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Op-ed: California must pass legislation to fully ban no-knock warrants

By Jamila Cummings

Feb. 23, 2022 9:52 p.m.

Amir Locke, a 22-year-old African American man, was shot and killed by the Minneapolis police department while he was sleeping in his apartment. Cause of death? A no-knock warrant.

Officers claim they had a warrant to search three apartments and intended to arrest Locke’s cousin in connection to a January homicide. The warrant application sought by one of the sergeants involved states that “(no-knock warrants) enable officers to execute the warrant more safely by allowing officers to make entry into the apartment without alerting the suspects inside … (increasing) officer safety (and decreasing) risk for injuries to the suspects and other residents nearby.”

Clearly, Locke’s death proves otherwise. Unfortunately, Locke’s situation was not an isolated incident. Last summer, former Louisville officer Myles Cosgrove was terminated after firing 16 rounds and killing 26-year-old Breonna Taylor in her home via a no-knock warrant.

What is a no-knock warrant? The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from “unreasonable searches and seizures,” meaning police need a warrant to enter your home. However, in the ’70s, things changed. As the war on drugs ramped up, President Richard Nixon’s administration created no-knock warrants to let authorized police forcibly enter a home without knocking or announcing their presence. Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which established mandatory minimums and encouraged federal and local law enforcement to utilize militarized strategies such as no-knock raids. As no-knock warrants became more popular, the presence of SWAT teams rose all over the country. In fact, according to a 2011-2012 American Civil Liberties Union study, SWAT teams were deployed around 80% of the time to execute search warrants, many of which were no-knock warrants.

With a standard warrant, the police must announce its presence when it executes search warrants. Most judges will issue no-knock warrants in dire situations where announcing police presence can change the outcome and lead to destroyed evidence. In an interview with PBS, John Jay College of Criminal Justice adjunct professor Walter Signorelli affirmed that the purpose of these surprise raids is to help law enforcement halt criminal activity without giving perpetrators time to react and potentially harm an officer or remove evidence of an illicit substance.

So if no-knock warrants aren’t meant to be used all the time, why do they happen so often? According to a 2000 Denver Post investigation, most judges were willing to approve them regardless of whether the circumstances called for it. The Post analyzed a year’s worth of no-knock warrants and found that judges rejected about 3% of no-knock warrants. Even worse, the Post found that 10% of the standard warrants were changed into no-knock warrants, even if police officers did not request it.

Executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association Thor Eells notes that no-knock warrants were a tool developed through courts for “the preservation of evidence, … primarily crack cocaine.” He affirms that no-knock warrants served a purpose in the past but that it’s time for a new approach. Eells contends that his association has been advocating against their use, calling for safer alternatives. He is not alone. Mendota Heights police chief Kelly McCarthy concurs that it’s time for no-knock warrants to end. She said police officers need to gain back the trust of their community. No-knock warrants are only widening this gap.

In California, officers must announce their presence before serving a search warrant in accordance with the knock-and-announce rule. However, there are “exigent circumstances” that can lead to a no-knock raid.

California must pass legislation that prevents the use of no-knock warrants under any circumstance. Yoel Haile, criminal justice program director at the ACLU of Northern California, states anything less than a full ban would “inevitably lead to more terror, brutality, and death to the over-policed communities, namely communities of color and poor communities.”

Another problem with no-knock warrants? There is little to no data on no-knock warrant cases and fatalities. Though media attention can garner some transparency, studying and tracking no-knock warrants is still incredibly difficult. Unfortunately, judges are not always legally required to follow or share warrant data across judicial districts, according to CNN. Thus, the amount of no-knock warrants approved is not clear. And while most warrants are on public record, it does not help that police departments are not required to keep or share data on warrants.

Of course, not everyone supports banning no-knock warrants. St. Cloud police chief William Blair Anderson contends that his department has recently conducted 10 successful searches without any casualties, and suspects “were apprehended without further incident.” And while it is wonderful that Blair Anderson was able to provide justice for his constituents, that cannot be said for countless Americans who have died at the hands of a no-knock warrant. After all, civilians are not the only ones harmed by no-knock warrants. Between 2010 to 2016, at least 13 police officers were killed as a result of no-knock warrants.

Moreover, The New York Times has found that officer fatality rates in no-knock raids are twice as high compared to standard searches. For the sake of protecting both officers and civilians, the federal government must abolish no-knock warrants. President Joe Biden’s administration is considering expanding a policy that limits the use of no-knock warrants, but that is not sufficient.

Amir Locke, Breonna Taylor and countless others should still be here today. Instead, American families are grieving the loss of their loved ones who were killed from something that could have been prevented. As a country, it is time for us to stand together and say enough is enough. A botched police raid is not a mistake. It is a preventable tragedy, and it is time to pass legislation that will finally end this senseless violence.

Cummings is a second-year labor studies and public affairs student.

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