No-knock police raids need to stop

Permitting police to burst into homes is the latest absurdity in the failed battle on drugs

Michael Spratt

It is the stuff of nightmares — shocked awake in the dead of night by heavily armed masked thugs bursting into your bedroom.

It's even more terrifying when the violent intruders are the very people who are supposed to be protecting you — the police.

The overused and dangerous tactic of "dynamic entry" has come under justified fire in recent months, following a young Ottawa man's tragic death after a no-knock police raid.

The law on no-knock police raids is far from novel or controversial — no-knocks should be a rare exception. The knock-and-announce rule has been part of our law for hundreds of years. The Supreme Court of Canada, as recently as 2010, reaffirmed the rule, saying that, "except in exigent circumstances, police officers must make an announcement before forcing entry into a dwelling house."

The rationale for requiring police to announce themselves before bursting through the front door is simple. The knock and announce principle not only protects the dignity and privacy of the occupants of dwellings but also enhances safety.

You see, police are always heavily armed when executing no-knock raids and often look more like post-apocalyptic military mercenaries than protectors of the peace. The raids are often proceeded by the deployment of smoke and stun grenades. Masked officers often burst into a residence through a haze of smoke with automatic rifles up and ready to be used.

It is all a recipe for death and injury.

Following Breonna Taylor's death, where she was shot and killed by Louisville police officers during a botched raid, and Anthony Aust's death in Ottawa, the CBC reported that police forces across Canada conducted no-knock raids hundreds of times a year since 2007. These raids have resulted in at least one police officer and four civilian fatalities.

But despite the danger and death resulting from no-knock raids, there is no requirement for police to obtain prior judicial authorization before busting down doors unannounced.

Almost a year before Aust's tragic death, the Ontario Superior Court had sharp words for the Ottawa police's no-knock tactics. The court found that the overuse of no-knock searches was "serious misconduct" and represented a "casual disregard" for established authority about how search warrants should be executed.

In that case, while executing a search warrant, the Ottawa police tactical unit broke the front door down with a battering ram, without any warning, and used a flash/bang device to distract and disorient its occupants. 

Police told the court that it was policy to announce themselves only when there was "zero risk" to both the physical safety and the disposal of evidence. A "zero risk" standard is impossibly high and means that the Ottawa police operate on the basis that assumes that non-dynamic entry is a rare exception as opposed to the rule

The police didn't listen to the court, and there were no policy changes — until their conduct resulted in death.

The idea that we should permit masked police to burst into homes with guns at the ready, terrifying families, endangering the health of innocent children and seniors, and creating deadly situations, all because a suspect might try to flush some drugs down the toilet, is the latest absurdity in the failed war on drugs.

Last month, Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly said that he was temporarily banning the use of no-knock entries.

But why should we believe him? Why should we be content to continue to let police forces — who have ignored warnings from the court, resisted accountability and transparency measures, and failed to recognize the insidious impacts of systemic racism — gaslight the public about their willingness to police themselves?

A close look at Sloly's pledge exposes the lie.

Sloly said that dynamic entries would be paused "in cases that are solely regarding the securing of disposable evidence." He went on to say that dynamic entries will continue to be used when there is any risk to officer safety. Given Ottawa police's "zero risk" standard, this means that no-knock raids will continue to be the norm.

And even when there is zero risk to officer safety, a broad range of officers, including platoon commanders, inspectors, or senior officers, can still approve dynamic entries.

So, we should not expect the police to follow the law anytime soon.

Just days after Sloly's pledge, Ottawa police entered a house in the middle of the night with no announcement. The family alleges that police had their guns drawn and were in their home for 15 minutes — until they discovered that they burst into the wrong house.

This situation is an example of the problem with no-knock raids. Mistakes can be made, and most often, the people put at risk are racialized or live in lower-income neighbourhoods. These are the people who are most likely to be killed due to casual disregard for the law by the boys in blue.

If the police want to use their military-style toys and pretend they are members of a Jim Clancy navy seal team, they should be required to seek prior approval. Because gone are the days when we are so naive to believe that police can police themselves.

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