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Police raided George Pelecanos' home. 15 years later, he's ready to write about it

Writer George Pelecanos reads <em>The</em> <em>Washington Post</em> every morning in his home.
Keren Carrión/NPR
Writer George Pelecanos reads The Washington Post every morning in his home.

It was August 2009 when the police raided writer George Pelecanos' home in Silver Spring, Md., just outside of Washington, D.C., with a no-knock warrant.

He was performing his daily ritual of sitting on the couch reading The Washington Post when he saw cars enter the driveway. "I saw these guys wearing black and holding automatic rifles and battering rams," he said in an interview at his home. The police broke down the door overlooking the driveway, and the basement door, too. Pelecanos said they put him on the floor and zip tied his hands.

The police were looking for his then 18-year-old son, Nick. The younger Pelecanos was a part of the robbery of a weed dealer, with a gun involved. So, the cops executed the no-knock warrant looking for evidence of guns or drugs.

After not finding anything, George Pelecanos said the officers started needling him about his liquor cabinet, his watch, his home. "One of the SWAT guys was looking at my books, and he goes 'maybe you'll write about this someday.' And he laughed," Pelecanos said. "And right then I knew that I would write about it. He challenged me."

No knock warrants have been banned in multiple states

Pelecanos is known for his gritty, realistic crime stories. For television, he co-created The Deuce, about the burgeoning porn industry in 1970s New York City, and We Own This City, the mini-series detailing a real-life corrupt police ring in Baltimore. As an author, he's known for his deep catalog of stories set in the streets of Washington, D.C.

His new short story collection is titled Owning Up. And it features characters grappling with events from the past that, with time, fester into something else entirely. There's a story about two guys who knew each other in jail, crossing paths years later. Another has a woman digging into her own family history and learning about the 1919 Washington, D.C. race riots.

Many of Pelecanos' crime fiction book are set in Washington, D.C.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
Keren Carrión/NPR
Many of Pelecanos' crime fiction book are set in Washington, D.C.

But Pelecanos said he wanted to write about the August 2009 incident because he wanted to further show the effects of no-knock raids. The Montgomery County police department confirmed they executed the warrant but they didn't immediately provide any additional details. Pelecanos did share a copy of the warrant, which states: "You may serve this warrant as an exception to the knock and announce requirement."

The practice of issuing no-knock warrants has been under increased scrutiny since the police killings of Breonna Taylor in Louisville in 2020, and Amir Locke in Minneapolis in 2022. They're banned in Oregon, Virginia, Florida and Tennessee.

"They don't accomplish anything except mayhem and violence," Pelecanos said.

The story "The No-Knock" starts with a journalist named Joe Caruso drinking his coffee and reading the morning paper when the vehicles pull up. The same beats follow — the guns, the zip ties, the pinning down on the floor. Pelecanos writes like he remembers every sensation from that night, because, he said, he does.

It deviates further into fiction from there. Caruso wants to write about it, but he can't. He's too close. He starts drinking heavily, instead. Pelecanos, on the other hand, knew he could write about it, easily. But he waited for over a decade on purpose. He wanted his son's permission, first.

"I wanted my son to grow up," he said. "And so that I could say to you today – he's fine."

Owning Up to the past

"He allowed time for me to grow as a man, and develop myself as a responsible person," said Nick Pelecanos in an interview. He now works in the film industry as a director and assistant director. He got his start working on jobs his dad helped him get. So he's attuned to his father's storytelling style — how he favors details and facts over sepia-toned nostalgia.

"When he writes something, you know that it's technically correct," he said. "And has come to his objective, as non-biased as possible opinion."

In <em>Owning Up</em>, Pelecanos writes about a non-knock incident inspired by real events.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
Keren Carrión/NPR
In Owning Up, Pelecanos writes about a non-knock incident inspired by real events.

As personal as "The No-Knock" is, Pelecanos calls the title story in the collection his most autobiographical. It's about a kid in the 70s named Nikos who works a job where he gets in with a bad crowd, and eventually gets talked into breaking into a guy's house.

"It's just the way my life was in that era and on this side of Montgomery County," Pelecanos said. "It was about muscle cars, playing pickup basketball, drinking beer, getting high."

Listening to Pelecanos talk about this story, it sounds familiar. You get the sense that history does repeat itself. That the same lessons get taught again and again. But that's O.K., because some lessons bear repeating.

"I got in trouble occasionally," he said. "But I always came home to the warmth of my family, you know? That's all you need."

Meghan Collins Sullivan edited this story for radio and the web.

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Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.