When the Killeen Police Department executed recent no-knock search warrants, it did so to reduce the possibility of a violent exchange.
That’s what police said in all six search warrant requests, according to documents obtained through open records requests by the Herald.
Killeen SWAT kept itself busy during the month of October, as the number of search warrants carried out nearly doubled from the month of September.
There were 10 search warrants issued in October, compared to six in September. Of those warrants issued in October, six contained a request to be excused from any “knock and announce requirements,” and all were authorized by Municipal Judge Mark Kimball. He authorized just three in September.
The family of 19-year-old Ryan ONeal, who was arrested on a theft of a firearm charge, questioned the Killeen Police Department’s use of a no-knock during an Oct. 25 raid on their Bur Oak Drive home. Explosives were used on the front door of the home, which is just 7 feet from the bedroom of a 9-year-old girl. The family was shaken up, worried that if something had gone wrong, the police could have seriously injured or killed the girl.
Killeen police officials have denied comment on the specifics of that case, particularly, why explosives, instead of a battering ram, were used to gain entry to the home.
Explosives are not universally used by police SWAT units.
Lt. Derral Partin, a member of the Central Texas Regional SWAT team who is with the Leander Police Department, said his department uses a threat assessment to decide whether to go into the home through a battering ram, or use explosives to gain entry.
Sgt. Steve Miller, a spokesman for the Harker Heights Police Department, said his department’s SWAT team will usually use a battering ram before explosives to enter a home. That, however, is specific to HHPD.
“It’s a case-by-case basis, but generally we use mechanical breaching over explosives,” Miller said in a phone call Thursday.
The Bell County Sheriff’s Department SWAT team does not use explosives, according to Maj. T.J. Cruz, a spokesman for the department.
“We’ll just bust the door down and go in that way; we don’t do explosives,” Cruz said. “There’s flash bangs, but they’re not explosives. They use those to disorient people.”
Thor Eells is the executive director at the National Tactical Officers Association. Before taking on that role, he spent 30 years as a commander for the Colorado Springs Police Department, and spent half of those years in special operations and the SWAT unit. He said there’s no checklist for officers to run down when deciding whether to use explosives or brute force for entry. A lot of that decision making is based upon the officer’s judgment.
“We can’t predict a suspect’s behavior, we can’t predict what other people may do. The most vulnerable people, the most at-risk, we make them top priority,” Eells said. “Below them, it’s other innocent people nearby. Third on that list is the police officer, right below us is the suspect, because it’s all based around the potential for injury and potential for controlling of outcome.”
If the Killeen SWAT team decided to use explosives for entry, that’s probably because they decided it was the quickest way to gain entry to the home, Eells said. Though there could be risk involved if a 9-year-old’s bedroom is right near the front door, there might be even more risk involved if it takes too long for the officers to break down the door, and a suspect has a chance to gather firearms and set up a shot, Eells continued. Hypothetically, a young child in the home would be in greater danger there, because there’s a chance he or she could get caught in some crossfire.
When officers came by the home Aug. 31, they asked Jamar Carson, a resident of the home, for permission to enter the home at that time. He granted them permission, and they arrested ONeal on a misdemeanor drug possession charge. Carson and Ron Cebulski, the girl’s grandfather, wondered why the police couldn’t have asked for permission Oct. 25.
At first glance, the authorization of these forced entry tactics might seem extreme. Police said they knew the girl was present in the home, and they waited for Carson and his fiancee to leave the home before orchestrating the raid.
Police argued they needed the element of surprise.
“Affiant (the police officer) knows that individuals trafficking illegal drugs often keep weapons to protect themselves, their money and their narcotics from others who would attempt to take their money and drugs,” the warrant said. “Affiant also knows that persons involved in drug trafficking often keep their drugs close so they can more easily be destroyed when approached by the police.”
That issue reared its head just a few weeks prior to the Bur Oak Drive raid. Killeen Police executed a search warrant at a home in the 2300 block of Hidden Hill Drive on Oct. 20, in an effort to arrest Ronnie Emmanuel Tyson on a charge of possession of marijuana. Once they got into the home, they found about two pounds of marijuana in the toilet, according to an affidavit for arrest.
In the case of ONeal, police said they knew with relative certainty there were drugs in the home, as investigators had found several small joints that tested positive for the THC in the trash cans left outside the home, according to a search warrant. They also had reason to believe that there were semiautomatic weapons in the home, as ONeal posted pictures on Facebook posing with a rifle.
KPD officials have been hesitant to comment on any of the raids that have taken place in the past month, citing the ongoing investigations as reasons not to talk.
Assistant Chief Margaret Young did say the SWAT raid to arrest ONeal “met just about every requirement” needed.
“You are authorized to execute this warrant at any time of the day or night,” the search and arrest warrant said. “Additionally, you are excused from any knock and announce requirements.”
The warrant doesn’t make any mention of the 9-year-old girl, however. It also states that police are unfamiliar with the layout of the house, despite the fact that officers entered the home to search ONeal’s room Aug. 31.
Included in the request for all six no-knock warrants in several different locations is the claim that being excused from any knock and announce requirements will help protect the safety of the officers.
“Based on the chances of law enforcement’s safety being compromised due to the suspect being in possession of handgun, your affiant requests this warrant be executed any time of the day or night,” one KPD officer wrote. “Additionally, your affiant requests to be excused from any knock and announce requirement.”
Across the country, law enforcement agencies are moving away from using no-knock search warrants to keep evidence from being destroyed, Eells said. That’s because of the increased awareness about the danger surrounding the execution of these warrants.
“It’s very high-risk, and there’s not enough evidence in the world that’s worth the life of an officer, or a suspect, or an uninvolved person simply to preserve evidence,” he said. “If there’s a danger there, if it’s simply for property, there’s been greater caution exercised when using that circumstance.”
It is unknown whether all six search warrants executed resulted in the arrest of a suspect. Arrest data was not available to the Herald before press time. However, at least four of the suspects police listed on the request for a search warrant never went to Bell County Jail after the warrants were executed, according to Chuck Cox, a deputy with the Bell County Sheriff’s Department.
No-knock warrants have been a hot discussion topic in the Killeen area for a while. In a case that garnered national media attention, Marvin Guy was charged with one count of capital murder and three counts of attempted capital murder after a SWAT team leader died during an exchange of gunfire. The Bell County district attorney’s office is seeking the death penalty in the case.
On May 9, 2014, KPD executed a no-knock search warrant at Guy’s apartment on Circle M Drive, which led to the death of Detective Charles “Chuck” Dinwiddie, a leader on the police department’s SWAT team.
Killeen police believed Guy was dealing cocaine. The warrant indicated police expected to find cocaine, money and possibly weapons in the apartment or in Guy’s vehicles.
The police carried out the no-knock warrant to try to ensure the drugs could not be destroyed before police entered the home.
Guy has said he believed there was an intruder in the home, and that is why he fired his handgun at the officers when police broke a window about 5:30 a.m.
In addition to Dinwiddie’s death, one other Killeen police officer was shot, in the leg, during the gunfire. Two other police officers were shot and hit in their body armor.
Guy remains in the Bell County Jail on $4.5 million bond. On Oct. 19, it was announced that jury selection for Guy’s trial will begin Jan. 17, 2018.