When will the deadly practice of no-knock warrants finally be abolished nationwide? It appears that after Amir Locke’s unnecessary death at the hands of Minneapolis cops during a no-knock raid, we’re not much closer to that day, despite rhetoric at the federal and local levels.
The latest promises come directly from the White House, where ABC News reports that President Joe Biden is preparing to further limit federal agents’ ability to obtain and execute such warrants, which permit law enforcement to enter a private home to conduct a search or make an arrest without announcing themselves first. Expanding federal limits on no-knock warrants sounds good, but the devil is in some key details.
From ABC News
Under the updated policy, Justice Department agents — including those in the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshals Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — are limited to using a no-knock warrant only in situations when an agent “has reasonable grounds to believe that knocking and announcing the agent’s presence would create an imminent threat of physical violence to the agent and/or another person.”
There are limited exceptions to that rule, but agents seeking a warrant in those circumstances need approval from the agency’s director and the U.S. attorney or an assistant attorney general before seeking the warrant from a judge.
No-knock warrants are mostly used in local policing, where federal executive orders would not apply.
That last part is key: Federal agents are responsible for only a fraction of no-knock raids in the U.S., which are used more often in Black and Latinx communities than against whites. Local cops are much more likely to ask judges for no-knock warrants like the ones that led to the deaths of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and of Locke in Minneapolis, so expanding a federal prohibition does little to solve the problem.
At the same time, what Biden proposes–and what the Justice Department already put in place last year–aren’t bans. The Feds can still apply and be approved for no-knock warrants provided they have “reasonable grounds to believe” that making their presence known creates a risk of violence. We’ve heard this before. In fact, we hear it all the time. “I feared for my life,” is a refrain that has long served as cops’ get-out-of-jail-free card, a convenient excuse in the absence of real justification for the use of lethal force, especially against Black people.
There’s a long, awful history of cops using no-knock raids—and raids in general—based on the loosest hunches. Relying on law enforcement, whether federal or local, to determine whether there’s “reasonable grounds” to barge into someone’s home unannounced, and to use force once they’re inside, amounts to a “take our word for it,” approach. If Taylor or Locke could still speak, they’d tell you that word isn’t worth the paper warrants are written on. It’s past time that the Biden Administration, or anyone claiming a serious interest in police reform, acknowledges a hard truth: cops lie, and they do so often enough that any policy that assumes truthfulness in allowing law enforcement to set a potentially lethal confrontation in motion is bad policy.
At the local level, some states including Florida, Oregon and Kentucky have enacted either full or partial bans on no-knock warrants. Some cities, notably Louisville, have outlawed or paused the practice. Many believed that Minneapolis had done exactly that, but the anger over Locke’s death, had Mayor Jacob Frey singing a mea culpa before city council on Monday.
The Minneapolis Police Department updated its policy in November, which said police must announce their presence once they enter the threshold of a residence. Mayor Jacob Frey’s campaign touted this as a “ban,” but Rachel Moran, a University of St. Thomas professor who studies police accountability, told city council members during an informational hearing in the government oversight committee that such a claim isn’t true.
“I do want to make clear this was not a ban on no-knock warrants,” Moran said. “It, in fact, did not affect the knock requirement at all.”
Frey later answered questions, including about his new moratorium issued Friday that temporarily suspends requesting and executing no-knock warrants. Again, this isn’t a total ban, Moran told the city council.
There’s an exception for circumstances where this is an “imminent threat of harm” and the warrant is subsequently approved by the police chief.
Frey acknowledged, though, that he had been misleading on changes made last fall.
“Language became more casual, including my own, which did not reflect the necessary precision or nuance. And I own that,” he said.
Frey put an actual moratorium on no-knocks on Monday but it’s clear that waiting for bans on a city-by-city, state-by-state basis is just playing a game of whack-a-mole; if you manage to effectively end the practice in one place, soon enough, it’ll turn up in another tragic case somewhere else.