Police were doing surveillance on someone Joshua Bennett knew, working up a case she was trafficking drugs.
They observed her at Bennett’s rural property, northeast of Calgary, on consecutive days in late March of last year. Later on the second day, they saw Bennett enter the woman’s house in Calgary, then exit carrying something in a black garbage bag. Undercover officers followed him home.
A confidential informant, someone with a criminal record who traded tips for money, had told investigators that the woman “uses stash houses to hide her drugs and likes using rural areas,” according to court records.
That, more or less, was the evidence the constables, from a provincial joint-forces agency called Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT), presented to a judge to get a search warrant.
A week later, at 7 a.m. on a bitterly cold morning, police stormed Bennett’s home.
Officers in commando gear bashed in a door and used an armoured vehicle to smash through the living room window, Bennett and his partner, Jennifer Hacker, say.
“And all of a sudden, you heard all this ‘bang, bang, bang’ going off in the house,” Hacker recounted in an interview last week. “It sounds like we were being shot at, and it was tear gas that they were shooting into our house.” Officers had also set off a stun grenade, she said.
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As their home filled with throat-burning smoke, Bennett and Hacker scampered to their garage. They opened the door to the outside and were greeted by guns pointed at their heads by a team of tactical officers.
“It’s so surreal,” Hacker said. “Like it was something out of a movie. Just surrounded. Nobody knocked on the door, nobody called on a megaphone. Nobody.”
“Like, I’m not a Pablo Escobar, you know,” Bennett said. “All they had to do was knock on the door.”
‘Where is the meth?’
Paramilitary-style no-knock police raids are supposed to be rare in Canada. By law, officers are normally required to “knock and announce” — knock on the door, announce their presence as police, and wait a reasonable amount of time for someone to answer — before executing a search warrant.
But investigators also have sole discretion on when there’s “exigent circumstances” — concerns about safety or potential destruction of evidence — to let them depart from that rule. An ongoing CBC News investigation has found that this happens hundreds of times a year in Canada among the country’s half-dozen largest police forces alone, and yet there’s no data on how often the raids actually turn up drugs or weapons, or result in charges.
After officers cuffed and marched Bennett and Hacker to awaiting police cars, they were taken to Calgary police headquarters for 3½ hours and questioned.
“They asked, ‘Where is the meth? Where’s the hard drugs?'” Bennett recalled.
“I said, ‘Well, my drugs are downstairs in the basement.’ I had a backpack with some marijuana that Jen uses to sleep at night. They came back out of the investigation room and said, ‘We don’t care about the marijuana, where’s the hard drugs?'”
As part of the same police investigation, another squad of officers had raided the northwest Calgary home of Bennett’s acquaintance, the house where he’d been surveilled the week before. There, investigators allege, they found a half kilogram of cocaine, 253 grams of methamphetamine, 25 grams of fentanyl and six kilograms of cannabis. They charged her with drug and weapons offences.
Bennett told CBC he did, in fact, visit the woman to purchase four ounces (113 grams) of marijuana from her for his partner, who he said has a medical cannabis authorization. But he says that was two weeks earlier. The week before the raids, he says, he returned to pick up some Lululemon workout clothes she was selling and left with the items in a black garbage bag. A surveillance photo of him carrying the garbage bag was among the evidence police cited to persuade the judge to grant the search warrant for his home.
Nothing was seized at Bennett and Hacker’s home. They weren’t charged with anything, and were let go.
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The damage to their home, which they were renting, was later estimated at more than $50,000, according to two different repair estimates their landlord shared with CBC News. The landlord is on the hook for the amount, but he kept Bennett and Hacker’s damage deposit. The City of Calgary refused a compensation claim, saying the police tactics were “necessary” to execute the search warrant and “the officers were acting in accordance with their duties and were not negligent.”
Lack of data hampers accountability, defence lawyer says
Canada’s police forces don’t publish statistics on how many no-knock raids they execute every year. So CBC News made access to information requests to the country’s biggest police departments to try to find out.
Among the police forces that provided numbers, Quebec’s provincial police, the Sûreté du Québec, conducted the most: 143 last year. Ontario Provincial Police were next at 85. Police in Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver and London, Ont., also supplied data.
The Toronto Police Service said it would be too difficult to count because it would require manually checking officers’ notes from each of the 500-plus search warrants executed last year. However, back in 2012, a sergeant on the force’s tactical unit testified that they do almost 200 no-knock raids a year. A Toronto police spokesperson confirmed this week that the number is still in the hundreds every year.
The RCMP said its tactical teams deployed 99 times in 2019 and the first half of 2020 for so-called high-risk warrants. But it couldn’t say how many of those were no-knock operations based on search warrants, as opposed to arrest warrants for high-risk suspects, for instance.
The police rationale for a no-knock raid — sometimes called a “dynamic entry” in law-enforcement parlance — is that suspects might be armed and dangerous so officers need the element of surprise, or that evidence such as drugs could be flushed down a toilet if they knock first.
The problem, critics say, is that tactical officers bashing their way, unannounced, into someone’s home can be dangerous, even deadly, for civilians and police alike, and also deeply traumatic for any innocent people caught up in it. Not knowing how often weapons or drugs are actually found means there’s no way to balance the tactic’s effectiveness against those risks, Toronto criminal lawyer Erin Dann told CBC News earlier this year.
“The only ones that ever get to court are where the police go in and actually find what they’re looking for,” said Dann, who fought a recent drug raid case at the Ontario Court of Appeal. “So you have this kind of skewed idea where, ‘Look, every time we do it, we find drugs.'”
‘These tactics do pose a risk’
No-knock raids also tend to have a severe impact on people who are policed the most. CBC News has found at least four reported deaths in the past 11 years during no-knock searches, three of whom were Black men in Ontario and Quebec, and one of whom was a London, Ont., man who struggled with mental-health issues.
“We recognize these tactics do pose a risk to the public and the police,” Vancouver Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Steve Addison said in an emailed response to questions about his agency’s position on no-knock raids.
He said the VPD doesn’t have a specific policy and recognizes they are sometimes “necessary to preserve life or protect evidence” when executing search warrants, but noted the department hasn’t actually conducted one in the past two years.
“The VPD has been quite successful in gathering evidence and obtaining convictions in organized crime cases without using dynamic entries,” Addison said, citing other “investigative techniques” that he wouldn’t elaborate on.
Recent reporting by CBC’s The Fifth Estate highlighted a series of no-knock raids in Ottawa that stemmed from bad tips or were deemed to have violated constitutional rights. In March, police there moved to tightly but temporarily restrict the practice. Police Chief Peter Sloly said it shouldn’t affect officers’ ability to investigate cases.
Ottawa is the first force in Canada to formally announce a suspension of most no-knock raids to execute search warrants. Many U.S. police departments had already done so in the wake of the death of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police during a botched drug raid in Louisville, Ky., in March of last year.
Evidence amounted to a ‘hill of beans,’ lawyer says
Toronto defence lawyer Kim Schofield, who has handled hundreds of cases involving search warrants, said it’s essential police departments start keeping statistics so that no-knock raids can be properly evaluated.
“In order for there to be confidence in the police … in order for them to be truly accountable, we have to know, in fact, what they’re doing.”
CBC News asked Schofield to assess the warrant that Alberta police used to search Bennett and Hacker’s home last year. She said that in her view, it was “completely unreasonable” for officers to smash their way into the home, and the sworn evidence police presented to a provincial court judge amounted to “a hill of beans.”
“In this case, first of all, the [confidential informant’s] tip isn’t compelling,” she said. “Second of all, the degree to which it’s corroborated is extremely limited.”
She said it’s an example of what courts sometimes call “the innocuous made sinister,” where police attempt to cast what might be totally normal behaviour — carrying something in a garbage bag, for instance, or visiting someone’s home — in more ominous terms.
In an email to CBC News, the joint-forces ALERT agency that conducted the operation pointed out the judge did approve multiple search warrants, and “a large quantity of harmful drugs was seized” at the other home. Calling it a “mistaken raid” would be “an unfair misrepresentation of this ALERT investigation,” spokesperson Michael Tucker said.
After the raid, Hacker and Bennett said, they had to live out of a trailer on their property for a month while replacing windows and the door, and spending days trying to scrub the tear gas residue out of their home.
“Myself and family and friends were pouring milk in rags to cover our faces to clean the tear gas,” Bennett said.
They say they’re so traumatized that they felt compelled to move away, and now live in Lethbridge, Alta. Hacker said she didn’t drive for almost a year afterward out of fear she might make a small mistake, get pulled over, be confronted by a police officer and get triggered. She said she’s been diagnosed with PTSD and no longer trusts police.
“Those are the people that are supposed to protect me. And unfortunately, those are the people that have hurt me,” she said. “Ask questions, do the proper investigation. I mean, it can ruin people’s lives. It really can.”