by Christopher Dunn and Donna Lieberman — In the aftermath of the May 16 police raid that led to the death of Harlem resident Alberta Spruill, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly have taken a number of commendable steps, including issuing a public apology, disciplining supervising officers, announcing that the Police Department would start to track certain information about search warrants, and issuing a report last Friday that detailed mistakes made in the raid. Nonetheless, more must be done to reduce the risk of future similar tragedies.
Ms. Spruill died after police officers burst into her home without warning -- using what is known as a “no knock” warrant -- detonated a “stun grenade” that caused an explosive sound designed to distract anyone inside the premises being raided, and handcuffed the 57-year old City employee, most likely at gun point. These actions were based on information provided by a so-called “confidential informant”: someone other than a police officer who has provided information to the police about supposedly illegal conduct. As it turned out, the information was wrong, Ms. Spruill was a law-abiding citizen, and the combination of the police breaking into her apartment and throwing the stun grenade killed her.
Given the trauma and danger inherent in the execution of search warrants, it is essential for both City residents and police officers that they be based on the most accurate information possible and that they be executed in the most careful way possible. Unfortunately, the Police Department’s actions to date have not gone far enough to assure that this will happen.
Of immediate concern is the Department’s reliance on confidential informants, who often provide information to the police only after they themselves have been arrested. For instance, the informant whose information led to the raid on Ms. Spruill’s apartment had been arrested on 12 occasions and had never before supplied reliable information. Incredibly, the Department had done virtually nothing to corroborate his information before bursting into Ms. Spruill’s home.
This type of dependence on confidential informants -- as opposed to undercover police work -- is dangerous, yet the report released on Friday does not offer adequate reforms to lessen this danger. The department needs to do more than tinker with the process. It needs to rethink philosophy of relying so heavily on these types of informants.
The Department also needs to be more selective about its use of “no knock” warrants, particularly when obtained on the basis of information from a confidential information. The police commissioner’s disclosure at a City Council hearing yesterday that “the vast majority” of search warrants are “no knock” warrants reveals that the department may be indiscriminately storming into people’s homes without notice.
Closer monitoring and fuller reporting about warrant practices would provide the Department and the public with information that would address concerns that have been expressed about certain communities being improperly targeted. In addition, a specialized unit within the Police Department should be created to examine flawed search warrants and respond to complaints from victims of those warrants.
Finally, Kelly quietly authorized resumption of use of stun grenades and did so without any public announcement of the results of the investigation he stated would take place into their use. The disclosure last Friday that use of these devices now must be approved by the Department’s highest-ranking uniformed officer does not address the more important question as to the specific circumstances in which these grenades will be used.
While there has been widespread recognition of a positive response from the mayor and the police commissioner to the Spruill tragedy, the Police Department must do more to protect law-abiding New Yorkers from potentially lethal police raids.
Dunn is the associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union; Lieberman is the NYCLU’s executive director.