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Family and friends of Josef Richardson Gather for a candle light vigil at the Budget 7 Motel in Port Allen on Sunday evening, August 25, 2019.

Members of a West Baton Rouge Parish drug task force gathered outside a motel in late July three miles north of Port Allen after getting a tip from an informant who reportedly bought drugs from someone in Room No. 5 earlier that week.

Moments after bursting through the door, a deputy — later identified as Vance Matranga Jr. — fired his gun and struck 38-year-old Josef Richardson in the back of the neck. Richardson’s girlfriend, Jessica Clouatre, told The Advocate through her attorney that Matranga was surrendering to officers before the deputy fired the shot, just seconds after the narcotics team stormed the room.

The shooting is casting light and raising questions about the use of “no-knock” warrants, a legal tool that allows law enforcement to immediately enter private buildings without knocking or otherwise announcing themselves.

In Richardson’s case, detectives wrote to the judge saying a no-knock warrant was needed to prevent the concealing of evidence. But national and local observers have long warned about the dangers the practice presents for officers, suspects and people inside of buildings who may not be involved in criminal activity.

Benjamin Crump, a national civil rights attorney who represented the family of Trayvon Martin and currently Richardson’s family, disputed the need deputies cited in their warrant to search Richardson's motel room.

“It is a strategy that needs to be employed very sparingly because of the propensity to have tragic, violent results,” Crump said. “It’s almost foreseeable.”

Supporters of no-knock warrants, including all four candidates running for sheriff of West Baton Rouge Parish this fall, say they’re necessary for law enforcement and, when done properly, can quickly neutralize a situation and avoid lengthy standoffs with suspects.

Details about the July 25 shooting haven’t been fully released, and Louisiana State Police say their investigation is active and ongoing.

According to an autopsy, Richardson suffered a single gunshot wound to the back of his neck that severed a major area of his spinal column and damaged the base of his skull. A federal wrongful death lawsuit filed by his family last week argues he wasn’t a threat to deputies and was unarmed, wearing only his underwear.

Ronald Haley Jr., a Baton Rouge lawyer representing Richardson’s family in the lawsuit against Matranga and the sheriff’s office, said the often chaotic scenes that play out during no-knock raids raises the chance of someone getting hurt.

“The probability of Josef Richardson dying if this is a regular search warrant would have decreased,” Haley said. “When we deal with no-knock warrants, there needs to be a threshold for what you’re going into there for.”

Haley and critics say no-knock warrants should be used only in select circumstances, such as when arresting people known to be violent and the element of surprise is needed to catch such suspects off guard.

Disposal or concealment of evidence, a reason often cited in warrant applications, isn’t justifiable, said former Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank, who currently serves in a leadership role for the Center for Policing Equity.

Departments should instead require investigators to specify clear dangers people they’re serving a warrant for pose against officers or others nearby, Burbank said. Methods like arresting people as they’re leaving and searching their property later are safer for officers and suspects, Burbank said.

“No-knocks should be held to that very high standard: extensive criminal activity and there is a significant danger to the police officer if you don’t serve it in that particular manner,” he said. “No-knock warrants should be the rare exception."

In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that law officers need not knock if there is a risk of danger or evidence being destroyed, but some police agencies have begun phasing out using no-knock warrants even in those cases.

Their use in those cases became a major flashpoint earlier this year when two people were killed and multiple officers were injured during a no-knock raid in Houston. The city's police chief said shortly after that the department would no longer use the practice outside of a few specific circumstances.

Only two were filed in District Court in West Baton Rouge Parish when The Advocate requested records since 2016. The sheriff's office includes warrants in criminal case files and doesn't separate regular and no-knock warrants. 

But those filings included the July 25 application to search the motel where Richardson had been living. Authorities seized what they believe was methamphetamine and marijuana from the room, according to a sheriff’s office report.

"It's a tool that law enforcement has to have in order to do an effective job to get the criminals off the streets," West Baton Rouge Sheriff Mike Cazes said when asked about no-knock warrants during a recent public forum.

Other candidates running against him also voiced support for their use, agreeing they’re needed to prevent evidence from being lost and to avoid officers from getting hurt when arresting potentially violent suspects.

Mike Zito, a former Port Allen policeman and one of four Democrats vying for sheriff, said law officers don't always know who they're encountering, and "catching them while they're sleeping" is sometimes the safest path. 

J. Robin Free, a former district court judge also running for sheriff, said he signed hundreds of no-knock warrants during his time on the bench. “No-knock warrants are absolutely necessary in the enforcement of the law,” he said, recalling times he went on drug enforcement ride-alongs and would frequently hear the sound of flushing toilets before people opened the door to officers.

Sheriff candidate Barnell L. Williams agreed with the other candidates but said he sees room for changes in when and how they’re used.

“No-knock warrants are an effective tool, but it's a dangerous tool,” Williams said. “I think we need a little more training on that because it also puts officers at risk.”

SWAT members in the West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office train for operations every month. Records show Matranga completed basic SWAT training and had extensive weapons and use of force certifications.

But training may be beyond what local departments can provide their officers, said Peter Kraska, a criminal justice professor at Eastern Kentucky University who’s studied no-knock warrants.

He likened the tactics used during those raids to operations Navy SEALs perform and questioned whether local law enforcement agencies have the resources to equip their forces with similar skills.

In his research, Kraska observed a steady rise in which Louisiana law enforcement officers use no-knock warrants, a trend that mirrors national figures and includes even small departments. Many of the warrants he surveyed from individual law enforcement departments across the country relate to minor drug offenses and many charges were eventually dropped.

"Police departments are actually manufacturing dangerous situations by engaging in this activity," Kraska said. "They're making the choice to put their own officers in harm's way. From a public policy standpoint, it makes no sense.”

In 2012, a New Orleans Police officer fatally shot an unarmed 20-year-old while executing a no-knock warrant of his home in the Gentilly neighborhood as part of a marijuana investigation.

During the operation, a former officer, Joshua Colclough, shot Wendell Allen in the chest. Colclough later pleaded guilty to manslaughter. An independent study found the raid had been poorly planned and that officers stormed the home while several young children were inside.

Following Allen’s death, the city implemented changes to training and increased the use of police cameras.

Few departments have moved to reduce the number of no-knock warrants they serve, Kraska said. Often those changes arise from mounting social or political pressure following a high-profile shooting, such as the recent case in Houston.

Kraska speculated that cultures within some law enforcement agencies encourage frequent raids, which leaves little incentive for some departments to re-evaluate their use of no-knock warrants. He also observed military veterans, especially those who served in combat zones, tend to be less supportive of military-style raids than their peers.

"This approach is fun, dangerous," Kraska said. "It coincides with a lot of warrior fantasies that are really prevalent among a certain segment of police officers."

Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com.