A thundering boom in her Brooklyn apartment exploded into Jeanine Jean’s sleep. Shrieking, she grabbed her crying six-year-old son and the phone, and leapt into the closet. Somehow smoke was filling her home. She frantically dialed 911. But that was futile, because it was the NYPD who had by then broken down her front door, and tossed a stun grenade into the apartment in a botched search for guns and a man nicknamed “Danger.” They found neither.
It was 1998, long before Harlem resident Alberta Spruill, 57, suffered a fatal heart attack when police lobbed a stun grenade into her home this May 16. In Spruill’s case, officers were seeking drugs and a man who lived elsewhere, who they later realized had already been arrested. Except for the cardiac arrest, the two incidents seem incredibly parallel. Yet they are identical to scores of similar stories emerging over the last two weeks from individuals in communities of color who have fallen prey to faulty and excessive police raids.
Two weeks ago, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields established a hot line beckoning victims of faulty no-knock raids. “While I have heard of these situations, the reality is people in decision-making roles—the mayor, the police commissioner—don’t get this,” she told the Voice. “They don’t hear it, they don’t get it, and they don’t believe it.” In fact, the mayor and police commissioner apologized for Spruill’s death and claimed responsibility. Still, the barely advertised hot line received 110 responses in the first week. Resembling the backlash before the stop-and-frisk shake-ups of the ’90s, these complaints indicate, at least anecdotally, that communities of color are experiencing harsh treatment from the police, this time behind their own doors.
It also appears that the NYPD, the city’s five district attorney’s offices, and criminal judges may not be doing enough to prevent these botched raids. Until Spruill’s death, the NYPD had done nothing to stem the number of incidents, despite receiving a memo from the Citizen’s Complaint Review Board (CCRB) in January noting the high number of raid complaints. Last March, the NAACP also approached NYPD commissioner Raymond W. Kelly about the raids.
Assistant district attorneys and judges are the check-and-balance system for the police. And it is questionable whether A.D.A.’s and judges—responsible for reviewing police evidence before approving warrants for these “no-knock” raids—are being sufficiently critical of each request. Civil liberties advocates are demanding to know if they are settling on the word of shifty confidential informants (CIs) without seeking enough corroborating evidence from presenting officers. Last week a judge refused to unseal the affidavit with evidence supporting the Spruill warrant, said David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration (OCA). That affidavit could show whether there was adequate evidence beyond the CI testimony. Race, many believe, is also suspected to be a factor in the warrant process. “You know they are not going to do this in Trump Plaza,” said attorney Richard Montelione, who represents Jean in a case against the city.
Presenting numbers backed up by incomplete data, Kelly testified before a City Council hearing this month that about 13,000 warrants were issued between January 2001 and May 2003, the vast majority being no-knock. He estimated approximately 10 percent—or about 1,300—yielded no evidence or arrests. Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr., the chair of the public safety committee, who sees the need for some policy reform, said many of the 1,300 might be cases of removed evidence and that the numbers could be worse.
Looking to deflate claims that no-knock raids occur more often in communities of color, Kelly explained at the hearing that warrants are issued in neighborhoods in which crime statistics are the highest. Also at the meeting, Mary Bardy, a white woman from Queens, was invited to testify as to how she and her family were held to the floor with guns to their heads.
Just 24 hours after the City Council meeting, Fields held an independent hearing that told a more complex story. Dozens of black and Latino victims—nurses, secretaries, and former officers—packed her chambers airing tales, one more horrifying than the next. Most were unable to hold back tears as they described police ransacking their homes, handcuffing children and grandparents, putting guns to their heads, and being verbally (and often physically) abusive. In many cases, victims had received no follow-up from the NYPD, even to fix busted doors or other physical damage.
Some complainants reported that they had filed grievances with the CCRB and were told there was no police misconduct. Unless there is proven abuse, the CCRB disregards complaints about warrants that hold a correct address but are faulty because of bad evidence from a CI. A June 9 Newsday article alleged that many former CCRB members now say the committee recognized the problem with warrants months before they reported it to the commissioner. Many also noted the policy of turning away complaints about raids with the right address.
Fields is seeking more in the way of policy change than Kelly or Mayor Michael Bloomberg are offering. She praised the mayor for quickly taking responsibility for Spruill’s death even before the chief medical examiner’s office called it a homicide. She also said that Kelly’s prompt reassignment of commanding officers in that precinct was a good start. But Fields fears other policy changes, including a database that will track all warrants, tougher oversight of warrants issued, and a stiffer evidence requirement, won’t be closely monitored. And the changes don’t address how police behave in raid situations. “What guarantees that even if new procedures are followed, there is going to be a sense of humanity and sensitivity in how you respond to innocent victims?” she asked. In an alarming percentage of stories, victims complained of police laughing at them while they were face down with guns to their heads—and some described nasty debasements, including one officer allegedly urinating in a pitcher of iced tea in a victim’s refrigerator.
More specifically, Fields wants to see stricter requirements for confidential informants. And she said there may need to be a select group of judges—10 or 20—who are allowed to issue warrants and will be held specifically accountable. That would eliminate police from seeking “any judge they can get up off the bench or out of bed,” she said. In the Jean case, it was a Queens judge who approved the Brooklyn raid. Finally, Fields sees a severe “lack of coordination” among police, D.A.’s offices, and the judges—apparent in the Spruill warrant, which was issued after the arrest had already been made.
Civil liberties advocates are looking for all three tiers of the criminal-justice system to truly observe the so-called Aguilar-Spinelli test. Most cities base their warrant procedure on the case law that requires police to prove the CI’s truthfulness in asserting, for instance, that there is existing danger in an apartment. The affidavit in Jean’s case includes only CI testimony, without other police evidence. Montelione’s later deposition of an officer involved in the raid has not brought forth any more evidence, tying the case up in court for years. In a recently reported case of a botched raid in the Bronx, police burst into an apartment, apprehending a young mother and father who were bathing their infant. They later learned the CI had been referring to an apartment one floor up. “If police had talked to the managing agent in the building, they would have known the right apartment. Everybody in the building knew who they were,” said Francis Alberts, a former Bronx A.D.A., who is now handling the case against the city on the Bronx case.
For the moment, it will be hard to spur politicians into action without real data proving exactly how many people have been victimized. Donna Lieberman, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, has requested data from the OCA, including how many no-knock warrants are requested, granted, and denied. Court administration spokesman David Bookstaver said he has been “swamped” by the same request, but the office doesn’t track the information—hence the importance of Kelly’s proposed database. Still Norman Siegel, former head of the NYCLU, who is representing a raid case that will be filed in federal court, is requesting statistics for warrants dating back 10 years. Lieberman is also requesting that the CCRB release all no-knock complaints.
In the meantime, victims are becoming increasingly agitated. One raid victim, Orlando Russell, said he “used to be an upstanding citizen,” but now “any cop walking in without an invitation better have a body bag.”