Drug charges have been dropped against an Ottawa man whose home was raided by a rifle SWAT team, but he says he is unhappy because there was no accountability for a police operation which legal experts say was based on flimsy evidence, and which he says traumatized him.
His lawyer and a law enforcement expert both said the case highlights the problems with the type of no-knock raids where officers kick down someone’s door and confront them at gunpoint. a weapon – including the fundamental question of whether there is data to show that the tactic is effective.
“It’s just a waste of business,” said Chris Woof, a property manager and part-time hip-hop musician from Ottawa’s east end. “They tore my house apart, literally, and left it in a giant mess… What’s stopping them from doing it again?”
Two years ago, the Ottawa Police Drug Squad developed a new source, a person ‘familiar with’ cocaine, crack and other drugs, according to allegations filed by police in court . The confidential informant was supposed to be paid for the good advice he provided, even by hearsay.
Their very first tip was about Woof, alleging simply that he was selling “large amounts” of cocaine and crack cocaine.
“Weak” evidence: lawyer
Based on this information and Woof’s subsequent surveillance, in which police never saw any drugs but found it suspicious that two different men left his home with hands clasped, police obtained a search warrant.
A dozen officers in commando gear broke down Woof’s door in the early morning hours of July 14, 2020. In security video seen by CBC News, they are seen deploying a flashbang grenade before rushing in, guns drawn. Investigators seized 70 oxycodone pills, for which Woof had old prescriptions, a small amount of “unknown white powder” which tests later showed was not a controlled substance, and tens of thousands of dollars in cash.
woof said CBC News last year the money came from his outsourcing business, where he often deals in cash.
WATCH | Christopher Woof talks about the impact the raid had on him:
The police found neither cocaine nor crack.
“I think the evidence on which the warrant was based was weak,” said Woof’s attorney, Paolo Giancaterino, who has worked more than 75 cases in the Ottawa area involving drug search warrants.
“It seems like it’s pretty easy to get a search warrant these days and break into someone’s house.”
Based on the oxycodone and the money, police charged Woof with possession of a controlled substance with intent to traffic, which in the case of opioids carries a maximum prison sentence. in perpetuity, and possession of the proceeds of crime.
The case dragged on in court for almost two years. Then, while the prosecution and defense argued with a judge about whether the charges should be dropped due to delays, the Crown decided to drop the criminal charges.
Federal prosecutor Celine Harrington told CBC News in an email that the Crown’s own drug expert indicated that he “could not support a view that the amount of drugs seized was intended for trafficking.”
Trauma and, sometimes, death
Woof’s case is one of many documented by CBC News across the country in recent years where police violently raided someone’s home based on a tip that they found drugs or illegal weapons, only to find nothing. Homeowners must foot the bill for damages of up to tens of thousands of dollars, with their only recourse being to sue the police – an ordeal that can take years of costly litigation with no guarantee of success.
Worse still than the material damage, the door-to-door raids, which arrive almost daily in Canada, can leave a mark of personal trauma and sometimes death.
“I haven’t slept properly since the day it happened,” Woof said of his experience. “Noise sure wakes me up. Every little thing wakes me up. I mean, it gets on your nerves.”
At least six people including a policeman, is dead in smooth raids in Canada over the past 15 years. At least three of them were Black men, who experts say are — along with Indigenous residents — disproportionately affected by violent police tactics.
The risks are so severe that some police forces have almost entirely done away with the kind of no-knock raids where officers kick down a door and rush in, guns drawn. The Vancouver Police Department told CBC News it did not do any in 2019 or 2020, and the RCMP Tactical Unit Chief for the Lower Mainland region of British Columbia said the last year that he could only remember one complete “dynamic entry”, as they are called, that his team had done in the previous 12 months – and it was not a drug search.
“It’s not uncommon for the police to get the wrong house. It’s certainly not uncommon for the police to not find what they were looking for,” said Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, professor of sociology at the University of Toronto that studies policing, race and the war on drugs.
“And sometimes if the raids aren’t carried out properly or the warrant hasn’t been properly applied for or properly obtained, even when there’s evidence of criminality, it can be thrown out in court.”
“Wouldn’t you like to know if such a practice was effective?”
A major problem is that police departments don’t track how often their no-hit raids go off the rails for one or more of these reasons, said Owusu-Bempah and Giancaterino, the Ottawa defense attorney.
Acting Ottawa Police Chief Steve Bell told CBC News, “we just don’t have the system to do that right now,” but he said the force is deeply committed to improving its data collection and analysis.
Last year, following a CBC Fifth Estate investigation, the former Ottawa chief temporarily banned most no-hit raids, with compensation in extenuating circumstances, while the force conducts a review. That moratorium is still in effect, but a police spokesman said he could not immediately say how much it was reducing the number of raids without firing a shot.
Ontario’s Ministry of the Solicitor General, which oversees policing in the province, said in an email that police forces do not report the number of no-hit raids they conduct, or how often these raids result in nothing, charges being laid or withdrawn. , or in a decision that the police violated someone’s rights under the Charter.
“Wouldn’t you like to know if such a practice was effective?” said Owusu-Bempah. “We need to collect information on these cases so that we can not only have a measure of transparency in policing, but also of accountability.
“These are highly tactical teams with a lot of equipment. The officers involved receive a lot of training, so they are extremely expensive,” he said. “If the police are going to work to justify maintaining such tactics, they should at least demonstrate that there is not only a benefit to them, but that it is profitable.”
Woof, who said he had to spend thousands of dollars on a new front door and other repairs, has vowed to sue the failed raid on his home.
“I don’t even care about the money,” he said. “I want first and foremost to be held accountable…I want the police to know that when they wrong me like this, then it’s going to be public and there’s going to be a complaint filed against them.”
“There’s nothing else I can do.”
Send tips on this story or any other story to [email protected] or call 416-205-7553