"People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf."
Recently I was invited to ride along with the Columbus Division of Police Investigative and Tactical Unit (IN/TAC), which is part of their narcotics bureau. I spent two days with these gentlemen, whose job it is to identify drug houses, find probable cause for a search warrant, and then enter the premises by force. This last part is a bit tricky, given that they need to preserve evidence while minimizing the danger to themselves, the neighborhood, and the occupants of the house. Like SWAT, they approach houses in large, imposing vehicles filled with armed officers. Unlike SWAT, they work in volume, serving warrants on more than 300 houses a year.
Let that sink in. More than 300 houses a year.
This unit goes out, often multiple times a day, and infiltrates known drug houses, taking into account factors such as weapons sighted and any animals or children on the premises. If you ever suspected a drug house was operating in your neighborhood, you’d be cheering the arrival of this elite unit. If you’re a drug dealer, they’re your worst nightmare.
“Detective L” contacted me after hearing about Starfish Assignment from one of CPD’s Community Liaison Officers. “I’d like to see how we can work together, but my job is a little hard to explain. Is there any way you could come on a ride along with us?”
My first evening with IN/TAC was spent discovering how the unit functions and what kinds of tools they use to get their job done. I learned about knee knockers, wooden blocks that are shot through special guns. These rounds are designed not to kill but to make subjects keep their heads down during raids. The blocks bounce around the room, adding to the shock and awe effect, which helps IN/TAC maintain a tactical advantage in these situations.
I held the battering rams the detectives use to force open doors—sometimes ripping them right off their hinges. These rams weigh between 30 and 50 pounds, depending on the type. I was able to lift one, but I wouldn’t have been able to swing it hard enough to even make a dent in a door, forget force it open. I learned about breaching shotguns—special weapons with rounds designed to slow immediately upon impact. They are used to shoot open tough locks that won’t budge against the weight of the battering ram, while not endangering the occupants of the structure.
I asked every question I could think of that first night—Doesn’t it hurt when you hit the door with the battering ram? (It can. The force of it can vibrate through your entire body.) What happens to the house when you’re done—the doors and windows are gone—do you just leave it like that? (No. They make repairs as best they can so that the house is secure when they leave.) The team could not have been kinder or more accommodating. They answered every question I had and showed me anything that piqued my curiosity.
None of this prepared me for what I witnessed when I returned a week later to watch them in action.
That action was to serve a no-knock search warrant on a house on the South Side of Columbus. There were confirmed drug dealers on the premises, and they were apparently selling a large volume drugs. The IN/TAC team gathered to hear about the strategy of the raid, including the method of entry (through the front door). The reconnaissance team discussed minute details, such as how many steps there were up to the front porch and whether the front door opened inward or outward. Roles were assigned for duties ranging from who will take control of any prisoners, to who will draw a sketch of the interior of the house in case the team ever has to return on another search warrant, an action that happens fairly frequently.
As I sat listening to the strategy, I felt like I was bearing witness to a battle plan. And in the war on drugs, the IN/TAC team is certainly on the front lines, participating in battles nearly every working day. When they make plans to breach a house, they have to assume they’re going to encounter armed drug dealers with nothing to lose. At the same time, they don’t want innocent people caught up in the cross fire, and they do go into many drug houses that have children and/or elderly people in residence. One detective told me of an old woman whose house had been taken over by her drug dealing granddaughter. The poor woman was relegated to one room of the house, which was meticulously cared for, while the rest of the house was in ruin.
After the briefing, we set off for the target house in three large, dark vans and one ambulance. Both IN/TAC and SWAT undertake missions alongside specially trained tactical medics, who stand ready to render emergency first aid to anyone who may need it. These medics are staged just a short distance from the target house. Around the corner, out of sight, an additional medical team is ready to take their place in case the primary team needs to transport someone to the hospital.
This isn’t being overly cautious. The sergeant in charge of IN/TAC informed me of some of the dangers his team faces. At least three current members of the team have suffered gunshot wounds, and an additional member recently retired due to gunshot injuries sustained on the job. Another member of the team, who walked with a slight limp, had entered a drug house and had fallen from the first floor into the basement, due to rotten floor boards.
When our caravan arrived at the target house, I waited in the ambulance, observing the raid through the windshield, while the tactical medics stepped out in order to better hear any cries for help.
The raid was absolutely jaw dropping, and is just like what you see on TV—the men rushing to the house, the shouts, the explosions, the battering ram hitting the door again and again. At this house, something was blocking the entrance, it turned out to be a couch up against the door, and the detectives ended up ripping the door off its hinges in order to gain access.
I watched the officers’ flashlights bounce wildly in the upper windows. I watched them light up the basement. It was, frankly, terrifying. How on earth those men run into those situations day after day, I have no idea. You have to remember they’re not entering a house that looks like yours, that’s well-lit and easy to navigate. They enter the worst houses in Columbus. Ones with extreme code violations, including holes in the floor. The stairs in this house on the South Side were so steep and narrow that I had to put my feet sideways on them in order to walk on them. The stairs into the basement were rotten out at the bottom. Imagine the IN/TAC team having to rush down those treacherous steps, in 70 pounds of gear, not knowing what was waiting for them at the bottom. Ladies and gentlemen, this is what your Columbus police do for you on a regular basis.
The situation I observed was contained relatively rapidly, and shortly after the all clear was given, I was allowed to enter the house. This was what Det L had wanted me to see—what these houses are like, so that if they call upon Starfish to assist, I’ll have an understanding of what kinds of circumstances the people are living in. The one I bore witness to apparently wasn’t as bad as many they seem, but it was the worst residence I’ve ever seen. The home didn’t have working water, so the men staying there were using five gallon buckets to relieve themselves into. I did not take pictures of the main living room, as that’s where the prisoners and many of the detectives were, but I think the rest of the house speaks for itself.
Sitting at home or in my car, hearing about news reports on this war on drugs, I never gave much thought to the people who go in and shut down these drug houses. To actually see what these men go through was eye opening and very disconcerting. I am grateful beyond words for what they do for us.
Most of the IN/TAC raids go unheralded in the news. However, you may have heard about one of their missions last week. As reported by Kevin Stankiewicz in the Columbus Dispatch on December 7, the IN/TAC team helped Whitehall police with a raid on a drug house in Whitehall: “There were 18 people found inside the house. Police later conducted interviews with 12 women, revealing them as possible survivors of human trafficking, said Whitehall police Sgt. John Grebb. The women ranged in age from 20 to 40 years old.”
***Author’s Note: Names and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect the anonymity of these detectives.***