May 26, 1998
As Number of Police Raids Increase, So Do Questions
Join a Discussion on New York City's Police Department
By MICHAEL COOPER
EW YORK -- Mary and Cornelius Jefferson were turning in for the night last June 24 when they heard the deafening boom of a battering ram tearing the front door of their Bronx apartment from its hinges.
"They kept on banging until the whole door had splintered," said Mrs. Jefferson, 63. "I thought they were coming to rob us, coming to kill us."
When the door gave way, it was not robbers but police officers who burst in, armed with pistols and a search warrant. The warrant -- based on the word of a paid confidential informer with a criminal record -- told of a young Hispanic man who was selling cocaine from the apartment. Instead the police found a terrified couple in their 60s, living in a meticulous apartment where plastic slipcovers protect the sofas and diplomas and awards line the walls.
As Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's administration has stepped up its anti-drug initiatives, forcing many low-level dealers off the sidewalks and into apartments, the Police Department has doubled the number of narcotics search warrants it executes each year, to 2,977 last year from 1,447 in 1994.
Most of these are no-knock warrants, which authorize the police to break down doors without warning. The police say that a vast majority of raids yield drugs. But in a number of recent cases, the police have broken down doors and searched homes only to find terrified, confused families.
In at least a half-dozen cases in the last year alone, people who say that the police wrongly raided their homes have filed or announced plans to file multimillion-dollar lawsuits against the city. In each case, the search warrants were based largely, if not solely, on the word of confidential informers, who are criminals seeking to trade what they know for reduced charges, shorter sentences or cash.
Confidential informers -- called snitches and rats by the narcotics officers who depend on them -- are a central, if little-discussed, weapon in the war on drugs. Since the apartments many drug dealers now use are difficult and dangerous for undercover officers to infiltrate, investigators have come to rely more and more on their underworld contacts.
Interviews with police officials, prosecutors, judges and lawyers paint a picture of a system in which police officers feel pressured to conduct more raids, tips from confidential informers are increasingly difficult to verify and judges spend less time examining the increasing number of applications for search warrants before signing them.
Police officials defend the system, saying their aggressive assault against drugs is one reason for New York City's historic drop in crime. While the Police Department would not release specific figures, Commissioner Howard Safir has said repeatedly that a vast majority of search warrants yield contraband and that the Police Department does as much as other police forces -- if not more -- to winnow out bad tips. He said that when a drug search comes up empty, it often means that the dealers have simply moved on.
In the Jeffersons' case, a police official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the police still believe that they raided the right apartment off the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, a few blocks from Yankee Stadium, and assumed that the Hispanic man selling drugs had simply moved on. The Jeffersons, who are black, said no Hispanic men have keys to their apartment, and are suing the city.
Civil libertarians say it may be time to rethink a policy in which the word of a single criminal, who is often paid for his information, can be enough to send armed police officers to break down doors and invade the homes of innocent people. They note that the questionable raids have all been in the homes of black and Hispanic families.
The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the use of confidential informers to obtain search warrants, and has held that "no-knock" warrants can be used in cases in which the officers' fear that announcing their presence could endanger their lives or give criminals time to destroy the evidence they are seeking. But critics argue that the practice violates the spirit if not the letter of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.
"If the Fourth Amendment is about anything, it's about a distrust of this kind of police behavior," said Tracey Maclin, a law professor at Boston University who has written briefs for the Supreme Court on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union in several cases dealing with no-knock police raids.
Judge Stephen Trott, who sits on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, and lectures widely on the use of informers, said they are inherently risky.
"Confidential informants are like nuclear material, which, correctly used, can heal cancer but wrongly used can cause cancer," he said. "You need them to make cases, but by definition they are criminals, they are sociopaths, and they will lie about anything. That's why you have to have to corroborate what they say."
There have been several cases across the country in which drug raids based on tips from confidential informers have gone awry, sometimes with tragic consequences. In Boston, a 75-year-old retired minister died of a heart attack in 1994 after the police raided his home and handcuffed him, working on a bad tip from an informer. Another bad tip led drug agents to raid a house in San Diego in 1992. Its owner, a businessman, thought he was being robbed and fired a shot at the raid team. They returned fire, seriously wounding him. He sued and won a $2.75 million settlement.
A similar disaster was narrowly averted in the Bronx this February, when the police raided the home of Ellis Elliott based on what they later said was a miscommunication with an informer. Elliott, fearing robbers, fired a shot at the officers as they were battering down his door. They responded by firing 26 shots into the apartment, arresting him and, Elliott said, forcing him to wear his girlfriend's clothes while he was being held. No one was hurt. Elliott is suing the Police Department.
Officials say that corroborating tips from confidential informers was often impossible because drug dealers have become more savvy and cautious. Investigators, they said, are being forced to choose between acting on a tip that might be bad or doing nothing at all.
"In the old days, a lot of times you'd have an informant and the observation of cops of the trafficking," said a Manhattan prosecutor who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It's very difficult now to do that, because of the increased security measures taken by the dealers."
It was the word of a confidential informer who spoke of drugs and guns that led a team of police officers to break down the door of an apartment in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, on May 1. Chief Martin O'Boyle, commander of the Organized Crime Control Bureau, said the police followed up on the tip by checking utility bills to see who lived in the apartment, running background checks to see if anyone there had a criminal record (none did), and having the informer accompany the police to verify the correct door.
When the police broke down the door and tossed in a stun grenade to disorient the armed guards they expected, they found only a retired baker, a home health attendant and their two daughters, one an 18-year-old who is retarded and was in the shower. The retarded girl was given a bathrobe and handcuffed along with the others; the family said the police refused to give her a sanitary pad until she was visibly bleeding.
O'Boyle said that none of the pre-raid reconnaissance indicated that a young retarded woman lived in the apartment.
A search warrant carried out last June 5 in the East New York section of Brooklyn directed police officers to raid "a grey metal door clearly marked with the letter and number '2M'." There was no such door at the address, so the officers followed the directions on the warrant and raided a red door marked 2L.
The warrant was based on the word of a confidential informer who said that a man named Lucky was selling heroin and guns inside the apartment. In the application for the search warrant, a police officer wrote that the informer had been in the apartment and "has been a user of heroin for eight years and, therefore, can recognize heroin by its appearance and packaging." The officers found a woman and two young children, but no drugs. The woman, Sandra Soto, who has no criminal record, said that she knows no one called Lucky. She is suing.
Except in the case of Ellis Elliott, police officials have denied wrongdoing, saying that the raids were done by the book with warrants that conformed to legal standards.
"Drug dealers move from location to location," Safir said. "Just because we don't find drugs does not mean we hit the wrong door." Safir noted that all the warrants were signed by judges.
Judge John Walsh, who supervises arraignments in Manhattan Criminal Court and often handles search warrant applications, said there is a two-pronged test for a warrant to raid an apartment based on an informer's tip. The application must tell why an informer is considered reliable -- he has been used with good results in the past, for example -- and it must show the basis of the informer's knowledge, usually a statement that the informer has been inside the apartment in question. First-time informers are brought to court and can be questioned under oath by judges.
But Walsh said the increasing number of warrants had forced many judges to spend less time examining applications. "If you are getting one every two weeks, you can put a little more time into it," he said. "When it's one a day, you have to move a bit faster" -- about 5 to 10 minutes per application, he said.
The Police Department refuses to disclose how many confidential informers it uses or how much it pays them for tips. Marilyn Mode, the deputy commissioner for public information, said disclosing such information would put informers in danger. Asked how, she said only, "Because it would."
Narcotics investigators describe a shadowy symbiosis between officers and informers, a relationship based on mutual distrust and exploitation. One narcotics supervisor who spoke on the condition of anonymity said some informers will give up rival drug dealers to wipe out the competition. "Our thinking is, well, that's one less drug group out there," he said.
He described a sliding scale of payoffs. As a rule of thumb, the supervisor said, the police will not let an informer off with no jail time unless his tip brings in other criminals who would get five times as much jail time. Payments range from $20 for introducing undercover officers to dealers, to $50 for buying drugs to help the police build a case, to $500 for each kilogram of cocaine or heroin confiscated, he said.
In recent years, he said, the Police Department has vastly increased its roster of confidential informers. He credits a new policy that has the police debrief every person they arrest. One of the first questions they ask is: "Do you know anything about any other crimes?"
Those who indicate a willingness to deal are checked out and registered with the Police Department's Intelligence Division. First-time informers are tightly controlled. Some are practically deputized by narcotics investigators, who give them marked money and send them into buildings to buy drugs. The informers are frisked before they go in, to make sure they have no drugs, and frisked again when they leave, to make sure they have spent the money. This is called a "controlled buy."
But once an informer has proven reliable, there are less stringent controls.The narcotics supervisor said that because the police have been under pressure to conduct more drug raids, he worries that young officers may be too trusting of informers. "There's pressure to get the numbers up," he said.
An officer who worked on the raid of the Jeffersons' home gave a deposition in which he said that the confidential informer had been reliable 44 percent of the time. "This is supposed to be reliable?" the Jeffersons' lawyer, Joel Berger, asked in an interview. A police official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that the police officer might not have been familiar with the informer's track record. The official said that the police still believe the warrant was valid.
Jefferson, who retired last month after spending 25 years as a maintenance man in a co-op on Manhattan's Upper East Side, said that he thinks the officers knew from the start that they had hit the wrong apartment. "They did not handcuff us," he noted, "and they stayed until they cleaned up most of the mess."