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Sunday, September 21, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 4/28/2007

Police no-knock policy affects us all

BY ROSE RUSSELL

WHEREVER you live, you should be concerned about the no-knock police policy that the U.S. Supreme Court said in a 5-4 decision last June could help ensure police safety and minimize chances for suspects to destroy evidence.

It must not have occurred to the court that someone could get hurt inside a house where police enter without saying who they are.

Worse than that happened to an elderly Atlanta woman last November: When Kathryn Johnston heard someone breaking into her house - unannounced and unwelcome - she fired a weapon.

Officers returned fire and killed the 92-year-old woman, shooting her in the chest, legs, arms, and feet. Prosecutors said they fired 39 shots. And because the single shot Ms. Johnston fired did not strike any of them, the wounds three of the officers received apparently came from their colleagues' weapons.

On Thursday, three officers were indicted in what was supposed to be a drug raid on the woman's house. It is believed that they obtained the no-knock warrant by telling a magistrate judge that an undercover informant said Ms. Johnston's house had surveillance cameras that a drug dealer monitored.

So in the early evening on Nov. 21, armed with a no-knock warrant, a team of eight officers raided her house in search of cocaine.

Although one of the officers, J.R. Smith, allegedly planted three bags of marijuana in Ms. Johnston's home in a cover attempt, they found no drugs, no money, no computer, or any other item connected with a drug business, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said.

Afterwards, the informant claimed he had not bought drugs there. Then Atlanta Chief of Police Richard Pennington said he didn't even know if there ever was a suspected drug dealer.

Meanwhile, one of the officers, Gregg Junnier, who has retired, pleaded guilty to manslaughter, violation of oath, criminal solicitation, and making false statements.

Officer Smith pleaded guilty to those same charges and to perjury.

Officer Arthur Tesler may go to trial on charges of violation of oath by a public officer, making false statements, and false imprisonment under color of legal process. Officers Smith and Tesler are on administrative leave.

One might conclude that because the police first took burglar bars off Ms. Johnston's front door that she probably didn't live in the best neighborhood.

While even the wealthy have fire arms in their homes, the Atlanta newspaper said Ms. Johnston's niece gave her a gun for protection.

You have to wonder what the turn of events might have been had officers yelled "Police!" before rushing through Ms. Johnston's door. She might not have fired and she might still be alive today, minding her own business in her own home.

As for the five justices who a year ago said police could go to into a home without first announcing themselves, it's doubtful they have lost a wink of sleep over Ms. Johnston's death.

And they probably won't give much thought to the fact that Officers Junnier and Smith could face more than 10 years in prison. And they probably don't care that their decision was one more step toward reducing citizens' personal privacy rights.

But let's not be quick to dismiss what happened to Ms. Johnston. Drugs are sold in middle and upper-class neighborhoods, too, and any police agency can mistakenly go to the wrong house. It has happened.

Bringing these issues home gives us a different perspective. Putting ourselves in the place of the poor, minority, elderly, or otherwise vulnerable shows more clearly how a misguided policy affects every one of us.

No point fretting about these officers. The Atlanta police department has probably learned a lesson well at the cost of an innocent woman's life. And that department's tragedy should cause other law enforcement agencies to tread carefully before using no-knock warrants.

For police to say who they are before barging into a home seems a better way to ensure that the people on both sides of the door are protected.

Rose Russell is a Blade associate editor.

E-mail rrussell@theblade.com



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