In our opinion: No-knock disaster raise questions about procedure

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 10 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Salt Lake City Chief Chris Burbank talks about a warrant being served to the wrong house Friday, Oct. 5, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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Salt Lake police are investigating how a narcotics team mistakenly confronted an elderly woman in her home while serving a no-knock warrant at the wrong address. It is critical the investigation produce a full and complete public accounting of precisely what went wrong in order to restore confidence that proper procedures and controls for serving such warrants are in place.

The use of no-knock warrants has become a favorite and frequently used tool of agencies deployed in the so-called war on drugs. The courts have upheld the use of such warrants, even though they tread along a narrow line between effective law enforcement tool and denigration of constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

For citizens to be comfortable with the use of such extreme police tactics, they need to be assured that the heavily-armed officers sent to execute no-knock searches are properly trained and properly deployed after a careful and calculated assessment of the risks involved and the probability of finding evidence of criminal activity.

In the Salt Lake City incident, it is beyond dispute that the officers were not properly deployed. Police Chief Chris Burbank quickly offered a public apology, saying, "This was a mistake."

Chief Burbank is a man of candor who has notably shown in his career he is committed to holding himself and his department accountable for their actions. As such, his apology is commendable and well received. But it isn't enough.

Relegating the incident to the category of a simple mistake is neither explanation nor excuse. Mistakes happen, but innocent citizens should never be awakened at night by officers at the door, their guns pointed inside.

The case raises questions as to whether the use of no-knock warrants has become so routine that officers may approach them with something of a cavalier attitude. Research at the University of Eastern Kentucky indicates the number of no-knock warrants served nationally has escalated dramatically in recent years. Tracking data shows the use of such warrants has grown from about 3,000 a year in the 1980s, to more than 70,000 per year at the present time.

Critics of no-knock warrants worry the threshold of evidence necessary to justify a search has shrunk as various court rulings have expanded the parameters of "probable cause" evidence to justify a surprise entrance. Warrants must be approved by a judge, but because law enforcement investigations are conducted largely in secret, there is no way to assess whether a substantial number of requests for such warrants are denied, or if most are simply rubber-stamped.

If the latter has become the case, there is reason for concern beyond the details of the incident in Salt Lake City.

With authority comes an irrevocable mandate it be wielded with care and proper restraint. The standard of accountability should include zero tolerance for any "mistakes." When officers arrive at the wrong address, it calls into question not only their basic investigative skills, but also the credibility of the evidence that sent them to seek a warrant in the first place.

The woman confronted at her door deserves more than an apology, and all of us deserve an explanation of how and why it happened, and assurance that reasonable actions will be taken to ensure it does not happen again.

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