In the early morning hours of February 2nd, as officers for the Minneapolis Police Department were executing a search warrant for a downtown apartment, they encountered Amir Locke: a 22-year-old Black man who was visiting the residents of the apartment and was sleeping on the living room couch. Locke, who was startled awake by the sudden ambush, was doubtlessly confused by the unexpected appearance of the aggressive and armed individuals who had surrounded him. He panicked and produced a gun in order to defend himself. The officers opened fire, shooting Locke multiple times and killing him. Afterward, the Minneapolis Police Department admitted that Locke was not the subject of the search warrant and did not even live in the building.
Initial media coverage was sympathetic to the Minneapolis Police Department. The Star Tribune reported that “the man [who was] shot [and] killed by Minneapolis police… was armed,” while neglecting to mention the fact that Locke held a permit to legally possess and carry his firearm. The staff at FOX 9 Minneapolis-St. Paul disclosed that “another man living in the apartment previously threatened officers,” publishing an entire article related to the criminal history of the tenant without bothering to explicitly note that Locke was a guest with no criminal record, or to consider the notion that the criminal history of a person does not entitle a police officer to act as jury, judge, and executioner.
But the body camera footage (viewer discretion advised) released by the Minneapolis Police Department a day after the shooting is damning. The video shows the officers accessing the apartment without knocking or announcing their presence; they unlock the door with a key, storm the apartment with guns drawn, approach the couch where Locke is sleeping, and scream unintelligibly at him while kicking the couch he is resting on. Locke scrambles to his knees and struggles to disentangle himself from the blanket wrapped around his body. A gun is briefly visible in his hand, and then Locke collapses as an officer fires at him three times. Fewer than ten seconds transpire between the time that the officers set foot in the apartment and the moment that Locke is shot.
The footage completely refutes the statement issued by the Minneapolis Police Department regarding the shooting. Officials originally asserted that the officers “loudly and repeatedly announced their presence” before “cross[ing] the threshold of the apartment,” and maintained that Locke had pointed… a handgun… in the direction of the officers.” But the video demonstrates that both of these claims are patently false. In reality, the officers opened the door and rushed into the apartment in complete silence, and then began yelling at Locke as they encircled him. And while he was holding a gun, Locke never pointed it at the officers. The statement from the Minneapolis Police Department also referred to Locke as a “suspect,” in spite of the fact that he was not named on the search warrant. These lies have not been retracted.
How did this happen? What went wrong? The answer to these questions is that the officers for the Minneapolis Police Department were serving a no-knock warrant.
What is a no-knock warrant?
American common law has long observed the knock-and-announce rule, which stipulates that police officers are not authorized to merely force their way into a residence without first making a credible effort to contact and communicate with the occupants by knocking, identifying themselves, declaring their intent to serve a search warrant, and allowing sufficient time for response and recognition. In the 1958 Miller v. United States case, the U.S. Supreme Court formally upheld this legal tradition, ruling that police officers must notify residents before entering their homes.
However, over the next few decades, the U.S. Supreme Court issued several subsequent rulings that appeared to contradict their previous decision. At the outset of the war on drugs, the court voted to allow the admission of evidence that had been gathered during a warrantless and unannounced search in the case of Ker v. California; the majority opinion of the court explained that, while the police officers in question had raided a home and collected evidence without obtaining a search warrant or stating their purpose, their actions were “incident to an otherwise lawful arrest [emphasis added].” And in a series of cases that included Wilson v. Arkansas, Richards v. Wisconsin, and Hudson v. Michigan in 1991, 1995, and 2005 respectively, the court determined that police officers could be exempt from declaring themselves if they believed that doing so would endanger them or allow time for the subject of the search warrant to escape or destroy evidence. In less than 50 years, the U.S. Supreme Court had practically reversed its prior position, entirely subverted the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and dismantled centuries of common law statutes; where previously police officers had been required to “knock and announce,” now they were empowered to enter and search a home without alerting its inhabitants, based only on two arbitrary factors: perceived hostility that constitutes an imminent threat to the safety of the police officers, or potential compromisation of the effectiveness of the search.
These rulings established a monumental precedent. Instead of pursuing viable alternatives such as negotiation, deescalation, daytime searches in the absence of inhabitants, or public arrests, police departments can petition judges for special search warrants that afford them the legal authority to access and search property without informing occupants if conventional knock-and-announce procedures will supposedly impede police investigations. These search warrants have become known as no-knock warrants.
No-knock warrants in action
No-knock warrants are increasingly common. As of 2010, police departments across the United States served an estimated 60,000-70,000 annually, although that figure is likely growing. It is not difficult for police departments to secure no-knock warrants. In the city of Denver in the year 2000 alone, judges approved an astonishing 97% of applications, granting 158 of 163 requests for no-knock warrants. This number is also expanding. If the judicial provision of search warrants that enable police officers to enter premises without any warning seems like a dangerous practice for almost everyone involved, that’s because it is.
Although they have been a flashpoint of controversy since their inception, no-knock warrants became a prominent topic of national attention and discussion in early 2020, after police officers in Louisville, Kentucky shot and killed Breonna Taylor, an unarmed Black woman, as she slept in her bed. The parallels between this event and the killing of Amir Locke are striking: the search warrants in both incidents were of the no-knock variety; eyewitness testimony suggested that none of the officers in either scenario preemptively declared their presence; neither Taylor nor Locke was named on the search warrants or suspected of any criminal activity; and both were asleep when police officers attempted to serve the search warrants. In the Breonna Taylor case, officers began firing when Taylor’s boyfriend, who had been roused from his sleep by the intruding law enforcement agents and was unaware of their identity, pulled out a gun. And while Locke is not alive to recount the events that led to his death, it is reasonable to assume that he too was surprised, scared, and given inadequate time to comprehend the situation and react to it.
No-knock warrants represent an obvious peril to security and rights of civilians. Between 2010 and 2016, police officers killed at least 31 civilians who were the subjects of no-knock warrants. Moreover, since the 1980s, police officers have killed more than forty bystanders while executing no-knock warrants. Thus, many no-knock warrants constitute a death sentence for both their subjects and, in some cases, unrelated individuals who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Members of minority groups have been disproportionately affected by this. Research indicates that 54% of the subjects of no-knock warrants are either Black or Hispanic, revealing a vast overrepresentation of these groups when evaluated against their share of the total U.S. population. Because they are more likely to be named in no-knock warrants and because no-knock warrants are demonstrably more hazardous, Black and Hispanic people bear the brunt of this fundamentally unsound criminal justice policy.
And while the purported function of no-knock warrants is to protect police officers and reduce or eliminate the risks that they face, those officers also suffer the consequences of reckless policing. Numerous officers have been killed while executing no-knock warrants (eight between 2010 and 2016 alone); in most of these cases, they have been shot by unsuspecting and alarmed citizens who were simply responding to apparent assaults on their homes. When officers create environments wherein they employ the element of surprise (often in the middle of the night) while threatening lethal force, violence is the only predictable outcome.
No-knock warrants confer a horrifying prerogative and inordinate power upon police officers. The benefits, if indeed there are any, are far outweighed by the detriments. No-knock warrants are directly responsible for the deaths of civilians and police officers alike, violate the constitutional and human rights of American citizens, and play a salient role in perpetuating the systemic racism that has long defined the criminal justice system of the United States. While several states have already banned them, it is time for the rest to follow suit and unconditionally outlaw no-knock warrants in order to preserve the lives and liberties of all Americans.