Atlanta Police Department narcotics officers have not sought a single "no-knock" search warrant in the six months since 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston was killed in a botched drug raid. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which examined court records, the number of all drug search warrants also dropped dramatically, down from at least 125 in the six months preceding her death to 19 in the six months since then.
In the Johnston case, two of the officers involved have admitted lying to a judge in order to obtain a search warrant for her home. Since then, Police Chief Richard Pennington has reassigned the entire narcotics squad, and a federal grand jury is conducting a wide-ranging investigation into whether and how often police lied to obtain search warrants.
"No-knock" warrants, where police break down the doors of suspects without warning, are issued by judges when police claim they fear the destruction of evidence or that officer safety could be compromised by knocking on the door. Critics charge the use of "no-knock" warrants leads to the use of excessive force and increases the possibility of armed confrontations between homeowners and invading police.
Chief Pennington said the drop-off in warrants is a temporary lull. "Once the new narcotics team is put on the street, we are going to go right back into these areas that have a large concentration of drug activity," he said. "We are going to work with the community. But we are going to make sure they do everything by the book."
Pennington announced strict new procedures for obtaining search warrants two months ago. He said he told police officers to seek warrants in only the biggest cases until the new narc squad was trained and on the street.
Atlanta defense attorneys hailed the decline in warrant applications, saying it demonstrated that police were cutting corners before the Johnston killing. "Now that they are being watched more closely and have to follow the law, they don't get many warrants," said Peter Ross, who represents drug defendants. "In the past, they basically had the ability to fabricate the information and get a warrant for it."