The Reasons Why Police Still Use No Knock Warrants

On Wednesday, family members of Black men who have been killed by local police, including Philando Castile, George Floyd, and Daunte Wright, joined protests demanding justice over the killing of Amir Locke during a raid by Minneapolis police that involved a so-called no-knock warrant.

A Minneapolis SWAT team killed Locke last Wednesday as he awoke from sleeping on his couch with a legally purchased gun in his hand pointed at the floor. The team burst through the door of Locke’s apartment without apparently first announcing themselves and shot the 22-year-old within nine seconds of entering. The police were executing a search warrant against Locke’s 17-year-old cousin, Mekhi Speed, who is accused of killing 38-year-old Otis Elder last month. Speed was not at the home when police fatally shot Locke, who was not a suspect in the investigation. Speed was arrested later in a town 100 miles southeast of where his cousin was killed.

The shooting has once again raised concerns over law enforcement’s use of no-knock, or quick-knock, warrants, which rose to notoriety after the police killing of 26-year-old Louisville, Kentucky, resident Breonna Taylor two years ago. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey had promised to ban the use of no-knock warrants in “all but exigent circumstances” after the protests for racial justice following officer Derek Chauvin’s murder of Floyd. But the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported last week that no-knock warrants in the city continued at an alarming rate even after Frey’s promised “ban,” with police conducting at least 13 no-knock searches in January, a greater number of no-knock searches than standard warrant searches that month. Even after Frey’s “ban,” officers were still executing almost 10 no-knock warrants per month as of last November. The 40-year-old mayor has again said he’s banning no-knock warrants in all but the most extreme circumstances, but for real this time. He has brought in DeRay McKesson and Pete Kraska—who helped craft Breonna’s Law to eliminate no-knock warrants in Louisville following Taylor’s killing—to reshape the city’s warrant policies.

All of which raise the questions: Why was the city serving so many no-knock warrants in the first place? Is this normal? And what would actually qualify as a legitimate “exigent” circumstance for law enforcement officers to use a tool that has shown itself to be dangerous to both bystanders and officers?

That number of warrants does not meet the “eye test,” said Thaddeus Johnson, a former ranking law enforcement officer in Memphis who teaches criminology at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University and is a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Council on Criminal Justice. “I can’t expect personally for the number of no-knock warrants to outpace the number of traditional warrants,” Johnson told me. Generally, the majority of total warrants of all kinds would be served for offenses that are not the most extreme cases, such as homicides or sexual assaults, and thus not the most “exigent” circumstances, he noted. “If those are the majority of the crimes, if those are the majority of the people that we’re arresting, it doesn’t seem congruent with that pattern for us to have more no-knock warrants than traditional warrants,” he said.

Like with most every other flaw of the criminal justice system, race appears to be an overriding factor when looking at the dangers of no-knock warrants. According to one ACLU study, a hugely disproportionate number of SWAT team searches, 42 percent, are deployed at homes of Black people. “I don’t think that we can divorce race from the equation. Police officers tend to have a lot of anxiety around Black men especially, and a lot of police officers, like a lot of other people in the United States, have stereotypes about Black men as being violent and dangerous,” said Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor who is now a professor of law at Georgetown Law School. “So that, I think, leads police officers to want to rely on the element of surprise, because they think it makes their task … easier.”

While there is limited research on the relative dangers and effectiveness of no-knock or quick-knock warrants, research by the Council on Criminal Justice aligns with Butler’s analysis when it comes to drug searches. “A public records review of 818 SWAT deployments conducted by 20 local law enforcement agencies across 11 states between 2010 and 2013 found that 62 percent were for drug searches; of those, forced entry was employed in 60 percent of the deployments,” the council reports.

Again, while research is limited, the few studies available have shown that these types of searches are not particularly good at recovering evidence or deterring violent crime. One ACLU study, the Council on Criminal Justice report noted, showed that weapons were recovered in just 1 in 3 SWAT searches, and no evidence was recovered in 65 percent of SWAT searches involving suspected drug crimes. Other studies, in Buffalo, New York, and Kansas City, Missouri, found no statistically significant impact on violent crime by the use of forcible police raids.

The dangers of these raids, meanwhile, are apparent even beyond the high-profile cases, such as the killings of Locke and Taylor. An investigation by the New York Times showed 81 civilians and 13 police officers died in such raids between 2010 and 2016, with officers making up 10 percent of casualties when standard searches resulted in deadly violence and 20 percent of casualties when no-knock searches resulted in deadly violence. (This could obviously be because no-knock searches may involve more dangerous suspects, but it could also be because they may be more likely to go awry.) Another study found that 10 percent of New York Police Department raids in 2003 occurred at the wrong location, a situation that seems to have repeated itself in the tragic death of Locke.

If these no-knock searches are so dangerous and haven’t been shown to produce evidence at high rates, why are they still in such wide use? Butler suspects that the politics of criminal justice, and the deference magistrate judges who issue such warrants have toward police requests, play a large role. “The fact is that magistrates are supposed to be neutral and detached and supposed to offer an independent judgment,” Butler said. “But the reality is, and the experience of most police officers is, that typically magistrates just go along with whatever the police officer requests.” Robert Weisberg, co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center and a former consulting attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the California Appellate Project on death penalty cases, agrees with Butler that deference to police is playing a large role in the issuance of no-knock warrants. “You could have judges who just don’t even ask these questions and just take a conclusory statement from the police that knocking here would be counterproductive,” Weisberg said. “That’s got to be the major reason for it.”

Johnson, the former ranking officer, disagrees slightly with this frame, arguing that “magistrate judges get a bad rap.” In Johnson’s experience, the approval process is different from judge to judge, with some judges who are “super attentive and are super experienced” running warrant requests through the wringer and others “on the total [reverse] end of the spectrum.” He blames lack of resources and experience in cases where judges sign off too readily on no-knock warrants, rather than excessive deference to police. Where Johnson does feel the blame lies in cases where no-knock warrants are used excessively is among leadership within law enforcement organizations. “The more that department supervisors or commanders push ‘warrior-style policing,’ you can see that maybe due diligence is sacrificed in those instances,” Johnson said.

He continued to describe how the decisions to use these warrants tend to play out among police leadership:

I’ve seen some where they were very cautious, and I’ve seen some where they were like, go, go, go. There’s really no uniformity in it. It’s really guided by the policies, and even the laws in the state, but particularly the policies of the department and just the type of people you have in those positions.

While reforming the culture in police departments is critical, changes to law and policy seem far easier to adopt on a quicker timeline. Only three states have any type of ban on no-knock warrants in place, however, even as such bans are being adopted by individual jurisdictions across the country thanks to the work of people like McKesson and Kraska.

Everyone I spoke with said that if they are used, no-knock warrants should truly be reserved for the most “exigent” of circumstances. Weisberg framed it this way:

Is this search so necessary under these circumstances that this risk is worth taking? Is it a search to find a kidnapped person? It is a search to find an explosive or a weapon which is about to cause horrible harm? Or is it a pretty generic search for generic evidence?

The new policy Frey is adopting in Minneapolis would seem to meet that framework. Under the moratorium announced last week after Locke’s killing, the city said that police would only be able to conduct no-knock searches if there were “an imminent threat of harm to an individual or the public and then the warrant must be approved by the Chief.”

It’s impossible not to wonder, though, if such a policy had been in place when Frey promised his previous ban, would Amir Locke still be alive today?

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