- In the wake of the police raid that killed Breonna Taylor in March, no-knock and knock-and-announce searches across the country have faced scrutiny.
- There’s no nationwide database that tracks them all, but at least 78 civilians and 13 officers have died in police raids that went wrong between 2010 and 2016, according to a New York Times tally.
- In one recent instance in Chicago, police violently burst into an innocent woman’s home and pointed guns at her 4-year-old granddaughter and adult son with autism, she told Insider.
- Sharon Lyons, 55, has sued the Chicago Police Department over the incident, and said they left her and her family traumatized and permanently fearful for their own safety.
- The Chicago Police Department declined to comment on the raid, due to the pending litigation, and a lawyer representing the city of Chicago in the lawsuit did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
When Sharon Lyons gazed out her window on the evening of February 20 to see why police were in the street outside her Chicago apartment building, she wondered briefly if something had happened with her neighbours downstairs.
Then, she heard a loud boom.
Roughly 16 police officers busted through her building’s front entrance, thundered up the stairs, and smashed in Lyons’ front door, according to court documents. They pointed their guns in what seemed like every possible direction and shone lights in her face. They yelled at everyone in the apartment to “GET DOWN! GET THE F— DOWN!”
The officers, from the Chicago Police Department, were there to execute a search warrant. They were looking for a suspect named “Blondie,” whom they believed was selling heroin out of the apartment, according to a federal lawsuit Lyons filed in June.
But no one by that name was connected with Lyons’ home. The only people inside were members of her family, who were cooped up together that winter evening while they recovered from illnesses.
Among those family members were Lyons’ 4-year-old granddaughter, Lillie, and one of her adult sons, Julius, who has autism. Lyons said the officers pointed guns at both Lillie and Julius, who screamed and cried in terror.
“It was just, it was chaos,” Lyons told Insider in August. “Every time I think about it I get mad.”
Amid a nationwide reckoning over police violence since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis this May, Lyons has watched as other victims of botched police raids have garnered notoriety and spurred movements for justice.
She took note of the death of Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old EMT who Louisville police officers fatally shot in March during a raid.
“Unprofessional,” Lyons said of the raid that killed Taylor. “I didn’t like it.”
Police raids across the country have left a trail of deaths and trauma
Police departments across the country have faced similar lawsuits over no-knock raids gone wrong, a practice that activists have called for localities to ban.
At worst, officers have killed innocent people. At best, they have left families like Lyons scarred and traumatized, but alive. Experts have estimated police carry out 20,000 no-knock raids across the US each year.
In the wake of Taylor’s death, Louisville banned its police department from conducting no-knock raids. Other cities, such as Houston, have done the same, and Oregon and Florida have implemented statewide bans.
Police have argued in the past that unannounced raids are safer for the officers conducting them, since the suspects will be caught by surprise and off-guard.
But nationwide, drug raids have proven deadly to both civilians and police officers – a 2017 New York Times investigation found that at least 47 civilians and five officers died in knock-and-announce searches between 2010 and 2016, and at least 31 civilians and eight officers died in no-knock raids in the same time period.
Typically, lawsuits are the only way for victims of wrongful raids to get justice, and not all of them result in a settlement. A number of cases in recent years have prompted outrage after officers who killed or injured innocent civilians were protected from lawsuits due to a doctrine known as “qualified immunity.”
In one 2017 case, a federal appeals court ruled in favour of a Florida deputy who fatally shot a legally armed, innocent man inside his home after knocking on his door at 1:30 a.m., intending to ask about a motorcycle parked out front.
The deputy was protected under qualified immunity, even though the man he killed was not a criminal suspect, the deputy had no warrant, and he had not identified himself as a law enforcement officer.
Chicago police don’t try to verify that they’re raiding the right homes before they enter, one lawyer alleges
Unlike the raid that killed Taylor, the Chicago police department didn’t use a specific no-knock warrant when they searched Lyons’ home, her lawyer, Al Hofeld, told Insider.
But nevertheless, Lyons said the officers failed to knock on the door or warn her before they burst into her building.
They also didn’t present the search warrant until after they had already turned Lyons’ apartment inside out searching for a suspect and drugs that weren’t there, she said.
Lyons said she no longer feels safe in her own home. She said she wakes up frequently during the night, hoping to be alert enough to hear any warning signs of armed strangers outside.
Her lawsuit alleged that Chicago police had raided her home after they received bad information from a “criminally active confidential informant,” who said a suspect known as Blondie was selling heroin from the apartment.
“Officers’ actions toward Ms. Lyons and her family were the completely avoidable product of another sloppy search warrant investigation, and their display of excessive force violated the family’s Fourth Amendment constitutional rights,” the lawsuit alleged.
Hofeld said the police made no other efforts to verify the informant’s story before the raid. He also said it’s not the first time police have failed to verify that information – he has worked on at least 10 similar cases since 2014.
“What we find is that they are not even making reasonable efforts to link the address given by the informant with the target name given by the informant,” Hofeld told Insider. “They have lots of tools at their disposal – they have police department databases, they have proprietary databases that the department has access to … they can contact utility companies, they can issue subpoenas, they can do surveillance, they can do a number of things.”
Chicago police have a policy to ‘minimise trauma’ for children, but didn’t follow it, Lyons’ lawyer says
The Chicago Police Department declined to comment on the raid, due to the pending litigation, and a lawyer representing the city of Chicago in the lawsuit did not respond to Insider’s request for comment. A representative for the City of Chicago Department of Law did not respond to a list of questions from Insider.
The police department referred Insider to its policies governing search warrants, which require that police knock and “when applicable, announce their presence and provide the residents a reasonable opportunity to allow entry.”
Beyond that, the policies dictate that officers maintain a “sensitive approach” and “minimise trauma” when children are present.
But the officers who searched Lyons’ home broke both of those policies, Hofeld said.
“Ms. Lyons’ case is an example of them not following the new search warrant policy that says officers have to have due regard for the emotional and physical safety and wellbeing of kids,” he said. “It doesn’t look like they did a good job of linking the target and the address, either.”
When it came to 4-year-old Lillie, Lyons said the first officer who searched the bedroom where she was napping pointed a gun at her, and then a second officer did another search, pointing his gun at her, too.
Lyons’ lawsuit alleged that the officers’ actions were contrary to the city of Chicago’s own understanding of the impact violence can have on young children.
An abundance of research nationwide has shown that violence against children in general – or even the act of witnessing violence – can result in short- and long-term effects, including post-traumatic stress disorder and other emotional or behavioural problems that can last into adulthood.
One 2010 study published in the Children and Youth Services Review found that even just witnessing the arrest of a household member was “significantly predictive” of post-traumatic stress symptoms, though the study was limited to children within the child welfare population.
‘I would have let them in’
Though no one in Lyons’ home was arrested during the February raid, her lawsuit said both Lyons and her granddaughter “suffer severe, long-term, emotional, and psychological distress, including symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Lyons told Insider her granddaughter has not received any counseling after witnessing the police raid and being held at gunpoint, but said she frequently asks questions about the incident and will likely remember it for the rest of her life.
She said the officers kept the girl by herself in the bedroom for roughly half an hour, forbidding Lyons to enter and comfort her.
“They didn’t let me get my granddaughter until a third officer came in to search my room,” Lyons said. “That’s when they let me get to my grandbaby.”
She said neither the officers nor any representatives from the Chicago police department have apologised to her, nor asked if her family was alright.
Hofeld can tick off a lengthy list of things that Chicago police should have done differently during the raid, or policies the department should implement in the future.
But Lyons offered up a simpler solution for the officers who raided her home.
“I wish they would have knocked on my door,” she said. “I would have let them in.”
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