Houston lawmaker seeks to curtail no-knock raids
The controversial use of no-knock raids could be curtailed under state legislation filed by Houston lawmaker Harold Dutton, just weeks after a deadly botched drug bust left a Pecan Park couple dead and five officers injured.
State Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, filed a bill this week to limit the use of SWAT teams and increase oversight of the departments that often use the raids to execute routine search warrants.
“I’ve never been a fan of no-knock raids because of the danger that it creates for police officers and the person that’s in the home,” Dutton told the Houston Chronicle Thursday.
The bill would require agencies to equip SWAT teams with body cameras and institute policies designed to limit raids to situations involving an “imminent threat” of serious bodily injury to civilians or officers. The mere presence of a weapon wouldn’t be enough to qualify.
No-knock raids have become a ubiquitous, but increasingly controversial, tool of SWAT teams across the country over the last three decades.
Lawmakers considered taking up the topic of SWAT reform last legislative session, but didn’t make it a priority. Last month’s deadly Jan. 28 shoot-out — and the revelations that emerged in its aftermath — have shifted the conversation, Dutton said.
“This was the last domino falling,” he said. “I had thought about it last session but we didn’t do anything.”
He gave the issue more thought after reading about the deadly Pecan Park raid in the Chronicle, he said. After meeting with Houston police leaders, Dutton filed the bill, which he said boosts accountability and curtails the use of forced-entry raids - both end goals that he acknowledged Houston police might already be working to address.
It also requires departments to report to local governments how often they perform SWAT raids, and mandates that the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement create a basic form that all departments would use. The proposed legislation would also require departments to turn over any video recordings to people arrested on intoxication charges or the relatives of anyone shot and killed in SWAT operations, if asked.
“In terms of Houston, it may not be necessary,” Dutton said, “but in terms of other jurisdictions it would mean a whole lot.”
The bill garnered expected support among reformers and activists.
“I think that this is something that should have happened a long time ago,” said Ashton Woods, a current city council candidate and local activist.
Chas Moore, the executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition, has been pushing for SWAT reform ever since he learned about swatting — a practice where someone deceives an emergency service into sending police to hoax-victim’s address.
“Once I learned about it, I was like, ‘This is crazy,’” he said, “and then historically when you look at how law enforcement agencies have used SWAT teams, it’s always been problematic.”
Though the bill works to create more oversight and accountability, Moore did cite some faults.
“It talks about training and transparency through body cameras but I think the question that remains is, ‘What happens after a botched raid?’” he said. “What responsibility then does the SWAT team or the law enforcement agency have? A lot of times SWAT teams come mess up your house and just leave you with the bill. I think that addressing that is something that could strengthen the bill.”
The bill’s narrow scope on permissible no-knock raids, however, provides important checks on “impulsive” officers or units, said Sam Walker, a police accountability expert and professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“SWAT teams are increasingly used for just ordinary drug raids,” he said. “That’s just an invitation to problems… gunfire, and people getting killed.”
Larry Karson, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Houston-Downtown, described the bill as a “well intentioned” effort to address the faults of the recent militarization of policing and the expanded use of SWAT teams to execute routine search or arrest warrants. But he said it could face pushback from police departments.
“The problem is it weakens the ability to use these highly trained teams in situations that aren’t an imminent threat, but can blow up and quickly turn into one,” he said.
The proposed legislation’s body-camera requirement bucks a trend in departments across the nation limiting transparency of SWAT teams, said Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University who has studied the militarization of police extensively.
“If they can get that through, that’s a game-changer,” he said. “Transparency is the last thing (SWAT teams) have historically wanted.”
Houston Police Officers’ Union President Joe Gamaldi declined to comment because he and other union officials were still reviewing the bill.
‘A long time coming’
Family members of people killed in no-knock raids expressed relief that restriction and oversight could be on the horizon.
The legislation “should have been done a long time ago,” said Sandra Longoria, whose husband, Roger Lee Fortner, was killed by police in a no-knock raid in League City last May.
The trauma of that moment still lingers.
“I thought we were being attacked,” she said. “I didn’t think it was police.”
In Houston, Ponciano Montemayor, a local machinist, was killed by Houston police in a no-knock raid in 2013.
His daughter, 32-year-old Amanda Montemayor, got news of the raid moments after arriving at work early in the morning at the Cypress hospital where she worked.
Police had received a tip from a confidential informant that Montemayor had more than 100 pounds of marijuana in his house, and launched a raid the next day.
She wasn’t able to see her father’s body at the hospital, and spent more than seven hours waiting to enter the home, which she said looked like it had been hit by a tornado. Flashbang grenades scorched the curtains, windows were broken, police had ripped out walls, and there was blood everywhere — from her dad’s bedroom to the driveway.
Police never found any drugs, she said.
Like Longoria, she said the legislation was “a long time coming.”
“It means everything. It means people have to take responsibility for their actions,” she said. “Now there will be proof.”