At first, Patricia Roundtree didn’t know it was the police.
She had just dropped her 11-year-old daughter off at school and was heading back home when an unmarked pickup truck veered in front of her car. Behind her, she said, another vehicle boxed her in. A plainclothes Louisville Metro Police officer screamed her name, pointed a gun and ordered her out of her car.
Roundtree said police led her, handcuffed, down the remaining two blocks to her Park Hill house. There, nearly a dozen officers from Place Based Investigations, Major Crimes and Violent Crimes units crowded her living room. Her 68-year-old mother, stepfather and brother sat handcuffed on the couch. Her front door was split, the lock broken, with bits of wood scattered across the floor.
“I really had no idea what was going on. I was scared to death,” she said in a recent interview.
A man she’d been seeing was an alleged drug dealer, the officers told her. That meant Roundtree — a 38-year-old single mom with no criminal background who spends her nights packing mail onto airplanes and her days tending to her ailing mother — was subject to a search. The police said they knocked, announced and waited a “reasonable” amount of time before they busted in her door.
The LMPD conducted 72 forced entries from September 2019 through March 2020, according to a review of police records by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. They kicked in doors, broke windows, and picked locks. They used battering rams and sledgehammers and, in one case, a concrete planter.
Occasionally, officers were in a race against the clock and breaking into a home to save a life, render aid or stop an attack. But more than half the time, LMPD officers were hunting for drugs and money when they forced their way into people’s homes or businesses, according to a KyCIR review of police records.
LMPD officials didn’t respond to a request for an interview about forced entries.
Policing experts say officers rely on the element of surprise the strategy offers. But using that force to search for drugs carries risks that often outweigh the rewards, according to criminal justice experts, police professionals and civil liberties advocates.
“This is a cowboy, rambo approach to prosecuting the war on drugs,” said Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies. “Why would we manufacture such a dangerous situation to maybe find evidence of a low-level drug crime?”
Scrutiny Follows Fatal Raid
Police in Louisville have been under intense scrutiny since officers busted down Breonna Taylor’s door to execute a “no-knock” search warrant related to a drug investigation into her ex-boyfriend. Taylor’s current boyfriend fired a single shot, hitting an LMPD sergeant, and officers fired more than 30 bullets back into Taylor’s apartment, killing the 26-year-old Black woman in her hallway. They never found drugs. The raid has led to one officer’s indictment and three officers’ firings. Several others were found to have violated various police policies.
There was no body camera footage, so there’s no recording to show whether officers knocked and announced before entering Taylor’s apartment, as LMPD officers claim they did despite having a no-knock warrant. Most witnesses told police they didn’t hear any knocking. The raid led the Louisville Metro Council to vote unanimously to ban no-knock warrants in June, and state Rep. Attica Scott is leading a push to ban them statewide.
But LMPD used no-knocks rarely. Officers knocked, announced and forced entry far more frequently: more than twice a week, on average, from September 2019 through March 2020.
LMPD policy doesn’t specify how many times they must knock or announce, but it does require officers to wait “a minimum of 15 seconds or for a reasonable amount of time” — whichever is greater — for someone to answer the door.
The records rarely indicate how long officers waited before breaking in the front door, aside from calling it “reasonable” or “appropriate.” Officers noted that body camera footage was available fewer than half the time they forced entry.
The search at Roundtree’s house came the month before Taylor’s death. Roundtree knows the officers knocked before entering her home in because her mother heard it. She was in the bathroom, and couldn’t get to the door fast enough.
“I don’t do nothing for them to bust down my door, pull guns on my parents,” she said. “It was just crazy.”
Most Forced Entries A Search For Drugs
The reports detail when and where the forced entries occurred, as well as the officers and citizens involved, and most include a brief summary of the incident. This information, compared with police arrest data, court records and search warrants, helps paint a picture of why and how police in Louisville bust down peoples’ doors.
Seventeen of the 72 forced entry reports said they were executing a warrant that had been sealed by a judge, and therefore hidden from the public. Those that aren’t secret describe evidence varying from anonymous crime tips or confidential informants to stake-outs and long investigations.
In all, at least 63% of the forced entries were to serve a narcotics search warrant, with the intention to seize any cash, guns, electronics or valuables that could be proceeds of drug dealing.
Police found drugs in all but six instances, according to the reports. In a half dozen searches, the only drug officers found was marijuana. The reports don’t specify how much.
Nearly half of the forced entries occurred in zip codes that include the west end of Louisville, which is predominantly Black.
Police should rely on less-risky methods to investigate crimes and apprehend alleged suspects, said Keturah Herron, policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky and a leading advocate for the city’s no-knock ban. She pointed to a statement made by Jefferson Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Wine, who said after LMPD officers killed Taylor that no amount of drugs or drug money is worth a human life.
“We — the community, elected officials, and LMPD — need to evaluate risk versus reward,” Herron said. “The bigger picture is preserving human life and alleviating trauma from those who are to protect and serve.”
Forced Entry Considered Necessary Tool
LMPD policy allows police to “use whatever force is reasonable to execute the warrant, including forced entry.”
That ability can, at times, be a critical tool to keep officers and citizens safe, said Steven Cobb, the president of the Kentucky Narcotics Officers’ Association.
Quickly entering a home with force can give police the upper hand on people who may seek to destroy evidence of potential crimes — like flushing drugs down the toilet, Cobb said.
In one case in March 2020, a man tossed his drugs into the toilet before the officers were able to get inside his Parkland home. Undeterred, the officers simply took the toilet to “halt destruction of visible evidence and to retrieve any evidence that could have been contained inside the plumbing.”
Cobb admits that oftentimes “it’s not worth it” to put officers at risk to bust into a person’s home to look for evidence of drug crimes. Instead, police should work to build strong cases that don’t rely on the need to find evidence inside a person’s home. But building cases takes time and money that isn’t always provided to street-level officers, he said. The element of surprise offered by a forced entry can bode well in certain circumstances, he said.
“Yes, I’d like the bad guys to come downtown and turn themselves in, but that doesn’t happen,” he said. “Sometimes a dynamic entry is the safest way.”
Which officers actually conduct the forced entry is at times a topic of debate among law-enforcement professionals, Cobb said.
“There’s an ebb and flow everywhere,” he said. “Should tactical teams serve warrants or should we let narcotics teams do it?”
In Louisville, SWAT units assisted on 14 forced entry raids between September 2019 and April 2020, KyCIR’s review found. These cases include hostage situations or catching a convicted murderer accused of a new gun crime in addition to serving narcotics warrants.
But more often than not, division-level officers, narcotics detectives, and violent crime units conducted their own raids without SWAT — including the raid at Taylor’s apartment in March.
Patrol officers carried out 30 forced entries themselves. Ten of those instances were for emergencies and, six of which related to active domestic-violence assaults. Narcotics detectives and violent crime units forced their way inside properties without SWAT on more than 30 occasions, the reports show. Federal agents assisted with four raids.
Raids Don’t Always Net Evidence
The forced entry records show occasions where LMPD officers forced into homes looking for drug dealing, but found little to support the claim.
On one occasion in January 2020, police and SWAT members used a battering ram to bust into a Beechmont home shortly after 5 p.m. Police said the home “wreaked [sic] of marijuana,” though no one was home. Inside, they found a “small baggie” of suspected weed in the kitchen trash can. Officers gave a copy of the search warrant to a woman who arrived during the search, and then they left, apparently without making any arrests.
In September 2019, narcotics detectives and two SWAT units descended on a home in the California neighborhood before noon. Police had received a tip that a man inside the home was “selling a lot of drugs,” including heroin, meth, pills and weed. A detective said a confidential informant had recently bought heroin from the man, who also had money and guns inside the house.
A Jefferson circuit judge signed the search warrant and 23 hours later, police busted down the door with a battering ram and threw a flashbang inside the home. The man had a counterfeit $20 bill, a bag of weed and cocaine in his sock. He was not charged with drug trafficking.
In another case that same month, police obtained a search warrant for the Portland home of a man who allegedly was selling meth. The officers didn’t cite any additional investigation beyond a tip from another man they arrested. Six officers knocked, announced and busted down the door with a battering ram, according to the police report.
Inside, they found pipes, a scale and needles, but no drugs. One man was arrested for an outstanding bench warrant.
Roundtree still doesn’t know what evidence prompted the police to search her home last February because the warrant is still sealed.
All she got was a slip of paper signed by a judge that stated it would remain sealed.
“What evidence did they even have?” she asked.
Almost a year later, she still doesn’t know.
Roundtree said the man she’d been seeing came over occasionally and never brought drugs into her 100-year-old shotgun house. And police had already searched his house in Bashford Manor and arrested him an hour before they broke down her door.
There is no report indicating officers forced entry to serve his warrant before they found suspected meth, weed, heroin, a scale and cash. His case is still pending in Jefferson District Court, where he’s facing multiple felonies and possible prison time.
The officers who searched Roundtree’s home found a legally-owned gun in her dresser drawer and a single blunt on her nightstand. Her mother and brother also handed over small bags of weed. In all, she figures the police left with a quarter ounce of marijuana and a gun she keeps for protection.
For that, she might become a felon.
Roundtree was charged with possession of marijuana, usually a misdemeanor and essentially decriminalized since Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell pledged in August 2019 to cease prosecuting people for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.
But O’Connell stipulated that they not also have a gun at the time they are cited. Prosecutors applied an enhancement to Roundtree’s charge, because of the gun.
Her case is still working its way through the courts. A spokesperson for LMPD refused to provide a copy of the search warrant, police report or body camera footage, claiming that disclosing the records could “result in prejudice to the potential witnesses and has the potential to adversely color a witness’ recollection of the events.”
‘You get nervous’
When officers use force to gain entry into a building, the incident is reviewed by a chain of higher ranking officers, who are at times critical of tactics and decisions that violate protocol or fail to meet department standards. The reports show officers were rebuked 10 out of 72 times for using profanity, failing to turn on body cameras, or being too quick — or too slow — to bust in a door after knocking. The documents don’t say whether any of the rebukes led to more formal discipline.
Twice, commanding officers reviewed body camera footage and saw the officers who claimed to wait a reasonable amount of time didn’t wait long enough before forcing the entry.
Standing at a door waiting to serve a search warrant can be a nerve-wracking experience that makes time seem to move slowly, said Cobb of the Kentucky Narcotics Officers’ Association.
“You get nervous, you don’t know what’s on the other side of that door,” he said.
But Kraska, the Eastern Kentucky University professor who testified to the Louisville Metro Council about no-knock warrants in June, said it’s very rare that police serving a search warrant are met with violence. People are likely unhappy to see police at the door, but they’ll usually submit to the search, he said.
Kraska is working with Campaign Zero, a non-profit group focused on eliminating police brutality and increasing police accountability, and is pushing police departments to enact strict policies that he says would reduce the risks associated with forced entries. Among those policies are requirements that warrants are served in daylight, that officers wear uniforms and that they wait at least 30 seconds before using force to enter a home.
“By waiting, it puts a check on police, in the very least, that the practice of walking up to the door and assuming they are going to do a forced entry goes away,” he said. “It has to go away.”
The only forced entry reviewed by KyCIR to result in serious injuries or death is the raid that left Breonna Taylor dead.
Two other officers were injured in January 2020 as they broke into a Pleasure Ridge Park home in search of a man who allegedly strangled his girlfriend and slapped her 10-year-old son. One officer smashed his thumb in the door after it was kicked open. The other officer injured his foot from kicking the door.
‘Concerned about decision making’
LMPD officers catalog the damage done during a forced entry in the forced entry reports. Since police almost always entered through a front door, officers busted locks and door frames in 69 of the 72 entries reviewed by KyCIR. Police broke at least four windows. In one case, officers smashed the glass to distract the people inside from officers attempting to enter through the front door. In another, they broke a window with a concrete planter after officers heard a woman yelling for help inside a Pleasure Ridge Park home.
Once inside, they found the woman was not in danger, but “praying very loudly asking God for help.”
Repairing the damage falls to property owners. LMPD policy states that if the damage leaves the premises “vulnerable,” the officers should make arrangements to secure it “in a reasonable fashion.”
Lisa Osanka, executive director of the Louisville Metro Housing Authority, said their maintenance crews had to conduct “minor repairs” to secure an apartment door at the Dosker Manor housing complex after police smashed it with a battering ram on New Year’s Eve 2019. The officers were looking for drugs, but found none.
And at a Buechel apartment complex, it was up to the manager to fix a door after an officer kicked it in, even though the officer was chided for that action. The woman inside needed help after her electric wheelchair lost power, so she called 911. She told the dispatcher that the police would need a code to access a key, and she shared the code. The officer didn’t use it, and broke in the door instead.
Major Michael Bogan reviewed the incident and said it was obvious that accessing the key would have been a better idea.
“I’m concerned about the decision making, or lack thereof,” added Major Corey Robinson.
Patricia Roundtree said police never told her about any avenue to repair. Instead, she stapled the split wood together where she could.
Today, the door locks, but a hand-sized dent remains on the door’s metal casing.
What bothers her more is the way police treated her inside her own home.
To find her weed and gun, they dumped the contents of her dressers on to the floor. On top of that pile, she said, they emptied her trash can.
This work was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism to KyCIR.
Contact Jacob Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org.