Hamilton man demands answers after 'degrading' no-knock police raid
Legal experts say raids without warning are becoming more common, need more oversight and data
While Masood Mirza was asleep in his girlfriend's home in late July, a white, nondescript moving truck pulled up in front of the house.
It was about 9:40 p.m. on a quiet Tuesday night in Hamilton, Ont., he said.
A few other vehicles followed the truck into the Forest Park subdivision on Rymal Road East — they were full of Hamilton Police Service (HPS) officers preparing to bust into the two-storey Mountain home.
While plain-clothes detectives stood outside, a heavily armed squad, dressed head-to-toe in tactical gear, bashed in the front door and set off what was likely a flash grenade.
Mirza was upstairs, until then asleep in bed.
"The house shook is how violent it was," Mirza told CBC Hamilton.
The fire alarm began to beep and smoke filled the house when Mirza said he jolted out of bed and tried to figure out what was happening.
As he turned the corner in the hallway to sprint down the stairs, multiple guns pointed in his direction.
"Get on the ground, get on the ground!" Mirza said, recalling the officers' orders during the traumatic incident.
The 53-year-old with no criminal record who had heart surgery only a few weeks prior found himself lying face down on the floor with his hands zip-tied behind his back.
The team moved throughout the house, also apprehending his girlfriend's friend, Naomi Sherwin, who had been staying at the house.
"Where are the guns?" Mirza remembered police asking.
No guns found, no arrests made
A copy of the search warrant viewed by CBC Hamilton shows HPS was looking for more than a dozen different firearms including pistols, submachine guns, assault rifles and a shotgun.
But, as HPS has confirmed, officers didn't find anything.
The warrant also alleged Sherwin had guns and had stolen more than $5,000 worth of property.
Court documents show she has a lengthy criminal record in Hamilton for drug offences, theft, violating probation and one incident involving resisting arrest and using pepper spray.
But police didn't make any arrests during the raid that night.
"Knock on the door ... that's all they had to do," Mirza said.
"I was sleeping in bed and I get accosted, I get demeaned, I get degraded. My girlfriend and her friend get traumatized. For what?"
HPS was conducting what it calls a dynamic entry, also known as a no-knock police raid. They're supposed to be rare because, by law, officers usually must knock on the door, identify themselves as police and wait for someone to answer before executing a search warrant.
While investigators need to get a search warrant approved, usually by a justice of the peace, police can decide when to use a no-knock approach as they see fit (unlike the majority of U.S. states where even no-knock raids need approvals).
Mirza's experience comes after HPS, among other police forces, has faced some scrutiny over its budget and role in response to community crises. It also comes amid calls to limit no-knock raids.
Raid was part of ongoing investigation: police
HPS declined an interview request but when asked about how it got the information that prompted the search warrant, spokesperson Jackie Penman said there was an ongoing investigation. She did not provide further details.
"In most cases, police can not arbitrarily conduct a search warrant without prior authorization," she wrote.
"Before entering a residence, police complete a full operational plan. Amongst many things, the plan takes into account the level of risk to the public, the residents and police."
Kevin Bryan, a retired York police detective and policing instructor at Seneca College, said the HPS raid didn't sound unusual.
"Not finding anything? Well, that can happen. And you go back and look at your source," he said.
In many cases, officers get their information from confidential informants. They are usually people with criminal records who trade information for money or to have their charges withdrawn.
HPS didn't say if informants were involved in the July raid, but Mirza and Sherwin said they suspect someone behind bars with a grudge offered a bad tip to police.
More oversight needed, lawyers say
Toronto defence lawyer Kim Schofield said no-knock raids are becoming more common because of a false notion it's a safer approach.
"That becomes the big problem, which is there's no judicial oversight of that use of that type of force ... there should be legislative requirements," she said. "Then there should be a reporting requirement ... there should be a use of force report."
She also said there should be more oversight about the tips officers get from informants.
Ottawa criminal lawyer Lawrence Greenspon echoed Schofield's comments. He also said there isn't enough good data about no-knock raids, which means it's impossible to say if no-knock raids are disproportionately impacting a specific segment of people.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission said while its work hasn't focused specifically on no-knock raids, it's concerned by racial disparities in use of force cases. It also says de-escalation should come before using force.
In cases like Mirza's — a raid with no arrests or evidence seized — Greenspon said nobody is tracking data.
"The individuals who are subjected to that rarely come forward," he said.
Police previously made wrongful no-knock raids
Mirza's neighbours, who saw the raid unfold, said they're worried they may be raided next.
Robin Burnett said the raid was "super scary" and her adult daughter, Bayley, said she doesn't trust the police.
"There are some amazing officers that work for our system, but I think as a whole we definitely have some things to work on," Bayley said.
Penman, from HPS, said it's highly unlikely your home will be searched, "unless you are associated to or involved in criminal activity."
But Mirza's experience isn't the first HPS raid that has been questioned.
Po La Hay lived in an apartment on Sanford Avenue. After officers blitzed his apartment unit in May 2010, he ended up in the hospital. Police later learned they got the wrong address.
Hay's family filed a civil suit and the case was settled out of court.
At the time, HPS said it improved the process of executing search warrants by giving officers more training and having them submit individual use of force reports when someone gets hurt, instead of filing one report as a team.
Just a year later, another raid took place at the wrong house, this time at Pamela Markland's home while five of her kids were sleeping.
Markland sued Hamilton and Toronto police for $800,000 and reached a settlement with both police services in 2019 for a "significant" sum of cash.
In Mirza's case, the police came to the house they were in fact looking for. Still, he said he's considering filing a complaint or suing to hold police accountable.
He wants an apology and wants police to pay for damage to the door, which he estimates is roughly $2,000.
"They're supposed to be the heroes and they're really the villains in this case," Mirza said.
With files from Judy Trinh and Zach Dubinsky