The fatal shooting of 22-year-old Amir Locke by Minneapolis police on Wednesday has renewed scrutiny of no-knock raids, the practice that drew nationwide outrage two years ago after Louisville police killed Breonna Taylor during a similar operation.
Both Locke’s and Taylor’s deaths resemble a situation that one policing expert called many people’s “worst nightmare”: While a person is asleep at home at night, armed men burst in with little to no warning.
“This is kind of the most serious thing the government can do,” said Barry Friedman, faculty director of the Policing Project at New York University’s law school. “You’d think it’s the most regulated, and there’s almost no regulation.”
Locke’s death in the no-knock raid has re-inflamed tensions in Minneapolis, where residents are still grappling with the fallout from George Floyd’s 2020 murder — the trial of three of the officers who arrested Floyd is underway.
“We have a city that just refuses to learn,” Jeff Storms, a civil rights attorney for Locke’s family, said Friday. “We continue to be known for these colossal civil rights failures. And so now the question is, is the city going to hold itself accountable? And can we believe the city anymore when it says it’s going to learn from its own mistakes?”
What has happened since Locke’s death?
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey (D) announced Friday the city would suspend the use of no-knock warrants — those in which officers enter a property without first announcing their presence.
“To ensure safety of both the public and officers until a new policy is crafted, I’m issuing a moratorium on both the request and execution of such warrants in Minneapolis,” Frey said in a statement.
“No matter what information comes to light, it won’t change the fact that Amir Locke’s life was cut short,” Frey added, noting the body-camera footage from the incident “raises more questions than answers.”
Frey said the city has tapped experts to advise officials on revamping the police search warrant unit, including Peter Kraska, a professor of police studies at Eastern Kentucky University who helped craft state legislation for regulating no-knock raids after Taylor’s death.
A caravan of demonstrators briefly blocked traffic late Friday to protest Locke’s killing. Hundreds of demonstrators filled the streets of downtown Minneapolis again Saturday evening, local media reported.
What happened during the raid on Locke’s apartment?
In an echo of Floyd’s arrest, body-camera footage from the raid undermined the police’s initial account of the incident.
Amelia Huffman, the interim Minneapolis police chief, said during a Wednesday news conference that officers “loudly and repeatedly announced [a] police search warrant before crossing the threshold into the apartment” and said Locke pointed a loaded gun “in the direction of officers,” prompting one of them to fire at him.
But body-camera footage released the next day showed a chaotic scene that unfolded in less than 10 seconds. Officers are seen unlocking the door with a key before rushing into the apartment as they announce themselves. Locke, who is wrapped in a blanket as police train their lights on him, is seen with a gun in his hand, but it is not clear from the video whether he points it.
Locke’s parents said he owned the gun legally and had it to protect himself from carjackers while making deliveries for DoorDash.
The warrant related to a homicide in nearby St. Paul; Minneapolis police were executing the warrant as an assist to the neighboring department since the search location was in Minneapolis’s jurisdiction. Notably, St. Paul police did not request a no-knock search from a judge; MPD insisted on the change and refused to serve the warrant unless it was a no-knock, NBC affiliate KARE-11 reported.
The warrants in the underlying case that led to the raid that left Locke dead remained under seal as of Saturday.
It’s not clear what information police had that led them to the apartment, which Locke appeared to be visiting. Marlon Cornelius Speed, the 23-year-old man who lived in the apartment whose address was reportedly on the warrant, had past run-ins with the police, Minneapolis Public Radio reported, citing court records.
Police confirmed that Locke did not have a criminal record. Locke’s parents said their son was a good kid who grew up respecting police. Locke aspired to work in music and had already filed paperwork and designed a logo for a business, the Associated Press reported.
How do no-knock warrants work?
While the Fourth Amendment generally offers protection from “unreasonable search and seizure,” police officers can petition a judge to sign off on a no-knock warrant that allows for unannounced entry in severe situations.
“The theory of the no-knock is that if the person [in the residence] is armed and knows the police are entering, they might shoot,” Friedman said, “no-knock lets police get in and secure the situation without being fired upon.”
“But that logic is ridiculous,” he said, “most people, if it’s announced police are armed and outside, they’re going to come out.”
No-knock warrants are most commonly issued in drug crimes where police may argue that being authorized to conduct a raid unannounced means potential suspects can’t destroy evidence before police get inside.
From Friedman’s viewpoint, no-knock warrants are just a subset of the larger problem of when and how police are authorized to raid homes.
“Even if [police] announce themselves, they can enter quickly,” he said. “The bigger problem is the extent that we use militarized raids to enter people’s residences.”
What are the concerns over no-knock warrants?
Reform advocates, including Kraska of the University of Eastern Kentucky, call no-knock warrants high-risk and low-reward.
“These raids are a form of investigation inside people’s residences, more than 90 percent of the time, looking for the possibility of small-time drug offenses,” he said. “It’s not for serial rapists, murderers or human traffickers.”
The risks are myriad, ranging from property damage to death, and often target the wrong people entirely — as in the case of Locke, who was not the subject of the warrant that led to the raid. Botched raids can also traumatize those swept up in the chaos.
In one high-profile incident in Chicago, a half-dozen officers broke down the door of Anjanette Young unannounced as she was undressing before bed. Young didn’t have enough notice to cover herself before she was handcuffed, forcing her to stand naked for almost a half-hour before police realized they had the wrong address.
In 2017, a tactical unit with the New York City Police Department shot and killed 69-year-old Mario Sanabria after surprising him during a no-knock raid. Sanabria had grabbed a machete at the sound of people breaking into his home and speaking no English, did not understand police commands. Officers had come to search Sanabria’s home for his nephew.
As of 2010, the conservative estimate for the number of no-knock raids nationwide was near 60,000 — an exponential increase from the 1980s when there were “a few thousand a year,” Kraska said.
“It was just something that even the police in those days couldn’t fathom: breaking into people’s private residences looking for contraband,” he said. “It was seen as too dangerous, and it was seen as going against constitutional sensibilities that you would do that.”
Where have they been banned?
Three states have banned the use of no-knock warrants: Florida, Oregon and Virginia.
Since Taylor’s death in 2020, at least a dozen municipalities have passed laws banning or limiting the use of no-knock warrants, including Lexington, Ky., and St. Louis (which bans them for drug cases).
For Friedman, the NYU professor, regulating raids through legislation is the best solution. But while momentum for change was strong in the aftermath of Taylor’s killing, it has since shifted back toward a familiar “law and order” approach.
“Politicians nationwide got cold feet,” Friedman said. “Ultimately with some cities experiencing rising homicide rates, there was all the political ammo necessary to squash the movement. Politicians are worried about being soft on crime.”
“It’s the same narrative, different era,” he added.