Reporting by Nissa Tzun
Testimonies by Milu Gonzalez and Petra Wilson
Graphics by Rachel Karabenick
Las Vegas, NV - On February 17, 2021, Nevada Senate Bill 50 was heard on the Senate floor. The piece of legislation, proposed by Attorney General Aaron Ford, will create more restrictions on judges to sign off on no-knock warrants, a controversial police tactic that has led to mounting civilian and police injuries and fatalities. The practice of no-knock warrants isn't uncommon: averaging 1500 a year in the 1980's, and with The War on Drugs, the practice has increased to at least 20,000 raids per year.
Despite its controversy, it is a fact that no-knock warrants have resulted in unnecessary police violence and have taken the lives of unarmed and innocent people, maiming multiple others. The most recent case that has brought no-knock warrants under scrutiny is the Breonna Taylor case, but previous cases that have captured the nation show that no-knock warrants have been a continuous problem:
- In the morning of May 16, 2003, 57-year old Alberta Spruill, a city worker, died of a heart attack after her Harlem apartment had been raided by the New York Police Department. Her apartment had been falsely implicated as a drug trafficking site. As Spruill was getting ready for work, a flash grenade was thrown into her kitchen and exploded. Spruill was injured by the shrapnel. As neighbors heard the explosion and began asking what was happening, the NYPD officers wrapped Spruill's body in a table cloth to cover her wounds while they escorted her out of the apartment. Spruill went into cardiac arrest on her way to the hospital. While the family received an official apology from then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg, none of the officers involved were criminally prosecuted.
The late Cynthia Howell, founder of Families United 4 Justice, sits with her favorite photo of her aunt, Alberta Spruill. Spruill of Harlem, NY, was a victim of a police raid on May 16, 2003. Her apartment had been indicated by an informant to be a host for drug trafficking. Rather than verifying the veracity of the claims, police invaded the home without knocking. In the early morning while Spruill was getting ready for work, the police threw a stun grenade through the kitchen window of her apartment. The ensuing explosion gave her heavy injuries from the shrapnel. As the police raided her home for drugs, Alberta was handcuffed until the police realized they did not have the right apartment. Spruill died of a heart attack in the ambulance less than two hours later. October 15, 2013, Greensboro, NC.
- After midnight on May 16, 2010, 7-year old Aiyana Stanley Jones was sleeping on the couch with her grandmother Mertilla Jones, when Detroit police threw a flash grenade into the living room, burning Aiyana's blanket. Upon entrance, Detroit Officer Joseph Weekley shot Aiyana in the head and neck. The police initially released a false narrative claiming that Mertilla Jones grabbed Weekley's gun, prompting him to shoot. The narrative changed a few more times, but Jones stated that she it was impossible for her to have touched Weekley's gun because she was far away from the door that he entered. Despite multiple trials, Weekley was ultimately acquitted for the murder of Aiyana Jones.
Yolanda McNair, mother of Adaisha Miller (24 years old, killed by Detroit Police) and the late Mertilla Jones, grandmother of Aiyana Jones (7 years old, killed by Detroit Police) share their experiences and wisdom on a Forced Trajectory Project Panel at LINC Empowered Communities Conference, Oct. 6, 2017, Grand Rapids, MI.
- In the morning of May 5, 2011, the Pima County Sheriff's Department SWAT team served a no-knock warrant on Jose Guerena's home in Tucson, AZ, suspecting that he was involved in smuggling marijuana from Mexico. With flash grenades thrown into the backyard to cause a diversion, Jose, a U.S. Marines veteran, instructed his wife and 4 year old son to hide in the closet. As he got into position to defend his home from unknown intruders, SWAT shot at him 71 times, hitting him 22 times. Multiple officers lied stating that Guerena shot at the police first, but forensic evidence shows that he never fired a single shot. The case garnered a national discussion on the militarization of police. No illegal items or evidence of illegal activity were found in Guerena's home. No officers were criminally prosecuted and the family received a $3.4 M settlement.
- Around 2AM in the morning on May 28, 2014, in Cornelia, GA, a Special Response Team (SWAT) threw a flash grenade into the home of the Phonesavanh’s, a family of six. The grenade landed near the youngest family member, baby Bounkham, Jr., nicknamed "Bou Bou," and exploded, severely injuring him, collapsing his left lung and injuring his face and torso. The parents were kept away from their child immediately, and were detained by the police for nearly two hours. The justification for the no-knock warrant was the police's search for a relative of the Phonesavanh's who was suspected of selling methamphetamines, but neither the relative nor any evidence of methamphetamines were found at the home. Bounkham, Jr.'s injuries quickly exceeded $800,000 within the first year and the boy will have to undergo surgeries for the rest of his life. No officers were indicted for the botched drug raid. The family received a settlement of $3.6 M for damages.
Families United 4 Justice Las Vegas, the local chapter of the national network Families United 4 Justice, uniting families impacted by police violence and police brutality survivors and pushing for systemic change, recently participated in the first hearing for SB50 by submitting their testimonies.
The following is a written testimony submitted to the Nevada State Senate by Oglala Sioux Tribal Member and Families United 4 Justice Las Vegas member Petra Wilson, widow of Rex Vance Wilson - who died from gunshot wounds by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police on October 13, 2016.
The support for SB50 should only have support with amended language in tact. If there is a refusal to adapt the new language then the support will and should be pulled.
I am here today because I feel strongly about reformation regarding the policy and laws that allow for police enforcement. The intent of the law is the protection of citizens. However, as humans being can be, they are not immune to the mistakes that happen when they profile people, kill them and almost never held accountable. They are given the opportunity to use a perceived threat, sometimes just a feeling of threat. This is not ok. There are policy and law for a reason and police should be held at an even higher standard to the law than the rest of us. It is not a moving line in the sand yet we have seen that there is no accountability placed on police officers who cross over the threshold of decency and shoot to kill, not shoot to maim...they are given the authority to kill. As though humans in their cities are free hunting ground.
No knock terrifies people. Had it happen in my family-filled Green Valley house. It wasn't done in the middle of the night, nor seemed to give consideration how many children frequented the neighborhood streets. It turned out to be baseless. Nothing found and no one home. Meanwhile an alleged 'suspect' is judged, dehumanized and completely left as guilty, whether dead or alive. If they survive with their lives, they are left with damage. Their families are left with damage. They are traumatized with the alleged suspect. Their lives are taken away from the family, the family faces loss in so many ways and if their life is taken they are told the homicide of their loved one is justified.
The following is a written testimony submitted to the Nevada State Senate by Clark County resident and Families United 4 Justice Las Vegas member Milu Gonzalez, sister of Cesar Gonzalez - who died from third degree burns caused by California Highway Patrol in the fall of 2007.
Good afternoon, I am Milu Gonzalez and I am here on behalf of the organization Families United 4 Justice Las Vegas, a collective of families impacted by police violence organizing for systemic change. We are for SB50 only if the recommendations by the JRAA Coalition are adapted. In my research of the origin of No Knock Warrants, Radley Balko, an investigative journalist and the author of the book Rise of the Warrior Cop, about police using no-knock warrants, mentions that “It wasn't something that police chiefs were asking for or sheriffs were asking for. It was actually the brainchild of a 28-year-old Senate staffer who became a campaign aide. And it was this idea of just showing, how tough we were on crime and drugs by letting cops just sort of kick down doors without announcing themselves first. That aide has since said that he regrets this. And it's one of the biggest mistakes of his political career.”
No Knock Warrants originated for the war on drugs and seems to have probably been issued specifically for that as according to Peter B. Kraska in his Article- Militarization and Policing—Its Relevance to 21st Century Police, around 1,500 No Knock warrants were issued in the early 1980’s but then spiraled out of control leading to 40,000 warrants issued per year by the year 2000. The extreme growth of use of the warrants has not only caused the lives of those who were misidentified but also lives of bystanders and even police officers. According to Kevin Sack, an American journalist for The New York Times. From 2010 through 2016, at least 81 civilians and 13 officers died during SWAT raids, including 31 civilians and eight officers during execution of no-knock warrants. If your focus is the safety of the public, then passing this bill with the amendments proposed is a step towards giving the public the knowledge that you are actually taking in the risks associated with such warrants. The amount of times that the identities and addresses these warrants have been issued for have been incorrect has impacted the American public in high numbers year after year.
According to Sean Piccoli in his article No-Knock Raids Statistics: 5 Eye-Opening Facts, Figures on No-Knock Warrants, “In 2003, then-NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly estimated that 10 percent of the more than 450 no-knock raids his officers carried out every month went to the wrong address. That estimate came after police broke into the home of 57-year-old Alberta Spruill and threw in a flash-bang grenade and the shock gave her a fatal heart attack.” Officers are not being held accountable for such acts and such amendments will help set barriers that can help the accuracy and strategic execution of No Knock Warrants. We understand that No Knock Warrants could be necessary in specific cases, but you have not shown us that you have been able to execute them with the public's safety in mind. In conclusion, we are for SB50 only if the recommendations by the JRAA coalition are adapted.