Mistake • Chief apologizes, places at least one officer on leave during investigation.
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Narcotics detectives in Salt Lake City on Wednesday used a battering ram to knock down a door and execute a search warrant on the wrong house, frightening the home's 76-year-old resident.
"This was a mistake," Police Chief Chris Burbank said Friday. "It should not have happened."
The woman living at the home near 200 E. Hubbard Ave. (935 South) was not injured, though a police officer pointed a gun at her as officers entered the home. Burbank said he has placed one officer on administrative leave while the police department investigates how the mistake was made.
The woman's grown son, Raymond Zaelit, spoke briefly with The Tribune on Friday. He said a police officer pointed a gun at her, asked if she had a gun and then asked if she had drugs. She answered no to both. His mother was home alone at the time.
"She was petrified," Zaelit said. "She didn't know what to think."
"This was traumatizing to her," Zaelit added.
Burbank on Friday emphasized the woman and her family were never drug suspects.
The search warrant was executed about 10 p.m. Wednesday by the Salt Lake City Metro Narcotics Task Force. The task force is composed of agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and detectives from police departments across Salt Lake County. However, Burbank said it was detectives from the Salt Lake City Police Department who obtained the search warrant. Burbank said his department was taking responsibility for the error.
Burbank declined to specify what kind of drugs detectives were seeking or who was the actual target of the warrant. Search warrants in Utah are typically sealed for 20 days after they are executed and returned to the court which issued them. Burbank said the incorrect address searched by police "was very close" to the correct location, but detectives did not go there after the erroneous search, feeling they had lost the element of surprise.
The task force received what's called a "no knock" search warrant, meaning a judge gave police permission to force their way inside the house without announcing themselves. Judges issue such warrants when police have demonstrated people inside the house are a danger or could quickly destroy the evidence.
Although a gun was pointed at the woman, Burbank said she was never placed in handcuffs. Detectives did not thoroughly search the house.
"They realized this does not look right," Burbank said.
Before obtaining warrants to search a home for drugs, police typically obtain evidence of drugs or drug crimes there, then conduct surveillance on the home and provide the judge with an address and physical description of the home. Burbank said the department's investigation will determine how the mistake was made.
"We did not do our due diligence on this one," Burbank said.
Burbank said he met with the family Thursday morning to apologize and said the police department would pay for any damage. Burbank, who has spent about 20 years at the department in various capacities, said Friday he is not aware of any similar mistake by Salt Lake City officers.