Five minutes before Michael Delgado’s alarm was set to go off last November, flash bang grenades shattered the windows to his north Minneapolis home. Eighteen Hennepin County officials dressed in riot gear and carrying semi-automatic rifles stormed inside searching for drugs. Another 10 to 14 stood guard outside as an armored truck equipped with a sniper focused on the house.
That search, Hennepin County District Judge Tanya Bransford ruled, was unconstitutional. She wrote that the “military style” tactics were a violation of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.
She was “troubled,” she wrote, “that the types of militarized actions used in this case seem to be a matter of customary business practice” for Hennepin’s drug task force squad, known as the Emergency Services Unit (ESU).
As Minnesota’s law enforcement agencies continue to arm themselves with more military weapons and tactics, critics of police militarization hope Bransford’s ruling at least slows the use of SWAT teams when executing search warrants.
Those teams escalate conflict and generally target minorities in poor neighborhoods, said Ben Feist, the legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.
“Police are supposed to be out there protecting their communities, rather than treating people like they’re enemies in a combat zone,” Feist said.
The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office declined to say whether the judge’s ruling, handed down in the summer, will affect the use of the SWAT team in the future.
Jim Franklin, the executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, said Bransford’s ruling was dangerous and limited the ability for police to protect themselves when going into potentially dangerous situations.
“My question to her is: Are you going to attend the dead cop’s funeral?” he said.
‘Interest of justice’
Protests in Ferguson, Mo., after the August 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, sparked a national debate about police use of military equipment and tactics.
Officers there were accompanied by mine-resistant vehicles, dressed in heavy body armor, carried assault rifles and grenade launchers for tear gas — which drew criticism from many detractors for escalating the situation. Many of those weapons were surplus equipment provided by the federal Department of Homeland Security.
Since 2005, the federal government has supplied Minnesota law enforcement agencies with nearly 2,700 semi-automatic rifles, 68 shotguns, 20 armored trucks and four helicopters, data reviewed by the Star Tribune shows.
The weapons and equipment were intended for overseas battlefields, but they are often used by police SWAT teams. And while those teams had been traditionally used during hostage situations and riots, a 2014 ACLU report found that 62 percent of SWAT deployments occur during drug searches.
And sometimes in those searches, officers entangle the wrong people, court records show.
That was the case for Donedria Alexander, a recovering addict who was with an ex-boyfriend visiting at a friend’s north Minneapolis home when they were snowed in on Feb. 3. That morning, Alexander awoke to flash bangs shattering the windows, sending glass shards through the room she was sleeping in. One of the glass pieces sliced her wrist. Believing someone was shooting at the home, she jumped into a closet, where her blood got on a baggie of cocaine.
Though she said she didn’t know the drugs were in the home and were not hers, she was charged with two counts of felony drug possession. For months those charges hung over her. Alexander had hoped to work with troubled youths in a hospital, but a background check turned up the charges. In August, a prosecutor dropped the case “in the interest of justice.”
“It was a big injustice,” Alexander said.
In another case, Hennepin County’s Emergency Services Unit (ESU) raided a north Minneapolis home last year searching for drugs and encountered family members who had just come from a funeral. According to court records, one woman would later testify that she saw officers dressed in military fatigues throw what she thought was a bomb into the home. She heard a boom and saw white smoke blowing in front of the house.
After knocking down a door with a battering ram, officers pointed assault rifles at three people inside the house and forced them to get onto their knees, including one who was pregnant. That woman testified she was ordered to crawl to a door.
Though police found prescription drugs in the home that led to a minor drug charge, a judge threw out that evidence after finding that the police should have never searched the home.
The suspect they were after was already in custody.
Hennepin County’s use of its ESU team has grown steadily since 2007, according to data provided by the Sheriff’s Office. The unit deployed 30 times nearly a decade ago to serve search warrants, and 71 times in 2015.
The county declined to provide any other information about its ESU team, including how many raids are used for drug searches.
Court records show that when officers want ESU back up, they must fill out a form to determine if the search will be high risk. Criteria include a suspect’s criminal history and the likelihood that weapons are at a home.
That was one reason why a Golden Valley officer sought the ESU team for the search of Delgado’s home. The officer wasn’t actually after the 30-year-old, but another man staying at his home, Walter Power, who was suspected of selling marijuana.
But because Delgado had a registered firearm and was licensed to carry, Bransford signed off on an application for “no-knock” search warrant to enter a home unannounced.
Bransford said in an interview with the Star Tribune that she did not know that up to 32 officers would be involved in the search.
Guarding the ESU was the Ballistic Engineered Armored Response vehicle, called the BEAR, which the county purchased using a $417,705 grant from the state Department of Public Safety. A sniper sat atop the BEAR, along with an armed officer protecting the sniper.
Once inside, officers found enough marijuana to charge Power with fifth-degree drug possession — the lowest possible charge.
Power’s public defender fought the charges and asked Bransford to suppress the drugs found in the home on the basis that the search was unreasonable under the Constitution. Bransford agreed, comparing the case to one in 1992 in which five officers smashed down a suspect’s door, handcuffed and blindfolded him and questioned him without a Miranda warning.
“The militarized actions in [the Power] case were far more extreme,” Bransford wrote. After Bransford suppressed the drugs, the Hennepin County attorney’s office dropped the case.
Before the raid, Delgado said he and Power were childhood friends, and he only put Power up for a few nights. After, he said he kicked Power out of the home and hasn’t spoken with him since.
Now he’s fighting Hennepin County in court to reimburse him for the broken windows and doors. The former Army combat veteran is also trying to get his gun back.
To Delgado, the search was entirely avoidable.
“They could have said, ‘We’d like to search your house,’ ” he said. “They could have just asked.”