Breonna Taylor’s Killing Sparked Restrictions on No-Knock Warrants. But Experts Say Those Rules Don’t Actually Change Much
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. Due to the specific circumstances of Taylor’s murder, a new reckoning has been initiated on the issue of no-knock warrants. These permits police to unannouncely enter homes.
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. Kenneth Walker, her boyfriend, shot Taylor’s officers when they arrived at her home. Walker believed that there was a break in. She was also shot eight more times when officers fired back.
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.
The Tactic of Pushing to Dismantle
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. Others police departments have begun to drop no-knock arrest warrants. There are currently 27 states that place restrictions on no-knock warrant use, and 22 other cities with similar restrictions. 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.
However, the tactic still plays a large part in policing across the country. EndAllNoKnocks (part of Campaign Zero), a non-profit platform that provides data-driven solutions to ending police violence, estimates there are about 60,000 raids per annum in the country.
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No-knock warrants are used to shock the suspects the police want to arrest, and usually stop them from obtaining contraband or other evidence. To disorient the occupants, officers will often use flash-bang bombs. Advocates and experts say these tactics are dangerous and warrants for their execution can be fatal.
“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 care about safety and well-being of officers, as well as the safety of the people who work within them. [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. “TThere is always the possibility of something going wrong in any operation, just like with police officers. It doesn’t mean that it’s bad police policy.”
Amir Locke was a 22 year-old Black man who died in a shooting incident that occurred last month while police were investigating a homicide. Locke was on a couch, when the officers broke into the apartment. Locke was carrying a gun but did not fire at officers. Locke wasn’t the suspect police were looking for.
Minneapolis has an immediate moratorium on all no-knock warrants, while Locke is being reviewed.
“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.”
There have been several national proposals to ban no knock warrants. None have been adopted. Although the George Floyd Policing Act would have prohibited federal use of no-knock warrants in drug cases and financially encouraged cities and states, it did not pass the Senate. Last fall, however, the Department of Justice announced limitations to no-knock orders. In the aftermath of Locke’s shooting, Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota congresswoman, introduced legislation to limit federal no-knock warrants.
“Changing Police Culture”
However, focusing on no-knock warrants may miss the bigger 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. It is important to address how warrants are applied in general, according to experts.
“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.
Rep. Omar’s bill addresses this issue by calling for the banning of quick-knock warrants and nighttime warrants as well as flash-bang-grenades in warrant service.
Every jurisdiction has its own laws and regulations when it comes warrants. This is true as with many policing methods. It is generally up to the judge whether certain types can be used in specific situations or whether a no knock aspect can be considered.
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“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. They should coordinate their efforts. 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. Change the culture is what we must do. Maybe the rule is one piece of that but it’s the smallest piece,” Margulies says. “The big changes come from changing police culture.”