Saturday, February 02, 2019

Eleven unanswered questions about the botched police raid in Houston

Four officers were shot and two suspects and their dog are dead after a botched narcotics raid in Houston. Friends and family of the deceased say they were innocent victims. Obviously, I hope all the officers recover. But having watched this play out in the press for several days, Grits has questions.

Here's the background: According to the search warrant, police claimed they sent a confidential informant into the home who had assisted in 10 or more prior investigations, all of which had led to arrests and seizures. They searched the CI, gave him cash, and allegedly watched him go into the home in question. He came out with brown heroin in a bag, telling police he'd seen many other bags of heroin and a 9mm pistol. The officers placed the home under surveillance until they could get a warrant.

Problem is, they found no bags of heroin. There was no 9mm pistol. But when the narcotics unit (not a SWAT team) entered the home at five in the afternoon, announcing themselves as the battering ram broke the door down, there was an angry pit bull facing them that an officer immediately killed with a shotgun blast. At that, one of the homeowners returned fire, and an intense gunfight occurred.

The homeowners didn't have a 9mm, but they did have shotguns and a .357 Magnum, and they responded to the home invasion the way many gun owning Texas homeowners brag they would. Maybe they were violent criminals trying to kill police, but they could also have been unwitting victims of a lying informant who didn't understand who had broken down their door and shot their dog.

That's the first question: Were these people heroin dealers? The available evidence says no, and regrettably, they're not around to defend themselves against the allegation. Their neighbors told reporters they almost never had visitors, and their friends and family adamantly deny the charge. Cocaine was allegedly found on the scene, but one bag, at user levels. And the multiple bags of brown heroin and 9mm weapon alleged in the search-warrant affidavit were nowhere to be found.

So the second question is: Where did the informant get the heroin? Police claimed they followed best practices, searching the informant beforehand and watching him go in and out. The couple couldn't have moved it because police had the house under surveillance. And they'd have seen if there'd been enough customers for all the volume to deplete. So if the informant brought back heroin, where did it come from?

Third question: Is it plausible that this couple would sell smack to a CI sent to their front door whom they'd never met before? Something there doesn't add up.

Fourth question: Will the Conviction Integrity Unit at the Harris County District Attorney's Office now review those 10+ cases using this informant in the past? If he lied about this couple selling heroin, what else might he have lied about?

Fifth question: HPD claimed they raided the home for safety reasons because they knew there was a gun inside (even though they had bad information about that; there was no 9mm). But given the outcome, was it really safer? It was 5 p.m., so they were awake. Mightn't the outcome have been better if they'd just knocked on the front door?

Sixth question: Should police use "dynamic entry" to execute search warrants every time there's reportedly a gun in the home? There are probably guns in half the homes in Texas! Relatedly, if you're afraid someone might shoot at you when you break down their door, why not just wait outside for them to come out? The house was already under surveillance.

Seventh question: Were these narcotics officers sufficiently trained to perform a dynamic entry? There's a subsidiary question: why wasn't a SWAT team used? After his wife and dog had been killed, the husband, a Navy veteran with no criminal record, snuck out the back and opened fire on the officers from behind, the Houston Chronicle reported. This was a basic tactical error - someone should have been manning the back door. Also, such raids are frequently conducted pre-dawn to minimize the chance suspects will be awake and shoot back. This one was performed at five in the afternoon. So did these narcotics cops just not know what the hell they were doing?

Eighth question: Could they have raided the wrong house? The search warrant affidavit says police watched the informant go into the house and come out with drugs, then watched it until they raided it. But what if that's a lie? What if the informant merely told an officer the address of the house, and got it wrong? Otherwise, where is the heroin?

Ninth question: How much was the informant paid for this service? What is this person's background? How much was s/he paid in the past, and for what services? An officer vouched for the person in the search warrant affidavit, what was their relationship? It's okay to tell, the person can never be used as an informant again.

Tenth question: Chief Art Acevedo said neighbors thanked police for taking out a known drug house. But reporters interviewed every neighbor they could find and everyone said these were quiet people who seldom had visitors, loved animals, and kept to themselves. Why weren't those grateful neighbors corroborating the chief's claims to reporters?

Eleventh question: Why does Fox and Friends give union boss Joe Gamaldi a platform? The guy's a blowhard.

For more commentary on some of the implausible aspects to this story, see Reason's Jacob Sullum here and here.

MORE: On Twitter, someone suggested another excellent question: "Who shot who?" It was said the wife was shot when she lunged for a downed officer's shotgun after her dog had been killed. Does that mean she was unarmed at the time and the husband did all the shooting? Were any of the police injured by friendly fire?  Who shot who is an excellent question.

UPDATE (2/15): We're starting to get a few more answers. The informant may not exist, reported the Houston Chronicle, and police officers used heroin already in their possession to claim they'd performed a controlled buy. The narcotics officer who signed the warrant, Gerald Goines, from his hospital bed named two informants who may have performed the controlled buy, but both denied participating when questioned by investigators.
In the original warrant - the one used to justify the raid - Goines wrote that he watched the buy and, along with [Steven] Bryant, identified the substance as heroin. But when investigators went back to talk to Bryant, he admitted that he'd actually retrieved two bags of heroin from the center console of Goines' car, at the instruction of another officer. 
Though he then took the two bags of drugs for testing to determine that they were heroin, he eventually admitted that he had never seen narcotics in question before retrieving them from the car. That, the investigator noted, contradicts the search warrant affidavit filed before the raid, which indicates that Bryant "recognized the substance purchased by the CI as heroin."

26 comments:

Tom said...

Cops seem to enjoy being Rambo.
In the 1980s, when I was a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, I covered the first arbitration hearing for police officers who had been disciplined by the chief. I'll never forget the facts and how close everyone came to a tragedy.
A woman slid into another woman's car in the Galleria area and told her to drive. She forced the victim to drive to the Fifth Ward where she kicked the woman out of the car and drove off.The victim got to a convenience store where she called the cops.
Soon, a posse formed and they started scouring the neighborhood for the woman's missing car. They thought they saw it, a common car like a blue Toyota, parked in a cheap motel parking lot. The cops checked with the manager and went to the room.
They kicked the door and went running in. A naked couple was in the bed. There was a pistol on the nightstand and the man started reaching for the pistol. After all, it was a cheap motel in a bad neighborhood. Lord knows who was breaking in.
Luckily the man recognized the police uniforms and didn't grab the pistol. Instead, he said, "I'm the police."
It was another Houston police officer having a good time with his girlfriend behind his wife's back. If he hadn't recognized the uniforms and reached for the gun to protect himself, he and likely his girlfriend would have been dead.
It could have been a real tragedy. The police had no legal right to enter that room. They were burglars. They all were patrol officers with the senior having about five years on the force. I'd have fired them all but the arbitrator gave them all suspensions as I recall.
In another case, the son of a fellow I was in high school with heard a bunch of people kicking his front door down about 5 a.m. A bunch of people in ninja suits came running in and he started shooting. He shot an officer, who lived and the son is going 13 years in TDC.
Then I remember how the FBI arrested one of my clients. He was charged in a drug conspiracy and because of his criminal history was looking at life without parole in federal prison. The FBI surrounded the house quietly, then phoned him. "This is the FBI, we have a warrant for your arrest. Please come out the front door with your hands up." He did, no fuss, no muss, no bother. Oh, yes, he was acquitted.
I get real upset every time I think about the police doing a "dynamic entry." It's just asking for a shootout and death. I know the police want to preserve evidence and prevent someone from flushing the dope. But how many people need to get killed every year -- both civilians and police -- in these Rambo attacks.
Military units like Delta force spend hours training how to do dynamic entries. SWAT teams spend time on it too, but not as much as Delta force. It takes lots of training to be able to do it safely.
Every time the police come crashing into a house, there's the potential for a tragedy. It's just a matter of tie=me.
And, a pet peeve of mine: police wearing military combat uniforms. If they really want to wear combat uniforms, I now a lot of army and marine recruiting sergeants who can arrange for them to wear those every day. Heck, the government will even give them their first issue.

Anonymous said...


"Which bring me to this - Joe Gamaldi does not run the Houston Police Department - I do...." I heard this quote from Aceveda on 88.7 NPR yesterday. This is the first thing Aceveda has said about this incident that makes any sense.

Gamaldi is the full time union president of HPOU. As such, and as a full time employee of HPOU he is acting as a private citizen working for HPOU, NOT a police officer. If he wants to threaten "activists" on anyone else who complains about HPD, then his sovereign immunity is out the window, as it should be. He and HPOU can be sued and prosecuted just like any other private citizen, and HPOU’s lawyers need to remind this loudmouth little pizza jerk of that fact before their pension funds get sued into oblivion.

Also note that “activists” (e.g. ACLU, NAACP, MALDF, BLM, etc.) have lawyers and funds too, and they can “monitor” HPD and HPOU as they wish as long as they don’t make threats, as Gamaldi did.

If the HPOU members are have any active brain cells left, Gamaldi’s days there should be numbered.


Anonymous said...

And a couple of other points:

1. This wouldn't be the first time HPD's Keystone cops have shot one another during a raid. When will the ballistics reports become public Art?

2. In the private sector, anyone who gets seriously injured on the job three times during their career (e.g. the cop who'd already been shot three times executing other raids and hailed as a "hero") is probably suspect as to their competence and regarded as a danger to those around him. They generally would have been removed from their position after the second incident.

3. If cops want to wear military gear, all five US services have recruiting offices. These cops might not have been shot IF they’d have worn badges and police IDs. Cops, if anyone should know that criminal home invaders often disguise themselves as cops before entering a residence, so why did the cops dress up like home invaders, then wonder why they got themselves shot?

4. Real “heroes” don’t shoot dogs or unarmed women. – Let me repeat that so that it sinks in - Real “heroes” don’t shoot dogs or unarmed women.

5. If Aceveda doesn’t get a handle on this and his thug cops, the next thing we’ll see is HPD lobbing flashbangs into baby cribs (Yes – It’s happened…. https://www.copblock.org/155092/3-6-million-settlement-reached-in-flash-bang-grenade-raid-maiming-of-baby-bou-bou/


Anonymous said...

"Acevedo said the officers involved in the raid were not wearing body cameras."

WTF.

Who are the nimrods running this organization? Is there a reason body cameras were NOT worn (other than to muddy the waters when an illegal murder has occurred?)

And if blowhard Gamaldi had any concern about his TARGETED officers or the (now dead) community his officers were protecting, then he would be screaming about the failure to have body cameras on the narcotics officers during the raid.

Gadfly said...

Tom says it all about Rambo cops.

Anon the third is right on the body cams. Even with immunity provisions, can't relatives of the couple sue for something? And Acevado should be writing up cops for dereliction of duty on this.

Gamaldi needs to be fired right now, and fück union and civil service protections. And, if he follows any person from a civil liberties group twice, having made his comments, he needs to be charged with stalking. Probably can't quite hang a terroristic threat charge on him right now.

Johnny said...

There is no such thing as sovereign immunity anyway. Apart from the fact that the government in the United States is not sovereign there's a fact that it's just a legal sophism used to justify Violence by the state.

Johnny said...

I hope they recover so that they can face criminal charges for the murder of two houstonians.

Jim said...

I surmise that the narcotic officers did not wear body camera as many of those officers either perform undercover and/or covert duties. Wearing body cameras subjects those videos and officers on those videos to freedom of information act inquiries which can compromise their ‘faces’ to the public.

Gadfly said...

Ahh, Johnny, also a 3 percenter? Posse Comitatus?

Such a thing of course exists, despite your fantasy, wet dream or whatever.

Anonymous said...

@Jim-

Those videos can be edited to blur the faces of any undercover officer (similar to redacted documents that are available to the public.)

Anonymous said...

More innocent citizens will be shooting first now. You're going to see more head and pelvic shots to people.

Anonymous said...

"Why does Fox and Friends give union boss Joe Gamaldi a platform? The guy's a blowhard."

You have answered your own question.

Stan Burton said...

a few other issues. rule of thumb is that at least two buys using different CI's is standard protocol to corroborate stories. there was only one buy.

warrants are normally signed by county district court judges, this one was signed by a municipal court judge who is appointed by the mayor. again deviating from protocol.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@Stan Burton: Municipal court judges signed 17,567 search warrants statewide in FY 2018, so it's pretty common. See p. 56: http://www.txcourts.gov/media/1443455/2018-ar-statistical-final.pdf

IC_deLight said...

¶5 - "regrettably"? Don't you mean "conveniently for the police?"
The race for media attention from the police chief to the AG's office and even to the White House issuing press releases praising the officers presumes the changing narrative of the police should be the end of the story. If anything this hyperactivity is reason to investigate further. Why no-knock warrant? Why wear outfits criminals might use instead of law enforcement uniforms? Are the police in Houston anything other than mercenaries? (Note: Harris County and Houston have programs where "extra patrol" [i.e., more than none] requires payment and a contract. The contract is typically with the HOA. This has long been troubling as to whether law enforcement (constables, sheriff, police) are just mercenaries employed by an HOA or whether they are government employees doing their job)
See, e.g.,
http://www.constablepct4.com/extra-patrol-request.html
https://www.harriscountyso.org/Programs/programs_ContractPatrol.aspx
http://woodstreamvillage.org/crimewatch.html

JR said...

I retired as a Sergeant after 25 years with the HCSO and I'm currently the president of the Houston Peace and Justice Center. I'm also on the board of the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice headed up by the civil rights hero and icon Johnny Mata. Personally, I must speak out about something that hasn't really been addressed or forgotten about in all of the information in the press and in the numerous discrepancies about this entire situation. Mr. Gamaldi, as a police officer, described fellow human beings as "Dirt Bags" and this description is shared by many police officers who deal with people who commit crimes. In this process a disabled Navy Veteran and his wife who was suffering from cancer, both of whom had no prior criminal record were dehumanized and painted with that same brush that paints anyone who comes into contact with our criminal justice system. They were never read their rights. They never had a chance to defend themselves in court. They somehow became a type of sub-human, guilty in the eyes of the law enforcement community and that definition carried over to the public. We hold those first responders in high esteem and we appreciate what they do every day and we realize they are charged to protect and serve us, but somehow the balance of life has slipped. The saddest part is everyone accepted a description of a fellow human being as a "Dirt Bag" without question.
Everything began with an anonymous 911 call, a confidential informant (C.I.) who gets paid for turning in his fellow citizens and a no-knock warrant. The no knock warrant came about during the war on drugs and it's main purpose is to prevent the destruction of evidence. This type of warrant exists for the police to be able to seize drugs before they can be flushed down the toilet and it is sometimes claimed it is for the safety of the officers. This war has had a high fatality rate from friendly fire and proven totally ineffective in stopping the availability of drugs. This drug raid went terribly wrong for everyone involved, both officers and the home owners, who were tried, convicted, and executed, without a trial and we as a society need to decide if it is more acceptable for us to flush human lives away than evidence. Is human life now reduced to the equivalence of a dirt bag because they may have committed a crime? Is it acceptable for a police official to enflame and target those who he feels doesn’t like the police? Are we ok with flushing our own humanity down the toilet along with human lives just to continue a failed war on drugs where we value evidence more that life?

Anonymous said...

Most SWAT teams are using "surround and callout," which is pretty much what it sounds like, for most warrants these days. It's the industry standard, and is pushed by the state and national tactical officer organizations. That probably would have worked out better here, but it wasn't a SWAT team serving the warrant. Which probably points to some significant process errors in the organization if a "high risk" warrant isn't served by the high risk warrant specialists, or at least their input is required during then planning process. WHich is also the industry standard.

I bet that most of the search warrants issued by a municipal judge are blood warrants for DWI arrests. Other than those, the types of search warrants they can issue are limited. While they CAN issue a warrant for narcotics, almost any decent narcotics investigator gets an evidentiary search warrant in a narcotics case, issued by a district court, because that opens up records, guns, stolen property, electronic media and all of the other things necessary to proving a narcotics business, as opposed to a narcotics only warrant, which only authorizes searching for and seizing...narcotics.

The rest of what happened sounds fairly mundane and common practice, except it went really badly. And the lack of body cameras was, well, stupid is the only thing that comes to mind. Pretty much any agency that has body cameras mandates them for any arrest scenario. Better get on that, Art.

Anonymous said...

So they synchronize a squad car to turn on a siren at or about the moment of breach...
This is supposed to alert the homeowner that search is being conducted by the police?

I never... If I were to hear a siren followed or in concert with breaching noises the first thing that would come to mind is that someone fleeing the police were trying to enter my home. Get ready for someone desperate to enter. I would think that would be the normal response among occupants.

Who thinks this shit up and I suppose more importantly, where do they publish the rules?

BarkGrowlBite said...

An investigative reporter believes there is a good chance the Houston narcs hit the wrong house. The house that was raided at 7815 Harding Street was a well-kept one-story cottage. Chief Art Acevedo suggested the occupants of that house knew it was cops breaking into their house because they had a sophisticated surveillance system. However, there were no security cameras anywhere on the outside of the house. Dennis Tuttle, 59, a disabled Navy veteran and Rhogena Nicholas, 58, his wife of 21-years were both killed in a shootout with the police. Tuttle had no criminal record and Nicholas only had a misdemeanor $145 hot check record. The narcs only found a small amount of pot and some white powder in the house.

Tully’s neighbors spoke highly of him and his wife and said, "They never had company" and "There was never traffic at that house. Never" and "They never noticed suspicious activity."

The reporter checked out the house at 7815 Hardy Street. That house was a dilapidated two-story house with its upstairs windows broken. The house was surrounded by a wrought iron fence and it had a number of high-tech security cameras on the outside. The occupant of that house had a long criminal history. To the reporter that looked like a drug house and he thought the cops should have hit the Hardy Street house.

When I was a narc, we always found a substantial quantity of drugs, at least one scale, packaging materials and usually a large amount of cash. Since that was not the case in the Harding Street and with the descriptions of the two houses, it appears quite likely that the raid should have been conducted at 7815 Hardy Street.

But not so fast there! The search warrant clearly listed the Harding Street address and described the place to be raided as a one-story house. The fact that the narcs found only some pot and a white powder does not mean Tuttle was not in the business of selling black tar heroin. There was nothing untoward in the use of the confidential informant who may or not have been paid. Based on the search warrant affidavit, the cops hit the right house.

As for Rhogena Nicholas being unarmed, the moment she reached for the fallen officer’s shotgun she was dead meat. And the dog was shot because it was aggressive in trying to protect its masters and their house.

The deaths of Tuttle and his wife and the wounding of four officers was a tragedy no doubt, but what is really sickening is that Grits has brought out the usual cop-haters with their ugly comments calling the cops murderers.

Oh, by the way, a lot of criminals, especially dope dealers, are dirt bags. And those of you who call cops murderers are dirt bags too!

Anonymous said...

The 911 caller on January 8th reported that her daughter was doing drugs in the house and she was trying to look through the windows. However, when the police arrived they did not find the caller nor anything suspicious at 7815 Harding St. It's possible the cops misheard the address and were investigating the wrong house right from the beginning.

We don't know for sure Rhogena Nicholas actually reached for a fallen officer's weapon. We also don't know for sure the dog was aggressive.

BarkGrowlBite said...

Since Tuttle fired at the cops it is reasonable to believe the police report about Nichols reaching for the shotgun. You raise a good point though, Anon 2/08, but then again there is the informant's description of the house and the narc's observation of him leaving that address with a baggie of black tar heroin.

Here is some additional information.

18 grams of marijuana and 1.5 grams of an unknown white powder were found at the raided house. A couple of shot guns, a .22 cal. rifle and a 7mm rifle were also found. The white powder turned out to be cocaine.

According to the search warrant affidavit, one of the narcs observed their informant leave the location before he handed them a baggie of black tar heroin. He said that "a large quantity of plastic baggies" of the heroin was in the house, along with a handgun, but no plastic baggies or black tar heroin were found.

The raid is now and has been under investigation by HPD’s internal affairs unit. If they did hit the wrong house, I believe HPD will let us know it was a tragic mistake.

Anonymous said...

Where is the marked money in the supposed heroin buy???
They make photocopies of money used in buys

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Anonymous said...

There is no reason to believe that the narcs found some pot and a white powder -- no reason to believe that is true.