Sunday marks two years since Breonna Taylor’s killing at the hands of Louisville, Ky., police officers—a death that contributed, along with the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, to a national outcry on racial injustice and police violence against Black citizens. And, because of the circumstances of her death, the situation also sparked a more specific reckoning, too: on the use of no-knock warrants, which allow police to enter residences unannounced.
Taylor’s death was the result of a no-knock warrant served at her apartment on March 13, 2020, as part of a narcotics investigation. When officers arrived at her residence, they were shot at by her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, who believed a break-in was happening. When officers returned fire, she was shot eight times.
A grand jury declined to bring charges against any of the officers in relation to Taylor’s death. One officer, Brett Hankinson, was charged with “wanton endangerment” for recklessly shooting into Taylor’s apartment and a neighbor’s home as well; he was found not guilty on those charges earlier this month.
A Push to Remove the Tactic
After Taylor’s death, her family and other activists campaigned to ban no-knock warrants in Louisville. Last Spring, the city officially passed “Breonna’s Law,” which banned the use of those warrants. Some other police departments and cities have also started to move away from no-knock warrants. As of February 2022, there are 27 states with some kind of restriction on the use of no-knock warrants and 22 cities that have restrictions as well. A total of four states—Oregon, Connecticut, Virginia and Florida—have outright banned the use of no-knock warrants. Many of these bans and restrictions came after Taylor’s death.
But the tactic is still a significant part of policing practices across the country. According to EndAllNoKnocks, which is part of Campaign Zero, a nonprofit platform for data-driven solutions to end police violence, there are around 60,000 no-knock and quick-knock (when police officers quickly make their presence known before entering) raids per year in the country.
The purpose of no-knock warrants is to surprise the suspects who the police are attempting to apprehend, usually to stop them from getting rid of any contraband or evidence. Officers will typically also deploy devices like flash-bang grenades to disorient occupants. Some experts and advocates say those tactics and the execution of such warrants make them dangerous.
“The truth is they’re exceedingly dangerous and rarely are they necessary. They create a high level of risk for everyone involved,” Joe Margulies, a criminal-law professor at Cornell University, tells TIME. “The [police] departments that are concerned about the safety of their officers and the safety of people inside the [residences] are moving away from them but they are still widely used.”
Defenders of these procedures acknowledge that the tactic is not without flaws, but they believe it’s a necessary part of the job.
“There’s a good side to them and a bad side to them. In certain situations, police need to get in as quickly as possible,” Joseph Pollini, a lecturer at John Jay College and a former NYPD detective, says. “There is always a remote possibility that something could go wrong like in any police operation. It doesn’t mean that it’s bad police policy.”
Last month, another high-profile no-knock warrant incident occurred, in Minneapolis, when police officers shot and killed Amir Locke, a 22-year-old Black man, while investigating a homicide. Locke was lying on a couch when the officers entered the apartment. He was armed with a handgun but never fired at the officers. Locke wasn’t the suspect police were looking for.
Minneapolis currently has a moratorium on no-knock warrants while the Locke case is under review.
“These warrants are served typically during a time when nobody is expecting visitors. It’s very reasonable for occupants to think that they are being robbed or that there is some kind of violent intruder trying to enter,” says Lauren Bonds, legal director of the National Police Accountability Project, a nonprofit group that helps civilians within their encounters with law enforcement. “That not only makes it more dangerous for the individuals in the home, but it makes it more dangerous for the police officers.”
Nationally, there have been several proposed laws to ban no-knock warrants, but none have been passed. The George Floyd Policing Act would have banned the use of no-knock warrants at the federal level in drug cases, and would have financially incentivized cities and states to ban them as well, but the bill did not make it through the Senate. The Department of Justice, however, did announce limitations for the use of no-knock warrants last fall. Most recently, in the wake of the Locke shooting, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar introduced a bill to restrict no-knock warrants at the federal level.
“Changing Police Culture”
But concentrating on no-knock warrants might be missing the big picture. The distinction between a “knock and announce” warrant and a no-knock warrant is blurry.
“You can have something that is a ‘knock and announce’ warrant but, to the occupant, it seems like a no-knock warrant because there’s so little time and it’s so indistinct between when they pound on the door and yell ‘Police!’ and when they burst in,” Margulies says.
As some experts see it, the issues highlighted by Taylor’s death two years ago go beyond just no-knock warrants. How warrants are used overall, they say, needs to be addressed.
“Something like requiring that officers to give [occupants] 30 seconds to respond to the knock-and-announce warrant would restrict how quickly they can get into the home,” Bonds says.
The bill proposed by Rep. Omar does address this distinction by calling to ban quick-knock warrants, nighttime warrants, and the use of flash-bang grenades when serving warrants.
As is the case with most policing practices, when it comes to warrants, every jurisdiction operates under its own rules and laws. Judges generally have the final say on whether or not certain types of warrants can be used in a specific situation and whether or not a no-knock aspect can be included.
“I think every situation should be evaluated on its own merits. I don’t think every time they go to hit a door there should be a no-knock provision on it,” Pollini says. “Law enforcement has to get all the information. It should be a coordinated effort. They need to get all the facts and proceed based on that information.”
Margulies believes the entire discussion around no-knock warrants is a symptom of the much larger systemic factors around policing culture, and that the focus on individual rules doesn’t do enough to change the larger issues within police departments.
“There’s this illusion that you can change police culture by announcing a rule. What we need to do is change the culture. Maybe the rule is one piece of that but it’s the smallest piece,” Margulies says. “The big changes come from changing police culture.”
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