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Botched police raids scar whole neighborhoods and defeat reform nationwide

The job of the police is not just to make arrests. It’s about making a community feel safe. 

Anjanette Young, who was a victim of a botched raid by the Chicago Police Department in 2019, tears up as she speaks to the press outside the Chicago Police Department headquarters on Dec. 16.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

When the Chicago police used a warrant to break in to Anjanette Young’s home on Feb. 21, 2019, looking for a felon with a gun, it would have been a questionable idea even if they had been at the right address.

The police might have done better to stake out the place until the suspect came out.

The police, of course, were at the wrong address. They battered down the door and terrorized Young with drawn firearms, just as she was trying to change clothes after a day’s work as a licensed social worker at a hospital. They forced her to stand — handcuffed, naked and dehumanized — while they searched her home.

It never should have happened. Using no-knock search warrants or standard warrants in which police theoretically announce themselves and then break in seconds later are inherently dangerous to all concerned and often not justified.

Certainly in a case where the police were searching for a known felon allegedly in illegal possession of a firearm and ammunition, they could have used a stakeout. That this was not immediately apparent to the police, the assistant state’s attorney who processed the search warrant and the judge who granted it illustrates much of what ails law enforcement today. No one in this chain gave enough thought to the need for innocent members of the community to feel secure in their own homes.

Misplaced priorities

The police too often have their priorities wrong, even after years of calls for fundamental reforms, and they are not alone in this. How could City Hall, once again, think it could get away with trying to suppress video of the raid that the police didn’t want publicized? What did the city think it would gain from that?

This is not to say policing is easy. Every day, police are thrust into volatile situations where the potential is high for violence, including to themselves. They must make snap decisions with limited knowledge of what has taken place before they arrived on a scene. They are a community’s line of defense against crime. They work in a city that is on a pace to record 800 murders and more than 4,000 shootings this year. When they learn of illegal guns, they want to act fast before weapons are moved.

But the police must remember that their job isn’t just about arrests, it’s also about making a community feel safe.

Police union roadblocks

Many police officers want reforms. After George Floyd’s killing, 14 Minneapolis police officers, saying they spoke for hundreds in the department, wrote a letter saying they “stand ready to listen and embrace the calls for change, reform and rebuilding.” But police don’t want to be personally pilloried if something goes wrong, and they look to police unions for support.

That can raise a barrier to reform. As the New York Times reported Wednesday, this is by no means a Chicago problem alone, or a Minneapolis problem or even just a big city problem. Police unions across the country have used their collective bargaining power to stifle reform efforts and make it harder to discipline officers. Police chiefs complain unions prevent them from firing known “bad apple” cops.

In one example cited by the Times, the police union in St. Louis was able to block the top prosecutor’s proposal to create a unit within the prosecutor’s office that would independently investigate misconduct. Reform efforts in Chicago long have similarly run up against the intransigence of police unions.

Reflexively blocking attempts at reform makes it harder for police and city officials to collaboratively review policies that endanger the public. Government officials around the nation have found their efforts at reform essentially stymied. In Chicago, as communications consultant Peter Cunningham — an ally of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel — wrote in the Sun-Times on Wednesday, the city “has all but thrown in the towel on police reform.”

Botched raids leave lasting scars

Police Supt. David Brown says the police execute about 1,500 search warrants a year. Not all of them involve breaking down doors. But some officers may believe they are dealing with hardened criminals and the only way they can get the evidence they need is to break in without any warning or very little.

If no one is killed, such break-ins usually get little attention, even if they turn up no evidence. But often overlooked is that the scars to the community run deep when police raids go awry, not only among those who experience raids directly, but also among those who hear about them and no longer feel quite as safe and secure in their own homes.

Brown said changes in search warrant procedures were made earlier this year, and additional ones will be made. But given the long failure of the city to reform the police with rewritten procedures, we aren’t holding our breath.

Real reform must start with the understanding that unnecessarily breaking into a home and other kinds of unnecessarily aggressive police behavior exact community-wide costs.

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