Heavily armed police officers stand by at 15th and Erie while negotiators persuade a gunman to surrender. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Updated 3:00 p.m.

Wednesday’s tense shootout that left six police officers injured in North Philadelphia began with an apparently routine search warrant. It was one of hundreds of searches, mostly drug related, that city police execute each month.

Experts say these are risky procedures for both law enforcement and the communities they protect. Philly’s history of warrant-related conflicts stretches back decades — and unlike this week’s standoff, includes both police and civilian fatalities.

For now, it remains unclear whether the North 15th Street warrant was done by the books. Law enforcement experts question whether it could have been prevented with better planning.

District Attorney Larry Krasner, whose office approved the warrant, said the search was connected to an unspecified state drug investigation. His office said it would be “premature” to share more details about the search efforts that ended up with PPD Narcotics Strike Force officers trapped in the house with 36-year-old gunman Maurice Hill, a known drug dealer with a long criminal history.

But Hill was not the intended target of law enforcement on Wednesday.

The Inquirer reports he wasn’t even located in the alleged “stash house” police were legally cleared for search. He was holed up in an adjacent property where officers reportedly saw what they believed to be drugs being transported. After entering the second property to perform a “safety sweep,” they immediately took fire from Hill.

“This is currently under investigation,” said police spokesperson Capt. Sekou Kinebrew.

While the shootout garnered national attention, it was far from the first to devolve into chaos for Philly cops, criminal suspects and the surrounding communities.

Since 2000, at least one Philadelphia law enforcement official was killed during a routine warrant service. In recent years, innocent civilians have also been killed and injured during these typically unpredictable searches.

‘People do desperate things when they’re cornered’

Experts say unpredictability is always a factor when executing such warrants.

“You don’t know what you’re getting involved with,” said Joe Giacalone, a retired sergeant with the NYPD and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “No matter how small or how minor the incident is, people do desperate things when they’re cornered.”

After a group of officers entered the multi-unit rowhome on North 15th Street near Erie Avenue around 4:45 p.m. Wednesday, at least two ended up barricaded in upstairs bedrooms as the gunman opened fire from a lower floor.

Hill then began spraying gunfire out a window into the street as dozens of officers arrived for backup, including a SWAT team and members of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, better known as ATF.

Law enforcement experts note that warrant units typically assess risk factors before entering any property, and determine whether or not they need assistance from SWAT teams for the raid. In ideal situations, Giacalone said planning ideally involves looking at floor layouts and assigning each officer a space of the house to clear.

Especially considering the nature of the investigation, Giacalone questions whether enough planning happened before officers entered that house Wednesday afternoon.

“When you’re dealing with narcotics, it’s an automatic that there’s lots of guns at the scene,” he said. “I question why they were going in there at 4 in the afternoon.”

Philadelphia police divisions have been undertrained and understaffed when it comes to warrant executions, said two police sources who are not authorized to speak on the record. The city’s elite narcotics team that performed this sweep, however, is regularly trained for these forced entries, they said.

Police cordon off an area in North Philadelphia around 15th Street and Erie Avenue, where a gunman opened fire on police. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philly has history of search warrants ending in shootouts

At least one Philadelphia law enforcement official has been killed during a warrant issue in recent years. In 2004, Sergeant Joseph LeClaire, a court officer for the First Judicial District’s now-defunct warrant unit that was separate from the PPD, was shot and killed while serving a warrant to a man for failure to appear in court.

Non-fatal gunfights, while still rare, are far more common than homicides.

A 2010 arrest warrant for a 20-year-old man in Summerdale ended with two officers and the victim shot. The officers’ injuries were non-life threatening, thanks to Kevlar vests. The suspect, wanted on gun charges, was critically injured after a three-hour standoff with police.

But experts also say arrest warrants can put innocent bystanders and relatives of suspects at risk — or even fatally.

In August 2018, one case raised eyebrows around the PPD’s search warrant practices.

Officers were serving a warrant in Germantown that abruptly ended in a shootout with the suspect’s grandfather. Police shot and killed the 59-year-old homeowner in Germantown after he opened fire on them and striking one officer in the jaw.

The man reportedly mistook the SWAT team for home intruders. Police commissioner Ross said the warrant unit knocked three times before trying to enter, calling the grandfather’s death “an all-out tragedy.” No criminal charges were filed in the case.

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Max Marin

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...