It’s a familiar scenario: Police burst into a home with no warning. Someone draws a weapon. Shots are fired. Next thing you know, there’s a body on the ground.

Nationwide, the use of “no-knock” or “quick-knock” search warrants has proved problematic, with police officers subject to higher risks and innocent people often caught up in the crossfire. It’s no different in North Carolina where, two years ago, Raleigh police officers raided the wrong home, terrorizing the Black family who lived there.

The “no-knock” warrant officers executed in May 2020 didn’t have fatal consequences, but it easily could have. And despite the fact that there were no deaths, Yolanda Irving and her children are still traumatized.

The case itself is a tangle of mishaps and mistakes. First, the warrant was not for Irving’s home. Raleigh police officers intended to search a different house on the same street. On the warrant, the picture of the house is correct, but the address is wrong.

Second, in addition to illegally raiding Irving’s home, police also entered the home of Irving’s next-door neighbor Kenya Walton, for which they had no warrant at all. After following several teenagers into both homes, officers pointed assault rifles at the two families, put handcuffs on Walton’s 15-year-old son, Ziyel, and held everyone under watch for more than an hour as their homes were ransacked.

Third, it was disgraced former Raleigh police officer Omar Abdullah who procured the warrant. Abdullah was fired last year after he worked with a corrupt informant to jail a dozen Black men on false drug charges. The warrant fabricates a drug buy in what seems to be yet another attempt by Abdullah to make a wrongful arrest.

Much of this is old news. Abdullah’s conspiracy and his subsequent firing, as well as the $2 million settlement the Raleigh Police Department (RPD) reached with the wrongfully incarcerated men, was widely reported. Fewer people know, however, that Irving and Walton are also bringing a lawsuit against RPD. And recently, new developments in the case have raised serious doubts about the RPD’s willingness to reform.

The raid

Two years ago, on a Thursday afternoon in the spring, Irving was getting ready to relax with some TV before dinner when her 14-year-old son Jalen ran upstairs, screaming about SWAT.

“We thought that he was joking. Me, my kids … we thought he was just playing,” she says. “First I [saw] him dive on his bed, with his arms like, ‘I’m not moving, I’m not moving.’ And then going around the corner and seeing SWAT with guns pointing our way—” Irving pauses here, her voice trembling. When she says the word “guns,” it’s with a heavy sigh as she holds back tears.

“I was scared,” she says. “I thought my son was going to die …. The way he was running, he was running for his life. It’s like every step he made, they made. So it was like they could have just took the shot at any time.”

What Irving saw when she turned the corner were members of RPD’s Selective Enforcement Unit, the department’s equivalent of a SWAT team, carrying automatic weapons. They made Irving get on the floor, separated her from her daughter, and surrounded them.

They shouted at Jalen to get on the floor, a command impossible for him to obey since he is partially paralyzed. Eventually, they relented and let him remain on the bed, Irving says.

“I finally asked them, ‘What is this about?’” she says. “They said it was a search warrant, they’re looking for drugs or money. And I’m like, ‘What drugs? What money? I don’t know what you’re talking about.’”

The officers brought Irving and her children downstairs, where she saw her next-door neighbor’s son Ziyel in handcuffs. Officers held them there for about an hour and a half as they ransacked the house, Irving says, turning over furniture and looking for contraband that wasn’t there. They searched her kitchen cabinets for heroin. At that point, Abdullah came in.

“I’m guessing that he finally looked at us and realized that he had made a bad mistake,” Irving says. “But nobody’s telling us anything. They’re not talking to us. I am actually trying to make conversation with the other police officers so my kids won’t be so scared, because I am petrified.”

Irving says the officers continued to search her house before eventually filtering out. Abdullah showed her the search warrant, which had the wrong address. Now, she’s angry. Officers are walking away without answering her questions.

“You could have shot my son, you could have shot my daughter,” Irving says. “Then you’re having us on the ground for an hour or two, not telling us anything, and then you’re going to just walk away from me? No. Somebody needs to tell us something.”

The fallout

Despite the raid, the Raleigh Police Department remained reluctant to answer Irving’s questions, she says. In February, Irving and Walton—with the help of Emancipate NC, a nonprofit fighting for criminal justice reform—filed a lawsuit seeking compensation for their “loss of liberty … physical pain and injuries, serious psychological and emotional damage, and loss of quality of life,” according to the complaint.

After the raid, Irving felt unsafe in her own home, she says. Her son Jalen’s grades dropped and he wouldn’t leave the house. She and her family were already distrustful of the police, but now they avoid them at all costs.

“Jalen doesn’t really go outside anymore. He doesn’t talk to a lot of people [any] more. He’s just really standoffish,” Irving says. “I was scared, so I broke my lease and just left, because I was afraid they [were] going to come back. I really was.”

Walton’s family felt the effects as well, she says. Her son Ziyel, who was handcuffed, is also afraid to leave the house. His fear of crowds is so bad that he was unable to attend school in person, she says. When he gets a haircut, Walton pays to clear out the barbershop for an hour.

“Ziyel has it worse than everybody,” Walton says. “His anxiety is really bad. He used to be outside playing with the kids. Every time we had a family outing, he used to participate. [Now] he can’t stand being in pictures.”

RPD’s use of no-knock warrants

In addition to seeking damages for Irving and Walton, the lawsuit includes Emancipate NC as an “organizational plaintiff.” The nonprofit joined in an effort to compel the RPD to stop its widespread practice of using no-knock and quick-knock warrants, says lawyer Elizabeth Simpson.

The lawsuit has raised questions about RPD’s policy on no-knock warrants. In the two years since the lawsuit was filed, the RPD has continued to serve warrants in a no-knock or quick-knock style, Emancipate NC argues. The nonprofit cites the raid of Amir Abboud’s home in April of 2021, which is captured on video.

The day the suit was filed, in February, police chief Estella Patterson told WRAL the RPD does not execute no-knock warrants, although she did not point to a specific policy.

At that time, the RPD’s policy on searches of residences (enacted January 11, 2021) did not include any language about no-knock or quick-knock warrants, merely stating that “a uniformed police officer shall be present if there is reason to believe that forcible entry may be required.”

In response to the INDY’s request for comment in late November, RPD spokesman Lt. Jason Borneo pointed to a revised version of the search policy, apparently adopted in May, three months after the lawsuit was filed. Borneo declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing RPD’s policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

“The officer must give notice of the officer’s authority and purpose before entering,” the policy reads. “The Raleigh Police Department will not seek or serve ‘No-Knock’ search warrants.”

This revised policy was only made public, however, months after Patterson’s statement to WRAL. Earlier versions of the policy document (from late May and August) do not include any language about “no-knock” warrants.

Last month, Emancipate NC asked Chief Patterson to participate in a deposition to answer questions about the RPD’s policy. In response, the RPD legal team quickly moved for a protective order to prevent the deposition. No decision has yet been made in favor of either party, but the move was one more step in an ongoing campaign of resistance from the RPD, which has tried to keep information about the raid (and its policies) under wraps.

Earlier this year, the RPD’s legal team successfully fought to prevent body camera footage of the raid from being publicly released. They also tried to get Emancipate NC removed from the case in November, a motion that was denied.

The dangers of quick-knock warrants

Regardless of RPD’s policy on no-knock warrants, further reforms around quick-knock warrants are needed, says Simpson.

“While Raleigh police may have ended the official policy of using no-knock warrants, they continue to enter private homes way too quickly after they knock,” Simpson says. “The purpose of the ‘knock and announce’ requirement is to give people an actual opportunity to realize what is happening and to voluntarily permit entry. By entering one or two seconds after the knock, Raleigh police officers are still creating a very risky situation where residents are caught by surprise.”

That element of surprise “needlessly risks the lives of both police and civilians, who may react out of fear and stress, rather than rationality,” Simpson adds. “Police departments that operate under best practices prioritize the sanctity of human life over the small chance someone could destroy evidence during a brief pause to permit voluntary entry.”

Emancipate NC wants the RPD to implement reforms to its search policies like the ones put in place by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department. Both agencies require officers to “ascertain that they are being denied entry before they forcibly enter a home, unless there are special extenuating circumstances, like risk to life,” Emancipate NC wrote in a news release.

Nobody wants to apologize

Before the lawsuit was filed, Irving had basically given up on justice being done, she says. Abdullah’s involvement, which brought many of his wrongful actions to public light, continues to shape the case. Irving and Walton each say the most frustrating thing for them is the RPD’s refusal to admit wrongdoing.

Before the raid, Walton had some respect for law enforcement, she says. Now, not so much. During her deposition, Walton says she felt like the RPD was trying to make it seem like her family was at fault.

“It made me look at the police force and law enforcement completely different,” Walton says. “I’m going to be honest, I’m not even looking for money. If they would just give me a genuine apology, it would sit well with me. Instead, they’re trying to make everybody a monster.”

Irving also wants the RPD to demonstrate some remorse, she says, although she’s still seeking justice for her children.

“I still feel like the city of Raleigh and Abdullah owe us an apology, and nobody wants to apologize,” she says. “I want them to understand that things could have gone sideways real quick. Then what would have happened? Then you apologize, if one of my sons was killed or hurt? Then you [were] going to say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry’? No, you need to say that now.” 

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