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A New Bill Aims to End Police Raids Like the One That Killed Breonna Taylor

The police killing of Breonna Taylor, who was fatally shot in Kentucky in March when plainclothes officers barged into her apartment in the middle of the night, has set off a series of state and local efforts to ban “no-knock” raids — the police practice of breaking into someone’s home unannounced to execute a search warrant. A bill introduced by New York state legislators on Thursday goes further than most of those efforts, seeking to not only ban the vast majority of no-knock raids, but also strictly limit other avenues for forcible entry by police.

The New York bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Brian Benjamin and James Sanders Jr. and Assembly Member Daniel J. O’Donnell, seeks to limit the use of unannounced, no-knock raids to the most severe circumstances, like the pursuit of a murder suspect or incidents involving active shooters, hostage-taking, terrorism, or human trafficking. It would ban the issuance of no-knock warrants aimed exclusively at searching for drugs, currently the most common use of these heavily militarized raids. But unlike other current and draft state and local legislation, as well as three federal proposals, the New York bill would also impose a host of restrictions on what are known as “knock-and-announce” search warrants, a more common type of forcible entry that has led to dozens of deadly encounters in recent years.

“We must stop the over militarization of our communities,” Sanders said in a statement. “Today, we are putting forth the most comprehensive, groundbreaking legislation in the nation when it comes to these police raids, which should only be used under extreme circumstances and with accountability.”

While there is no comprehensive data on these raids, a New York Times investigation found that at least 94 people, including 13 officers, were killed during forcible police entries between 2010 and 2016 nationwide. Officers executing warrants have killed children and elderly people. Many people have been injured as a result of police firing flashbang devices into a home before entering, once severely burning a baby in his playpen. Oftentimes police have conducted these raids based on flawed or old intelligence, breaking into the wrong home and killing people who were not their intended target for arrest, as in Taylor’s case.

Researchers have estimated that at least 20,000 no-knock warrants are authorized by courts every year, the vast majority of them against Black and brown people and aimed at finding illegal drugs. But as many as 60,000 warrants a year end up playing out like no-knock warrants, even if not authorized as such. That is because the line between court-approved unannounced raids and raids in which police are legally required to knock and announce themselves is often blurry in practice, and most raids turn into what are known as “quick-knocks,” during which police announce themselves and break in almost simultaneously.

“The no-knock warrant is a way to legitimize something that’s very dangerous.”

“For years, I was on a drug unit that would, even if there wasn’t a no-knock, get out of the car and go up to the door and whisper ‘police search warrant’ and then smash the door in,” Jim Nolan, a former Delaware police lieutenant and FBI unit chief turned sociologist, told The Intercept. “That’s just bad behavior. The no-knock warrant is a way to legitimize something that’s very dangerous.”

Brian Dolan, a criminal defense attorney who has studied the practice, warned of the “gray area” between no-knock and knock-and-announce warrants.

“A lot of times you’ll see that the police will sort of knock on the door very quickly while simultaneously saying ‘police,’ but not saying it loud enough for anyone to hear,” he told The Intercept.  “And then they are waiting just a few seconds before breaking the door down, without giving anyone inside enough time to respond.”

The officers who broke into Taylor’s home in Louisville shortly after midnight on March 13 had received initial court approval — based on months-old intelligence — to execute a no-knock raid to search for illegal drugs and to arrest someone who did not live there. Before the raid was carried out, the court changed its order to require the officers to knock and announce themselves, which they claim they did. That claim was disputed by Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, who shot at the officers believing they were intruders.

While some details of the shooting remain contested, the incident exposed the dangers of most forcible warrant executions and the difficulty of proving that police did knock and announce themselves as required before breaking down a door and barging into someone’s home with their weapons drawn.

In fact, while after Taylor’s death activists and legislators focused on calling for bans on no-knock raids, it’s unlikely that such a ban would have prevented her killing. What might have is a sweeping overhaul of the way all police search warrants are conducted. So far, the New York bill is the most ambitious attempt to do that.

LaTosha Brown, from Black Voters Matter, speaks in favor of “Breonna’s Law,” a statewide ban on no-knock warrants, at a press conference in Louisville, Kentucky, on Aug. 24, 2020.

Photo: Chris Tuite/ImageSPACE/MediaPunch/AP

Breonna’s Law

After the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May brought belated nationwide awareness to the killing of Taylor in Kentucky earlier this year, calls for banning no-knocks echoed from the streets to city and state legislative chambers across the country.

In June, the Louisville Metro Council voted unanimously in favor of an ordinance, known as “Breonna’s Law,” banning no-knock raids and imposing some restrictions on other search warrant executions, like a requirement that police wear body cameras throughout them. At least eight states and 14 cities have partial no-knock bans in place, and legislation imposing a range of restrictions on search warrants is underway in 18 cities and 21 states, according to a tracker by Campaign Zero, a group focused on law enforcement policy. But both existing and proposed bills vary widely in the discretion they allow police, and most fall far short of what advocates say is necessary to meaningfully curb the harm caused when a SWAT team breaks into a home.

“What a lot of cities and states are doing is banning the issuance of no-knocks and full stop,” Katie Ryan, who works with Campaign Zero, told The Intercept. “It’s a nice hashtag but actually, in practice, it does not prevent this practice of no-knock raids.”

Earlier this month, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed the state’s own “Breonna’s Law,” after a special legislative session focused on criminal justice reform called in response to this summer’s racial justice protests. Virginia became the third state to ban no-knock raids, after Oregon and Florida.

Most bills fall far short of what advocates say is necessary to meaningfully curb the harm caused when a SWAT team breaks into a home.

The Virginia bill also imposed restrictions on other search warrant executions, most notably by limiting searches to daylight hours. But the version of the bill that was signed into law does not require officers to record the raid nor to wait a set amount of time after having announced themselves and before breaking into a home. Lashrecse Aird, a Virginia House delegate and the bill’s sponsor, had strongly advocated for the latter provision. “The 30-second pause ensures that you really give people on the other side of that door or that you are coming in contact with the opportunity to deliberately decide how they are about to engage with you, and to just take note that someone’s at the door, and to orient themselves and decide how they’re going to respond,” Aird told The Intercept.

Discussion of the 30-second requirement threatened to derail the entire bill, with critics arguing that the rule would put officers’ lives in danger — and proponents countering that it would actually make them, and everyone else in the home, safer. “It was framed as trying to tell police officers how to do their job,” said Aird. “But I would say, any other state that is considering this type of policy, they should push for that.”

The New York bill introduced this week does include a 30-second wait time provision, as well as a host of other restrictions on all warrant executions.

In addition to banning most no-knock warrants, the bill would create a tougher application process for police seeking authorization for all other warrants, including requiring officers to list the age and gender of all occupants of a home they seek to raid and asking them to detail their planned course of action should nobody respond when they knock. Officers seeking a warrant would need to provide evidence obtained within the last 24 hours showing that the person they are looking for was present at the residence to be searched, and the warrant would only be valid for a week. The bill would also require the officers to be in uniform, limit the execution of raids to daytime, and ban the use of flashbang devices to enter a home. It would require officers to record the entirety of the raid and mandate a process to review a raid after completion, including independent oversight and mechanisms to hold individual officers accountable over their failure to comply with regulations. Finally, the bill would make any evidence acquired in violation of these regulations inadmissible in court, require police to pay restitution for property damaged during the raid, and prohibit police from keeping assets seized during the raid in the absence of a criminal conviction.

During a Thursday press conference introducing the bill, Benjamin, the state senator, said “there are too many citizens who live in fear.”

“If you showed up in plainclothes at my house in the middle of the night, and banged on my door and break my door down, I don’t know who you are. And just because you say that you’re the police, that doesn’t tell me anything; that’s your word against mine. I have no idea who’s in my house,” Benjamin said. “New York can be the leading voice for how we get this done across the country.”

A Buffalo Police SWAT Team and Narcotics unit raided a series of homes in the city April 20, 2006. At a raid at 427 Grant St., Martin Motley smashes through the front glass door. (Bill Wippert/ Buffalo News/Rapport Syndication) (Bill Wippert/ Rapport Press)
 (Newscom TagID: rsphotos008306.jpg) [Photo via Newscom]

A Buffalo Police SWAT Team and Narcotics unit raided a series of homes in Buffalo, N.Y., on April 20, 2006.

Photo: Bill Wippert/Buffalo News/Rapport/Newscom

Warrior Cops

No-knock warrants were first enacted at the federal level in 1970, as part of President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs. Congress repealed the provision authorizing them a few years later, as evidence mounted about the danger they posed and questions swirled about their constitutionality. But as the drug war ramped up in the following decades, no-knocks became increasingly frequent, and a series of Supreme Court decisions over the years effectively enabled states to continue to authorize them. Since then, the number of raids conducted every year has only ballooned, increasing by nearly 2,000 percent, from 1,500 annually in the early 1980s to about 45,000 in 2010.

“At one point in time we accepted that this was a bad idea, and then over time our attitude about it changed, and we started doing it again, and we never looked back,” said Dolan. “We became a country that’s obsessed with the war on drugs, and we decided we’re pretty much going to let police do whatever they want to try to get drugs off the street.”

In fact, no-knock raids have been criticized even by some within law enforcement, who argue that they unnecessarily put officers’ lives at risk. “My son is in law enforcement, and I do not want him to get hurt, shot, killed while serving a warrant when it wasn’t necessary,” Mark Lomax, the former executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, told HuffPost. The police chief in Chesterfield County, Virginia, said that his department hadn’t executed no-knock warrants in decades, according to Aird, because “as a law enforcement agency, we should respect people enough to allow them to decide how they are going to engage with law enforcement,” she said.

Forcible raids have remained a widespread police tactic because of a broader culture of militarization and violence.

But despite the enormous risks, forcible raids have remained a widespread police tactic because of a broader culture of militarization and violence that critics say can’t be reformed with stricter policies alone.

“They thrive on this adrenaline rush, and this thin blue line mentality, and this paramilitary perspective; they’re at war,” said Nolan, the former Delaware cop. “And there are rewards for it. You’re running and gunning, you’re doing search warrants, you’re making lockups, and all these types of things are extremely valued in the profession.”

By making the bureaucratic process to obtain a warrant more burdensome on officers, and by eliminating incentives — like police’s ability to keep property seized during raids to subsidize their departments’ budgets — those pushing for a rewriting of the rulebook on police raids hope to tackle the broader war-like culture with which these raids have become so entangled.

But as banning no-knock warrants alone is not enough, some argue that imposing restrictions on all warrants, while certain to have a greater impact, is also only a first step. Aird, the Virginia delegate, noted that prior to Breonna’s Law, there was no statewide regulation for how police should conduct warrant searches at all. “In many states, like in Virginia, their code is just absolutely silent on no-knocks and how search warrants are executed generally,” she said. “And while no-knocks in my opinion really needed to be banned, it really is just the start of the conversation that we need to have.”

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