Witnesses say the police burst into the house around 5 a.m., pointing submachine guns and wearing full SWAT uniforms -- fatigues, helmets, black hoods and body armor. They were looking for drugs and the young man who lived there. His parents, asleep in their bed in a Paterson suburb, opened their eyes to the sight of weapons aimed at their heads and an officer shouting, "Don't move."
The young man was upstairs playing video games with two friends after a night out. They threw their hands into the air when SWAT officers thundered into the room. In the moment that it took one teen to give his companions a look like, "What's going on?" an officer struck him in the face with the butt of his gun. He bled for more than an hour.
Officers sliced open couches, kicked a hole in the television, punched through Sheetrock, smashed a VCR and scattered a drawer of computer equipment across the floor, stepping on the pieces as they walked about. One officer threatened to sic a K-9 German shepherd on them; another called a third teen present, who was black, a "nigger" and said he would punch him if he didn't reveal where the drugs were.
Officers instructed the teen who'd been struck to say he'd hit his head on a coffee table.
Police found no drugs at the house on that February 2004 morning. The young man had ties to an alleged local Oxycontin dealer and later pleaded guilty to conspiracy. He was sentenced to probation. The teen allegedly struck with the gun was not charged with any crime.
The Passaic County Sheriff's Department's Special Weapons Team filed a report on the raid. "It should be noted that the room was small and overcrowded with furniture," it says. As the teen complied with an officer's commands to lie on the floor, it continues, "he inadvertently struck his face on a nearby coffee table."
Sheriff's Department spokesman Bill Maer dismissed the witnesses' account.
"Those allegations are ridiculous," Maer said. "I think the report speaks for itself. There has been no official complaint regarding any incident that occurred to the Sheriff's Department, or to the best of my knowledge, any other agency. So we don't consider any complaints or even accounts of that story as credible."
The raid was one of more than 350 search warrants executed in Passaic County in 2004. In their efforts to crack down on the Paterson-area drug trade, law enforcement officers from city, county, state and federal agencies have escalated their raids on homes, sometimes using heavily armed units to batter down doors and tear through residents' belongings as they search for stored contraband. From 2001 to 2006, the number of warrants authorizing such raids more than tripled.
Local raids have resulted in hundreds of arrests and the seizure of millions of dollars in cash and illegal drugs. They have also left a wake of traumatized innocents -- children, seniors, neighbors and visitors who happened to be present during a search. Despite the Fourth Amendment's safeguard against "unreasonable searches and seizures," residents have few protections during the course of a raid, legal experts say.
Officers say raids have allowed them to target higher-level dealers and block the supply of heroin and cocaine coming into the city. They say entering a residence to search for drugs is among the most dangerous situations in law enforcement and that tough tactics keep residents and officers from getting hurt.
Yet some critics of the raids say those very tactics are what makes them dangerous, and a tragic accident almost inevitable. On March 2, a member of Paterson's SWAT-style Emergency Response Team shot a fellow officer when a bullet he fired at an attacking dog on the second floor of a house pierced the floor, hitting a policeman on the first floor in the arm. Three officers fired a total of 13 rounds, an investigation by the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office found. Police said they found heroin and marijuana in the house; investigators determined the use of force was within state guidelines.
It is unclear whether the police crackdown has reduced the supply of drugs on city streets, or how many mistakes have been made in serving a warrant.
There is little public accountability. Unlike in many states, in New Jersey, nearly every document generated by a raid -- from the testimony that officers present to a judge to obtain a search warrant, to search warrants themselves, to the police reports detailing whether police found illegal drugs or weapons -- is not public, even after the raid is executed. Most of the two dozen people interviewed spoke only on the condition that they would not be named, saying they feared officers would retaliate against family members or simply return to harass them.
Raids On The Rise
In 2002, officers from the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office, Passaic County Sheriff's Department, municipal police departments and federal investigative agencies formed a joint task force to target drug trafficking.
The number of search warrants local officers requested at Superior Court in Passaic County shot up. From 2001 to 2006, the number of narcotics warrants issued by the court more than tripled. The number of houses and apartments Paterson Police Department's narcotics bureau entered also tripled during that period; in 2006 city police obtained warrants to search 162 homes.
At the Passaic County Sheriff's Department, Chief Thomas P. Murray, head of the narcotics and anti-crime bureaus, said the rise in narcotics raids came from strategic changes in the way the department approached the drug trade.
When Sheriff Jerry Speziale came to office in 2002, he added a dozen sheriff's officers to the existing narcotics task force at the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office, and assigned nine sheriff's officers to work at Drug Enforcement Administration offices in Newark and West Paterson.
Rather than going after street-level dealers with "buy-and-bust" arrests, Murray said, his team sought to nab higher-level traffickers -- people moving drugs from Colombia and Mexico through local airports, then trucking them in to store and distribute in Paterson.
"When you're talking about guys with larger amounts, they're not keeping it on the street. They're keeping it in their house," Murray said. "And the only way to get at them legally and go after them with a good prosecutorial case is with a search warrant."
Officers' requests for warrants are rarely denied. Superior Court Judge Marilyn C. Clark, who issues many of them, said most come from specialized, experienced squads after a prosecutor's review. She occasionally sends officers back for more evidence establishing probable cause to justify a search.
Paul S. Chiaramonte, chief assistant prosecutor for the narcotics division, said the increase in narcotics search warrants is due to improved intelligence that is the result of increased wiretapping. In Paterson, the growing number of raids is the product of a larger narcotics bureau, bulked up in response to community pressure, said Police Director Michael Walker.
Despite the dramatic rise in the number of warrants, few officers were aware of the overall increase. Officers are required to report back to judges and prosecutors after serving a warrant, but there is no formal tracking of how often police find drugs in a raid, or how often a confidential informant has provided them with solid intelligence, rather than mistaken information that leads to an unnecessary raid.
"The reporting back is on a case-by-case basis," said Deputy First Assistant Prosecutor Dante Mongiardo. "Nobody is compiling any six-month or yearly reports saying of the 100 (warrants) that we approved, drugs were found in 98 percent of them."
Capt. Robert Prause, commander of the Prosecutor's Office narcotics task force, stresses that officers are "not just randomly picking the house." "A very large percentage of the time, we do find the contraband we're looking for," he said.
How Raids Are Executed
Increasingly, in Passaic County and throughout the nation, drug raids are carried out by special tactical units, known conventionally as SWAT, or Special Weapons and Tactics teams. Officers say they reserve use of these squads for high-risk warrants -- cases in which a suspect has a criminal history of violence, is believed to possess weapons, or has heavily fortified the location with wooden two-by-fours, deadbolts or menacing dogs.
Paterson requires its SWAT-style Emergency Response Team to serve high-risk warrants, said Sgt. Peter Hasselberger. The squad also conducts raids at the request of a commanding officer in the bureau conducting the search, he said.
Judges who authorize raids are careful to distinguish between knock-and-announce warrants, which require police to alert residents before entry, and no-knock warrants, which authorize police to burst in without warning. But courts have ruled that in knock-and-announce searches, residents have only seconds to open their door to police before officers can enter with force.
Typically, SWAT officers -- dressed in black or olive-drab fatigues, balaclava hoods, ballistic vests, boots and helmets -- burst into a home with a battering ram and set off "flash-bangs" -- diversionary devices that let off a loud boom and bright light designed to stun and confuse residents into immediate submission. They yell "Police!" and direct residents to "get down!" on the floor, though they may take children aside.
"A lot of raids are shock effect, to get everybody under control quickly," said Detective Sgt. Samuel E. Rivera, head of the City of Passaic's narcotics bureau. "There's a lot of screaming and hollering, but that's why."
Originally created to address violent emergencies such as hostage standoffs, SWAT teams are now used to execute some raids that are not deemed high-risk enough by a judge to merit a no-knock entry.
During narcotics raids, emotions run high for law enforcement officers. For all the surveillance they conduct before a raid, they say they never know exactly what awaits them inside a house.
"Search warrants, regardless of whether it be a knock or no-knock, is probably one of the most dangerous things in law enforcement," said Prause, who is also a member of the Sheriff Department's SWAT team.
Murray says he understands the feelings of terror raids inflict on residents, especially "those individuals that are in the household that maybe their son is doing it but they don't know the house is being utilized to store drugs.
"Believe me, I'd be shook up, too, if somebody blasts through my door. If you're there, and you don't know what's going on, that's absolutely horrible."
At 17, Lisa LeBron is a veteran of several drug raids. When Paterson police came to her Oak Street apartment in summer 2006 looking for heroin, they found 50 glassine bags and arrested her boyfriend. On that visit, police told LeBron to move the family dog Yayo, a year-old pit bull, from room to room as they searched.
But when police, including members of the newly formed Emergency Response Team, returned two weeks later to search the same apartment, they bashed through the wooden door and shot Yayo. In the bedrooms, they dumped clothing from dresser drawers, poured out pill bottles, unscrewed switch covers on power outlets, and swept knick-knacks off the shelves. In the kitchen, officers ripped out drop-ceiling tiles, spilled a bag of rice into the sink, pulled dishes from cabinets and let them break on the floor. This time, they did not find drugs.
Police said they used more aggressive tactics on their second visit because the apartment's occupants did not open the door after the officers, wearing helmets and protective gear, knocked, announced their presence, and told residents to leash the dog. LeBron said the police burst in without warning.
According to police, the dog tried to attack them. They later charged the father of LeBron's boyfriend with using the dog as a "booby trap" to delay police and give those inside time to flush drugs down the toilet.
LeBron said the dog had not attacked but poked his head through a hole made by the police battering ram. When he was shot, Yayo -- a street term for cocaine -- dropped to the floor and urinated, soaking the carpet. LeBron says police dragged the dog downstairs. Officers said the dog continued to charge at them, but concur with LeBron that police shot the dog several more times in the building's foyer.
Especially troubling to LeBron and others present was the fact that her boyfriend's 1-year-old niece stood behind Yayo when the dog was shot. LeBron held the child's 2-year-old brother some 5 feet away, she said.
"They shot the dog while the baby's right behind him," said LeBron. "He was a friendly dog. He doesn't bite. He was just doing what a normal dog does -- he was looking to see who's coming at the door."
LeBron was so upset that within an hour, she had gone to City Hall to complain to Mayor Jose "Joey" Torres. In tears, she also called the Herald News, but did not file a complaint against police.
Paterson police spokesman Lt. Anthony Traina declined to discuss further details of the incident, but said, "If there are children present and the officer feels as a last resort that there's no other choice but to fire his weapon, that's the case."
Prause, of the Prosecutor's Office, said SWAT officers "have the utmost concern for children."
"We don't want to do anything that traumatizes them. They're innocent victims. There might just be one person in the house dealing drugs," he said.
Such raids have cost landlords thousands of dollars in apartment repairs.
Landlord Angel Rodrgiuez, 33, says the three doors smashed by the police battering ram at LeBron's Oak Street apartment cost him $1,700, not counting the paint and new flooring he needed to cover bloodstains in the stairwell.
"I saw it. I was like 'My God, this is unbelievable.' The kitchen ceiling was on the floor. I don't know if I'm angry at the police or the people that lived there," he said.
There is no compensation for such damages except in cases of police wrongdoing, such as a raid on the wrong address. Rodriguez said officers at the scene told him his tenants were responsible for the damage and that he should take the repair money out of their security deposit.
"When they come to your apartment, they don't care about nothing," he said of the police. "They just break. I guess that's what they've been trained to do. I don't know if it's right or wrong. But we pay."
Can I See The Warrant?
Those present during raids said the sense of violation they felt at having their homes and belongings searched was exacerbated when officers dismissed their requests to see the search warrants that allowed police entry.
"They told me I shouldn't ask," said a teen who was home during a 2005 raid in Paterson.
The boy's mother, who was in a downstairs apartment when police arrived, also asked whether officers had a warrant.
"He said yes. I said 'Can I see it?' He said, 'When the time is right.' But they left and never showed anything," she said. "They supposed to show you this when they come in. Not break in your door, make a mess of your house, don't find nothing and then leave, never showing anything."
Legal experts say the law requires police to obtain a warrant before a search, but does not obligate them to show the warrant to residents when they enter the house. Police argue a requirement to show a warrant could slow them down in a volatile search or give offenders time to destroy evidence.
"The United States Supreme Court has never actually said that the warrant must be shown," said Robert Weisberg, a professor at Stanford University Law School. "As the court says, the real purpose of a warrant is not to give any sort of notice to the person whose privacy is being invaded, its purpose is to have a branch of government to monitor the police," Weisberg said.
Tracey Maclin, a professor at Boston University Law School, said there is a case to be made for showing residents warrants: "How is the homeowner supposed to know, other than the police's say-so, that the police can search? The warrant at least informs the citizen that the police are properly allowed to search the house and that they're at the right house."
Local officers say they often carry copies of a warrant with them, especially for low-risk or routine narcotics searches. But officers on SWAT teams say presenting the paperwork is not part of their job, and falls to investigating detectives who follow them in once they have secured a location.
Risk Versus Trauma
At the house on Hamilton Avenue where Robert DeCree lives with his girlfriend, Michelle Clancy, a light shines over the small front porch at night. A tall fir tree stands in the postage-stamp front yard, casting its silhouette against the building's white siding. By contrast, the brown house next door has a porch strewn with sheets and chairs. Yellow light glows through the slits between drawn shades and window frames.
In December 2005, officers with the Paterson police narcotics bureau had a warrant to look for drugs in the brown house. But before dawn, they burst into the DeCree/Clancy house instead. DeCree, 37, said he heard officers outside his closed bedroom door tell him they'd shoot him and his barking dog.
"They was nasty, making comments like they're police, they can do whatever they want, go call your mayor, your councilman," said DeCree. "I felt violated because I wanted to protect my family. All I wanted to do was physically put them out of my house."
The officers forced Clancy, her then-65-year old father and 13-year-old daughter to stand in the cold entryway before leaving to raid the house next door. Officers found drugs and made arrests at that location.
"We're not machines," said Police Department spokesman Traina. "We make mistakes. You try to keep the numbers as low as you can."
Officers often conduct months of surveillance before a raid. They weigh their desire to surprise a suspect, with an early morning raid, for instance, against their goal of minimizing trauma for innocents -- as with a daytime raid when children are at school. Yet when they enter a home, they sometimes come across the unexpected: dogs, children, a grandmother sitting on the couch.
During the 2005 Paterson raid, when officers asked for the names of everyone living in the house, one teen said, "I thought to myself, if they did all the investigation to come into the house, how come they don't know the names of who lives here?"
"You can do all the surveillance you want, but until you go in, you don't know who's there," said Murray. "Believe me, we've been surprised. Who knows if the guy brings their nephew over the day before? You talk to whoever you talk to see who lives there, but there's always that other alternative." Officers say their training -- at least two days a month, in most cases -- is key to keeping SWAT deployments safe. To join a SWAT team, they say, officers must be both experienced and mature.
"There's no cowboys there," said Prause. "I felt they're a bunch of professionals who put themselves in harm's way. We're there to save people, not to hurt people, and I think we've been doing that."
Innocent civilians say the trauma of a police search remains long after a raid.
Nearly three years after a Paterson grandmother's dog was shot, she cried recounting the story. Her grandson said he worried police would burst into their home every time he heard sirens.
"You're scared because you think it's going to happen again," he said.
"I will always look back on this," said one man present during a raid.
His experience led him to this conclusion.
"You have no rights. That's what you should write. You have no rights when that shit goes on. Nothing you can do or say. The best thing you can put down is it's a very helpless feeling."
Staff writer Cristian Salazar contributed to this report.
Reach Suzanne Travers at 973-569-7167 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
S.W.A.T. Teams In Passaic County
Passaic County Sheriff's Department: Its Special Weapons Team, the oldest SWAT team in the county, assists the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office and local police departments in high-risk raids.
Paterson: Previously had a small SWAT team used mainly for hostage and other crisis situations. In June 2006, the department replaced the SWAT team with a larger Emergency Response Team. The squad's officers patrol 22 hours a day on regular police shifts but skip calls such as traffic accidents to assist other bureaus and be available for emergencies or raids.
Passaic: Started a city SWAT team in 2005, to handle potential hostage-takers and terrorists. Most members of the department's narcotics bureau are on the team and wear SWAT gear on drug raids, even when the SWAT team is not formally deployed.
Clifton: A SWAT team formed in the early 1990s was disbanded but re-instituted as a 14-member Tactical Response Team in 2000.
West Paterson: The borough formed a SWAT team in February 2002 to handle a barricaded suspect, school shooter, or terrorist. Of the team's roughly 30 yearly deployments, approximately 50 percent are for narcotics raids, mainly for heroin, marijuana and prescription drugs.
Reporting This Story
Because much of the information about search warrants and narcotics raids in Passaic County is not public, we relied on many people to help fill in the blanks. Each raid depicted in this story is based on the accounts of multiple witnesses. Some sources quoted in the story are not named because they feared retribution against themselves or family members. To verify their accounts, as well as those of named sources, in all but one instance we spoke to police and confirmed the raids had occurred. In that instance, we saw the return-receipt police gave residents after the raid, which confirmed the warrant was executed and what was seized. Judge Marilyn Clark of the Passaic County Superior Court and Criminal Court Division Manager Dominic Palumbo provided statistics on the number of warrants issued. The narcotics bureau of the Paterson Police Department provided the number of warrants they executed annually. Officers with local police departments, the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office and the Passaic County Sheriff's Department described how they execute raids, as well as their frame of mind, purpose and concerns in doing so. Members of local SWAT teams described their gear and provided statistics on how often their teams take part in narcotics raids. Details officers provided about typical raid practices corresponded with the accounts of civilians.
Knock Or No-Knock, Who's There?
"Police!" officers shout as they enter a home in a raid, alerting residents that law enforcement, and not burglars, are inside.
But just who's at the door?
Multiple agencies conduct searches in Passaic County, and officers say identifying themselves as police is essential. Some enter wearing raid jackets with "Police" or "Sheriff's Department" on them; SWAT officers usually have the word SWAT somewhere on their body armor.
But identifying which agency officers are from can be difficult.
"The average person can't tell one from the other. They don't know who's who," said Paterson Councilwoman Vera Ames-Garnes.
"At the time the warrant is executed, our main goal is the safety of the officers and the safety of the people in the house," said Capt. Robert Prause, of the county prosecutor's office. "By the time they're in processing, they'll know exactly which agency is arresting them."
The identity of individual officers can also be difficult to determine. Name badges can be covered by body armor, and an officer's face by goggles and a hood.
Officers searching a Passaic County home or car may be members of:
* A municipal police department
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