It Isn’t About No-Knocks. It’s About Home Invasions.

Monday, November 24th, 2008

Chris Roach notes last week’s drug raid death of FBI agent Sam Hicks, and writes…

…”libertarians’ silence on the Hicks’ case as the facts have come out is noteworthy.  The pro-drug-dealer libertarians of the CATO [sic] Institute make a big show of every mistaken drug raid, while ignoring the many cases of brutal drug dealer violence against police and one another.”

Well first, my “silence” on the issue is due mainly to the fact that the case is only a few days old, and I’ve had other things to work on.  But I’ll bite.  Let’s look at this case.  Unsubtly referring to me, Roach writes:

FBI agent, Samuel Hicks, was killed this week in Pittsburgh while serving an arrest warrant in a botched drug raid.  He was 33.  After the agent knocked on the suspect’s door and announced his intention, the suspect apparently proceeded to flush his stash of cocaine down the toilet.  After the suspect didn’t answer, they were shot by the suspect’s wife when they came through the threshold.  The arrest went down using the “knock and announce” tactics and non-SWAT gear that libertarians have long asked for.

Problem is, I haven’t “long asked for” police to knock and announce before blowing open doors and raiding private homes to enforce nonviolent, consensual crimes.  I’ve explained on several occasions (including the last paragraph of the post he links to) that my problem with paramilitary raids for nonviolent offenses is not that the police don’t knock first, it’s with the forcible entry into a private home in the first place.   These tactics create violence and confrontation where none existed before.  An announcement is better than no announcement.  But that’s beside the point.  For the people inside (this case being the exception), the difference is usually negligible.

It’s the paramilitary tactics that are the problem.  These tactics carry a very low margin for error, on the part of both the police and the suspects they’re raiding.  You’re waking people up, and while they’re groggy and fearful, you’re forcing them to process and evaluate an armed confrontation.  I don’t care how much force you bring, that’s a needlessly dangerous situation, not just for suspects and innocent bystanders, but for police officers.  And even if all of these raids went down exactly as planned, there’s the broader question of whether the image of armed men dressed as soldiers battering down American citizens’ doors some 40-50,000 per year, mostly for consensual crimes, is one that’s consistent with a free society.  I’d argue it isn’t.

Moreover, not only does the Korbe-Hicks raid not refute my position, it reinforces it.  The police themselves have conceded that they didn’t consider Robert Korbe to be dangerous, or at least heavily armed.  And in fact, he was neither.   Korbe didn’t respond to the police knock at his door by shooting at them.  He responded by fleeing to his basement to dispose of his supply of cocaine.  That’s when they broke down his door.

It was Korbe’s wife who shot and killed Agent Hicks.  Christina Korbe had no prior criminal record.  She had a legal permit for the gun she used.  She was upstairs with her two children, ages 10 and 4, when the police tore down the door at 6 am.  She plausibly says she had no idea they were police.

For most people, Christina Korbe won’t be a particularly sympathetic person.  She knew or should have known of her husband’s criminal history, and early indications suggest she benefited from the lifestyle his drug dealing afforded her.

That said, from what I know of the case, I don’t believe she knowingly shot and killed Agent Hicks.  She says she didn’t hear the announcement, and thought her home was being robbed—not an unreasonable assumption.  She says she fired at the men invading her home because she feared they might hurt her kids. More to the point, she was on the phone with a 911 operator during the raid.  Now I’ll admit that I can’t easily assume the mindset of a cold-blooded cop killer, but it’s hard to imagine one who would knowingly kill a raiding police officer, then call the police to come investigate.  The more logical explanation is precisely the one Christina Korbe has given—she was scared, and thought her home was being invaded.  When I’ve talked to innocent people who’ve been targeted in these raids, every one of them has said the same thing—that their first thought was that their home was being invaded.

So yes, you could argue that Christina Korbe was foolish for continuing to live with a career criminal.  You could argue that she was selfish for not getting her kids out of that environment.  But I’m not arguing that she’s sympathetic.  Only that she isn’t a cop killer.  She reacted instinctively to defend her home and her family.  Just like Cory Maye did.  Just like Kathryn Johnston did.  Just like Ryan Frederick did.  Just as just about any of us would do if someone we couldn’t identify had just violently broken into our home.

Robert Korbe was wanted for a nonviolent crime.  The police, once again, decided to employ violent, invasive tactics to arrest hi for it.   Now an FBI agent is dead.   And instead of taking a second look at whether or not these tactics were appropriate, they’ll just put the brunt of the blame on Christina Korbe, throw her in prison, and carry on with the raids, until the next time someone dies.

The cops knew all about Korbe.  The knew he had a full-time job.  They knew (or at least should have known) that his wife had a legally-registered gun.  Why couldn’t they approach him and arrest him at work?  Why not nab him as he’s coming or going from his house?  Why was it necessary to tear down the man’s door and rush his house early in the morning, while his wife and kids were at home?

Roach thinks the cops should have used more overwhelming force—that if they hadn’t observed the knock-and-announce requirement, Agent Hicks would still be alive.  Maybe.  Or maybe that would have merely allowed them to advance further up the stairs before Christina Korbe fired her gun.  At which point they may have fired back.  At which point you’d not only have the cops and Christina Korbe shooting at one another, you’d also have two kids caught in the crossfire.

Even if Christina Korbe is a cold-blooded cop killer, if you don’t bring the violence into her home, she never gets the chance to shoot at Agent Hicks.

Want an alternate scenario were Agent Hicks unquestionably comes out unharmed?  Here it is:  The cops never raid the Korbe home in the first place.  They approach Robert Korbe at work, or as he’s about to enter or exit his house.  They don’t put Korbe’s family, the raiding officers, and Korbe himself at risk with the violence of a paramilitary-style drug raid.  Christina Korbe isn’t put in the impossible position of having to determine in an instant if the armed men who’ve just broken into her home are cops or criminals.  Robert Korbe is arrested without incident, and becomes another drug war statistic.  Agent Hicks goes home to his wife and kids.  The Korbe kids don’t have to grow up without their mother, and the Hicks kids without their father.

That’s a hell of a lot better scenario than what we ended up with, isn’t it?

MORE:  Per a few comments below, when I say it would be better to apprehend nonviolent suspects at their place of work, or as they’re leaving coming home, I mean getting 3-4 plain clothes cops to show up to make a quick and low-key arrest.  I don’t mean sending a SWAT team into the local McDonalds or neighborhood office park.  This domestic application of the Powell doctrine (use overwhelming force, all the time) is what’s so troubling.

Also, Roach responds in addendum to the post linked above.  I’ve had this debate with him before, and his addendum is filled with the same arguments I’ve rebutted dozens of times, on this site, in <em>Overkill</em>, and elsewhere.  I have no interest in exchanging 3,000-word posts with him.  But his response is there if you’re interested in reading it.

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106 Responses to “It Isn’t About No-Knocks. It’s About Home Invasions.”

  1. #1 |  Joel Rosenberg | 

    I wouldn’t bet, either way, whether SWAT Team Lead is real or fake, but I will say that such attitudes are not unknown among the doorkicking crowd, and are pretty much the norm among their badgelicking fans.

  2. #2 |  The Pale Scot | 

    I have a feeling that “SWAT Team Lead” is the Shopping Mall Ninja.

  3. #3 |  Rad Geek People’s Daily 2008-12-11 – In which I court public opinion | 

    […] asked for, that somehow proves the folly of libertarian complaints about paramilitary SWAT raids. Radley Balko replied that the basic issue is not about the no-knocks. It’s about the home invasions, and that FBI […]

  4. #4 |  Don Tabor | 

    As someone who has actually had the experience of having police knock down his door ( ) I can tell you for certain that there is a considerable amount of “fog of war” that occurs in those first seconds when you are awakened by your door crashing in.

    The only reason I didn’t kill a policeman some 36 years ago myself is dumb luck and a gap in a curtain. There is no excuse for intentionally creating such dangerous and confusing situations when there are safer alternatives.

  5. #5 |  Caby Smith | 

    Right on target, as usual… please keep up your great work in covering the injustice… …Justice for Sal !!!!

  6. #6 |  Our Courageous, Consistent, and Totally Useless Libertarians « MANSIZEDTARGET.COM | 

    […] evildoers like Ron Paul and Lew Rockwell in favor of the Agitator, who has never found a puppy or drug dealer he doesn’t like, and who is now showing his high regard for liberty, federalism, and common […]