Faced with widespread public outrage and even death threats after the release of a video of a February marijuana raid in which two dogs were shot, one killed and one wounded, by SWAT team members in a family home with a young child present, the Columbia, Missouri, Police Department Monday moved to dampen the uproar. At a press conference, Chief Ken Burton announced he was immediately imposing new restrictions on the way the department serves search warrants.
Although the raid occurred in February, the video did not appear until last week, after homeowner Jonathan Whitworth pleaded guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia. Since then, the video has gone virulently viral and has now exceeded the one million views mark on YouTube. It shows the SWAT team pushing through the front door, aggressively entering while yelling commands and obscenities, and includes the sounds of barking and gunfire, following by the yelping of the dying and wounded dogs. The video also shows Whitworth's wife and seven-year-old son being hustled away by police, while Wentworth himself is forced to the ground with guns pointed at him.
According to the affidavit used to obtain the search warrant, Whitworth was a marijuana dealer selling high-grade pot. The affidavit cites two "truthful and reliable" snitches as saying so. It also includes the results of a search of Whitworth's trash in which police found THC residues. Despite the information in the affidavit, police found only a pipe and a small quantity of pot.
Chief Burton acknowledged that his officers had committed errors and announced six policy changes for the way the SWAT team handles search warrants. He said they were among the most restrictive SWAT policies in the country.
"The public can be assured that a similar incident is not going to happen again without somebody's head rolling because it is now the policy," Burton said. "We know what we are going to do. We're telling you how we are going to handle these things."
Here are the policy changes:
IMMEDIATE CHANGES TO COLUMBIA POLICE NARCOTIC SEARCH WARRANT SERVICE PROTOCOL
- The Narcotics Sergeant and SWAT Commander are being removed from the decision making process on whether or not, and how, a narcotic search warrant will be served.
- Once probable cause has been established to obtain a search warrant for narcotics, the target location will be kept under surveillance. If the surveillance is interrupted or compromised for any reason, service of a search warrant may not be authorized, or the manner in which it is served may be changed.
- Warrant services for narcotic-related search warrants will be served within a reasonable time after the warrant is obtained, generally within 8 hours of receipt.
- Prior to serving the search warrant, the Bureau Commander (Captain) over the area will be briefed about the warrant, and he or she will review all available intelligence related to the request, and will decide how the warrant will be served. Assessing the potential danger to officers, innocent bystanders, and suspects, along with what law enforcement purpose will be served by serving the search warrant, will be weighed in their decision.
- All available intelligence will be used to attempt to mitigate unnecessary risk to any person. Issues such as children being present will be strong evidence that dynamic entry should not be considered except under the most extreme circumstances. SWAT Officers always have and will continue to be bound by the Columbia Police Department policy regarding any use of force.
They will, however, still shoot your dog, at least as far as this policy is concerned.