'No-Knock' Drug Raids Have Become Deadly. Now, Houston Police Will End Them.

Relatives of several people killed in no-knock raids said they believe more investigation was needed before using the raid.

By St. John Barned-Smith and Keri Blakinger

The Houston Police Department will end its use of controversial no-knock warrants in most situations, Chief Art Acevedo said during a contentious town hall meeting three weeks after a deadly Pecan Park drug raid that left two people dead and five officers injured.

"The no-knock warrants are going to go away like leaded gasoline in this city," Acevedo told the crowd of activists, reformers and concerned community members gathered at Talento Bilingüe de Houston.

After the event -- organized by the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice -- Acevedo said any situation in which a no-knock raid would be required would have to receive a special exemption from his office.

"I'm 99.9 percent sure we won't be using them," he said. "If for some reason there would be a specific case, that would come from my office."

Given the wounded officers and the two slain civilians, the chief said he didn't "see the value" in the controversial raids.

"So, that's probably going to go by the wayside," he said.

The news came during the meeting late Monday after more than an hour of questions from a furious crowd that repeatedly pressed Acevedo on the conduct of his undercover officers, the use of no-knock warrants and inflammatory comments from Houston police union President Joe Gamaldi who recently seemed to suggest the department was surveilling law enforcement critics.

And, despite pushback earlier in the day from a defense lawyer representing the case agent at the center of the botched bust, Acevedo doubled down on his previous statements about the likelihood of charges against the police involved.

"I'm very confident we're going to have criminal charges on one or more of the officers," he said.

The crowd greeted his declaration with a chorus of angry voices demanding: "All of them."

Still, Acevedo said he wouldn't agree to let the Texas Ranger or the FBI take over the investigation.

"I feel very strongly that a police department that is not capable of investigating itself and finding malfeasance and criminal misconduct," he said, "we should just shut down -- and that's just not the case here."

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg also tried to assure the crowd that her office would investigate and that bad actors would not be allowed off the hook, but pushed back against "mob justice."

"There is a process -- it is the justice system," she said. "What you've seen is more accountability -- grand juries are returning more true-bills, and we're prosecuting them."

When asked whether he would fire Gamaldi or others allegedly surveilling or harassing activists, Acevedo said he wouldn't deal with speculation. In response, activist Shere Dore fired back with an allegation that earlier in the day police came out and took pictures of protesters gathered outside Houston police headquarters to demand murder charges against the case agent behind the raid.

Acevedo asked for video to look into the claim.

He went on to say that he would roll out a new policy in the coming weeks to make sure that officers participating in raids wear body cameras; the fact that they didn't in the Harding Street raid was a point of contention afterward, given the lack of evidence to counter the initial narrative.

But Acevedo's sweeping announcements weren't enough to placate some of the town hall attendees.

One member of the audience, Tomaro Bell, expressed indignation over police use of no-knock warrants.

"I do believe this officer is going to be charged with murder," she said, of Goines. "But the systemic problems that exist in the undercover narcotics division will not be resolved with this officer charged with murder."

Relatives of several people killed in no-knock raids said they believe more investigation was needed before using the raid.

Aurora Charles said her brother, 55-year-old Ponciano Montemayor Jr., was killed during a no-knock raid in September 2013.

"I just want to see change, that's it," she said. "They've got to do their homework before they go in with these warrants."

For some in the crowd, the killing of the Tuttles brought back memories of the killing of Joe Campos Torres in 1977.

"We've been down this road before," said Johnny Mata, a longtime civil rights activist. Still, he tried to assure them.

"To those who feel down and depressed, that nothing has changed, I'll tell you, it has," he said.

At the same time, he called on Gamaldi to reach out to activists.

"An apology is still needed," he said, suggesting the union could recall his election. "We don't need any demagoguery."

(c)2019 the Houston Chronicle

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