without announcing
themselves is to convince a judge that they suspect criminal
activity is taking place, that evidence might be destroyed or
disposed of or that an announcement could result in violence. Yet
these are clearly the actions of a society sliding inevitably toward
a police state.
Advocates of these searches—including U. S. Attorney General John
Ashcroft—insist that the searches are lawful and valid because the
police have a warrant to back them up. But warrants seem to be a
dime a dozen these days, rubber-stamped by judges too busy to ask
the probing questions they should of police officers.
Yet there is something to be said for the Fourth Amendment’s
historic provision for the “knock and announce” protocol that gave
rise to the clichéd “open up, it’s the police” scene used in every
cop movie. It allows you, the property owner, a chance to comply
with the law. It gives you time to get your clothes on, come to the
door and identify yourself. And in instances where it may be a case
of mistaken identity or address, it gives everyone a chance to get
their facts straight before someone gets hurt needlessly.
Why do we see this shift in attitude toward a police-state
mentality happening? Two reasons come to mind. First, for
individuals who are entrusted with upholding and defending the law,
police officers are sadly lacking in their understanding of the
Constitution, which is the law of the land. Every police
officer should be required to take a stringent test on the Bill of
Rights before donning a badge.
Second, too often police officers are encouraged to embrace an
“us against them” mindset in which they are the guardians of the law
and everyone else is a potential law-breaker. But in America,
there’s not supposed to be an “us against them” system when it comes
to law enforcement officials because the police are supposed to act
as public servants to the people. After all, under the American
system of justice, we are all presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Incidents like these used to outrage people, but they barely make
headlines anymore. Unwilling to learn about their rights, the
American people have continued to relinquish them to the so-called
“guardians of the peace.” So it is somewhat understandable that
police officers think they have tacit approval to act in such a way.
Yet to paraphrase James Madison, one of the greatest minds in
American history, if all men were angels, no government would be
necessary. But the fact is that all men are not angels. That’s why
the founding fathers drafted the Constitution as a contract to hold
the government accountable in respecting the rights of the
people—and vice versa.
So if we’re serious about safeguarding our rights, then we need
to focus on the damage being done to our freedoms here at home by
the very people who are supposed to be protecting them. The ends—in
this case, fighting crime—don’t justify the means, no-knock raids
and other outrageous violations of our constitutionally protected
freedoms. By selling out, whether we’re doing so to win the war on
terrorism or the war on drugs, we’re destroying the one thing that
stands between us and a police state—the U. S. Constitution. As
journalist Joel Miller recognizes:
[N]o-knock raids give an implicit middle finger to the
Constitution. As many innocent victims suffer because of
unannounced, dynamic entries, none suffer quite so badly as the
Fourth Amendment, which clearly defends “The right of the people
to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,
against unreasonable searches and seizures….” It’s a little hard
to be secure in anything when a dozen unannounced police officers
bust in, acquaint your cheek with the carpet, and screw a gun in
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is
founder and president of The
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Replies: 11 comments in ascending order
After several generations of Americans are brain-washed
into the belief that "no-knock" is the price society must pay
for the war on drugs or terror and evisceration of the Second
Amendment is complete- the politicians will dispense with
those pesky elections when they finally declare martial law.
Personnal I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees!
VietVet @ 09:01 AM /
As I read the article I was disturbed as I realized hat
that I didnt recognize this violent police breakin as a
violation of the Bill of Rights when I previously heard of the
trajic event. I thank you for awakening me and realize that
all Americans must know and guard their Constitutional rights.
david Mocsny @ 08:30 AM /
The police are doing their job as they understand it, in
the most effective manner they know. It's not unreasonable to
use the tactics that help the police do their job, from the
cops point of view.
Like the old saw 'If the only tool you
have is a hammer, then everything begins to look like a nail'!
The cops are out of control and need to be brought back into
Arkypete @ 08:07 AM /
There is also the problem of organized crime involving
police groups such as the LAPD officers that had people set
up, murdered, acted on conspiracies, and controlled drug
Why are the rouge police exempt from
facing the RICO act ? Ever hear of any cop getting charged
with the RICO? I think not. They are above the law and their
supposed views of criminal acts and their actions take
precidence over the word of citizens. How is this
constitutional? Why can they use weapons against citizens that
are illegal for a citizen to own? Is this not
Don in Texas @ 07:50 AM /
As a political conservative I am frightened by the
attitudes of so many people in today's world. To paraphrase
Ben Franklin; Those who would sacrifice their liberty to
obtain security will receive neither liberty nor security.
Police are not 10 feet tall supermen. Would the atrocities
noted above have happened if the police involved knew there
was a chance a policeman, any policeman's house and family
would be targeted for retaliation?
Heydrich @ 06:02 AM /
How many innocent people must die,before we stop this
Vencenzio @ 04:36 AM /
It's encouraging to read a conservative like yourself being
more concerned over Individual Rights than mere "law-n-order."
Perhaps we've yet to avoid a Second American Revolution
that'll inevitably result from the out-of-control "Drug War."
Thank you, Fellow Patriot.
Very moving. An excellent portrayal of one--just one--of
the awful consequences of the no-win, morally-wrong War on
Drugs and the no-win, morally-wrong War on Terrorism.
Tim King @ 12:05 PM /
Ms. Alberta Spruill's death shines the light on one of the
worst examples of just plain incompetence that has ever arisen
in the "drug war." There are no reasons for failing to confirm
the informant's information. This will probably be just
another "Mistakes were made" scenario, and those responsible
will not be fired.
Great article!! All so called Conservatives should read
this and understand why the GOP is no better in charge than
they were in the minority. Ashcroft and much of the Bush
circle frighten me with their wanton disregard for the
Constitution. While I don't do drugs or condone their use,
this is another in a long line of reasons why the war on drugs
is worse than foolish.
Jzzbassman @ 11:48 AM /
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