Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo talks to reporters during a news conference at Memorial Hermann Hospital on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019 in Houston. An attempt to serve a search warrant at a suspected drug house on Monday, quickly turned into a gunbattle that killed two suspects and injured five undercover narcotics officers, including four who were shot, Acevedo said. (Photo: Godofredo A. Vasquez/Houston Chronicle via AP)
A deadly shootout that injured five narcotics police officers serving a search warrant on a house in Houston underlines the dangers of such operations, primarily because the officers are entering unknown territory, experts said Tuesday.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said the officers “immediately came under fire” upon entering the home on the city’s southeast side Monday afternoon. The suspects were killed. Four of the officers were shot and a fifth suffered a knee injury.
“Two things you know about police work: It can be tremendously boring 98 percent of the time and extremely dangerous and dynamic 2 percent of the time,” he said Tuesday at a news conference. “But we know that they are always in danger and it’s a dangerous business we are in.”
David Thomas, a criminal justice professor at Florida Gulf Coast University and a former police officer, said officers face extreme risks when serving warrants.
“The reason behind that is you are now dealing with somebody that knows they are wanted and so in many instances, they feel they have nothing to lose,” Thomas said.
Acevedo said after the first officer was shot, the other officers had to enter the home through its front door, a narrow area that the police chief called a “fatal funnel.”
“Our officers don’t’ have a choice. They’ve got to enter that fatal funnel, go through it. The tactical advantage really is in the hands of the suspect,” Acevedo said. “But that’s what they get paid to do. You know your brother is down. You go in. That’s what they did. We’re really proud of them.”
John Bostain, a former police officer in Virginia who trains law enforcement officers nationwide, said officers serving search warrants are usually at risk because they are going into a “completely unknown location.”
“Unless you have been in that house before, often times you are going into a location and don’t have any clue about what the layout is,” Bostain said.
Acevedo told The Associated Press that his agency prepares an operations plan and a threat assessment of the location that officers will enter to serve warrants.
“We try to work up a house as much as possible, but 99 times out of a 100 we don’t hang out in the house, we haven’t been in the house. You just do the best you can,” Acevedo said.
The chief said there’s no such thing as a “routine” serving of a warrant.
“You hope for the best but prepare for the worst. In this case, we experienced the worst,” Acevedo said.
Two officers were shot in the face. Police said one of them — identified by Acevedo as a 50-year-old sergeant — was discharged from the hospital Tuesday. Dr. Michelle McNutt, chief of trauma surgery at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in Houston, said the second is facing several facial trauma surgeries.
Acevedo said the names of the injured officers are not being released because they work undercover.
While all the Houston officers injured on Monday are expected to survive, serving warrants can be deadly for officers. From 2009 to 2019, 73 officers were killed nationwide while attempting to serve warrants, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, a nonprofit group that keeps track of officer fatalities nationwide.
Police knew black tar heroin was being sold at the property and a team of nine narcotics officers was attempting to serve a search warrant when they forced open the front door and immediately faced gunfire, Acevedo said. One of the suspects, 58-year-old Rhogena Nicholas, was shot and killed as she tried to grab the service weapon of the first officer to be injured, he said. The second suspect killed was 59-year-old Dennis Tuttle, the chief said.
Acevedo said the first officer through the door was charged by a large pit bull, which he shot and killed. Acevedo said Tuttle immediately opened fire, striking that officer in the shoulder.
“(The officer) went down, fell on the sofa in the living room, at which time a female suspect … reached over the officer and started making a move for his shotgun,” Acevedo said. More officers entered and shot her.
He said none of the officers was wearing a body camera.
Police can minimize potential dangers using surveillance to gather information about the property ahead of the raid, Thomas said.
“Because what we know before we enter means the world,” he said.
In recent years, many law enforcement agencies serving warrants have moved away from doing “dynamic entries” — breaking down doors and storming a location.
Thor Eells, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, said his organization instead advises agencies to adopt other methods, such as waiting for a suspect to leave a targeted location and arrest them in a traffic stop.
“We highly encourage these other methods of warrant service to reduce the risk to both the officers but then also to the suspects,” Eells said.
But despite planning and precautions, “a lot of danger” remains for officers when they serve warrants.
“You just never know where and when these things will go wrong … Unfortunately, it didn’t go as planned” on Monday, Eells said.
Associated Press writer Jamie Stengle contributed to this report from Dallas.