5 takeaways from The Post’s investigation into no-knock warrants

(Katty Huertas/The Washington Post)

After police killed Breonna Taylor in her home in 2020 during a botched raid, The Washington Post spent more than a year investigating no-knock warrants and how this high-risk policing tactic is deployed in the American justice system.

While intended to be used sparingly, no-knocks have become commonplace for police squads and SWAT teams searching for drugs, we found. This investigation revealed that no-knock warrants are easy for police to obtain from judges and, in some cases, have led to deadly encounters with only small amounts of drugs seized.

'Broken Doors': Understanding one of the most intrusive and dangerous policing tactics

This work led to “Broken Doors,” a six-part investigative podcast hosted by Jenn Abelson and Nicole Dungca.

Here are some of the key findings and revelations from our investigation:


Police carrying out no-knock warrants have killed at least 22 people since 2015

Since 2015, police across the country have killed at least 22 people, including Amir Locke and Breonna Taylor, while carrying out 21 no-knock warrants, according to a review of The Post’s database of fatal shootings by police and hundreds of court records.

Experts suggest that these high-risk searches disproportionately target Black and Hispanic homes. Of these 22 people, 13 were Black or Hispanic.

We obtained documents listing evidence for 13 of the fatal raids: In 12, officers recovered less than three pounds of drugs combined — including marijuana, mushrooms and heroin. Only one raid recovered more.

No-knock raids have led to fatal encounters and small drug seizures


Few agencies monitor the use of no-knock warrants, making the exact number of these raids unknown

Criminal justice experts estimate that police carry out tens of thousands of no-knock raids every year in the United States, mostly in drug-related searches. But none of the 50 state court systems or the District of Columbia reported tracking the use of no-knock warrants, and federal agencies do not track the number of people killed or wounded in the raids.

Consequently, the exact number of no-knock raids in the U.S. each year is unknown.


We found questionable raids in Mississippi, Louisiana and Missouri

In the first three episodes of “Broken Doors,” we traveled to Mississippi to report on raids involving Bengie Edwards and Ricky Keeton and discovered that no-knock warrants were the rule, rather than the exception, in Monroe County. (Keeton died; Edwards survived.) The head narcotics officer for the county sheriff’s office at the time said deputies carried out hundreds of no-knock raids. And Sheriff Cecil Cantrell attended many of them. Our investigation revealed broader allegations that the sheriff’s office had abused its power and trampled on the rights of residents. The sheriff defended his tenure, saying “we cleaned this county up.”

When the sheriff waged a war on drugs in a Mississippi county

In Port Allen, La., police killed Josef Richardson, an unarmed man, while carrying out a no-knock warrant at his motel room on July 25, 2019. While investigating the shooting for Episode 4, we discovered the amount of time between when the no-knock warrant was filled out to when the judge approved it — 11 minutes — and how little information police needed to get this warrant.

In St. Louis, police raided three homes simultaneously on Feb. 21, 2017, killing Don Clark, a 63-year-old grandfather, and upending the lives of residents on that block. In Episode 5, we report that all three raids turned up little more than 9 grams of drugs. No one was charged. The detective who requested the search warrants routinely failed to turn up drugs at the houses he targeted with these dangerous raids, according to our investigation.


In recent years, it has become quicker and easier for judges to approve no-knock warrants

Judges are expected to review police requests for all search warrants. For no-knock warrants, officers are generally supposed to explain why they need to force their way into someone’s home — but we uncovered many examples in which that didn’t happen.

We also found that electronic warrants are increasingly being adopted by law enforcement agencies around the country. This software allows judges to approve no-knock warrants with the click of a button and bypass the face-to-face process that usually involves an officer meeting with a judge in person. Our investigation into this relatively new technology explores whether judicial scrutiny is being compromised for efficiency.


Nationwide, 29 states and 21 cities have restricted the use of no-knocks in some way

We examined efforts to change policies involving no-knock warrants nationwide. Across the country, 29 states and 21 cities have approved legislation or ordinances restricting no-knocks, according to Campaign Zero, a police reform group. Only four states — Florida, Oregon, Tennessee and Virginia — have banned them entirely. Other states and cities have recently considered proposals to restrict the use of no-knock warrants.

Listen to “Broken Doors” now: A six-part investigative podcast, hosted by Jenn Abelson and Nicole Dungca, about how no-knock warrants are deployed in the American justice system. What happens when this aggressive police tactic becomes the rule, rather than the exception? Listen to the podcast.