The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Police won’t be charged in shooting of Amir Locke during no-knock raid

Demonstrators gather in Minneapolis on Feb. 4. (Christian Monterrosa/AP)

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minneapolis police officer who fatally shot Amir Locke during a predawn, no-knock raid in February will not face charges in the killing, prosecutors announced Wednesday.

In a statement, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who jointly reviewed the case, said there was “insufficient admissible evidence to file criminal charges.” They said they could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Mark Hanneman, who fatally shot Locke, had violated the state’s use-of-deadly-force statute.

The prosecutors also said they could find no criminal wrongdoing in the decision-making that led to Locke’s fatal shooting but strongly criticized the use of a no-knock warrant.

“Amir Locke’s life mattered,” Ellison and Freeman said in the statement. “He should be alive today, and his death is a tragedy.”

Locke, a 22-year-old Black man, was shot and killed Feb. 2 as members of the Minneapolis Police SWAT team executed a warrant related to a homicide investigation in neighboring St. Paul.

Body-camera video released by Minneapolis police in February shows Locke apparently waking up as SWAT officers burst into the apartment, his body wrapped in a comforter and a bright light in his face. As Locke shifts his body to sit up, a gun is seen in his hand.

Three gunshots are heard — all fired by Hanneman — before the video stops. According to prosecutors, Locke was shot in the face, chest and shoulder and suffered a graze wound to the wrist. He was later pronounced dead at a hospital. It was not clear from that initial video if his gun was pointed at officers or whether anyone ordered him to drop it before he was shot. The incident lasted less than 10 seconds.

Broken Doors: A six-part investigative podcast about how no-knock warrants are deployed in the American justice system

A 44-page investigative report released by Ellison and Freeman on Wednesday offered new details about the incident, including written statements by Hanneman and other officers at the scene that appear to contradict the publicly released body-camera footage of the fatal shooting.

Sgt. John Sysaath, a Minneapolis SWAT officer who was first to enter the apartment, claimed in a written statement to investigators that Locke was engaged in “evasive movements” and did not comply with “verbal commands” as the team executed its warrant. Sysaath said he saw Locke raise the barrel of his gun toward Hanneman and “believed that Mr. Locke intended to use the firearm to harm Officer Hanneman or the SWAT team.”

Sgt. Troy Carlson, another SWAT officer who was providing cover at the scene, said he told Locke to “show his hands” but the man retreated under the blanket and began “vigorously moving around.” Carlson initially thought there was a “physical struggle” before shots were fired, according to the report, but said the body-camera footage made public in the case had “altered his perception of how the events had occurred” and thought the sounds he heard were the “overall commotion” at the scene.

In his first public statement about the shooting, Hanneman said Locke fell onto the floor when another officer kicked the couch where the man was sleeping. In a written statement, Hanneman said he saw “the end of the blanket rise” with Locke crouching beneath it and holding a gun “pointed at me.”

“In this moment, I feared for my life and the lives of my teammates. I was convinced that the individual was going to fire their handgun, and that I would suffer great bodily harm or death,” Hanneman told investigators in a statement, according to the report. “I felt in this moment that if I did not use deadly force myself, I would likely be killed. There was no opportunity for me to reposition myself or retreat. There was no way for me to de-escalate this situation. The threat to my life and the lives of my teammates was imminent and terrifying.”

Hanneman’s statements contradict the scene recorded in the body-camera footage made public by Minneapolis police in February, but Ellison and Freeman said additional footage from the cameras worn by Hanneman and the other officers at the scene would be made public soon showing different perspectives.

A spokeswoman for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which investigates officer-involved shootings in the state and provided its findings to prosecutors in the Locke case, said the agency planned to release the entire case file in the Locke shooting — including the additional body-camera video. But it was not clear when the information would be made public.

At a news conference, Ellison and Freeman were pressed on whether the unreleased body-camera footage confirms Hanneman’s claims that Locke’s gun was pointed at him before he fired the fatal shots.

Their report, which cites footage from different body-worn cameras at the scene, said Locke’s gun initially appeared “parallel to the ground, then … appeared to drop down to about a 45-degree angle, before rising again slowly” — movement that happened “within the time frame of one second or less.” Locke’s finger never appeared to be on the trigger or trigger guard, but “on the slide of the gun,” the report said.

Ellison said Locke’s gun appeared to be “pointed in the direction of” Hanneman, though it was unclear whether Locke was actually aiming it. “We don’t know what was on [Locke’s] mind. It could have been an inadvertent moment,” Ellison said.

Locke did not live in the apartment where he was killed. It was rented by the girlfriend of the older brother of Mekhi Speed, Locke’s cousin who was later charged in the St. Paul homicide investigation. Speed and his mother, Cheryl Locke, lived in another apartment in the same building, which was also searched by police in coordinated raids around the same time.

Police initially described Amir Locke as a suspect but later said that was incorrect. Locke was not named on the warrant that led to the shooting.

Asked why the police had initially described Locke as a suspect, interim Minneapolis police chief Amelia Huffman blamed a lack of information in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

But Locke’s parents accused the police department of trying to smear their son, whom they have said was licensed to carry a firearm. They said Locke had gotten a license and purchased a gun because he was working as a food delivery driver and had been concerned about rising crime across the Twin Cities, including carjackings.

On Wednesday, Locke’s mother, Karen Wells, said she was “disgusted” by the decision not to charge Hanneman and vowed to keep fighting for accountability not only in the police department but with Minneapolis city leaders.

“The Minneapolis police executed my baby boy,” Wells said at a New York news conference where she stood with the family’s attorney Ben Crump and the Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights leader.

“This is not over,” Wells added. Directly addressing Hanneman, she said: “You may have been found not guilty, but in the eyes of me, being the mother who I am, you are guilty. And I’m not going to give up. … The spirit of my baby is going to haunt you for the rest of your life.”

Ellison described Locke as a “victim” and said the man “never should have been called a suspect.” But both he and Freeman repeatedly said they had to evaluate the case from the perspective of how a “reasonable police officer” would react at the scene.

“It would be unethical for us to file charges in a case in which we know we will not prevail because the law does not support the charges,” Ellison said. “And still, a loving, promising young man is dead.”

The killing has inflamed the ongoing debate over policing practices in Minneapolis, a city still reeling from the police killing of George Floyd nearly two years ago. All four former officers in that case have been convicted on various state and federal charges, though the fallout continues.

The department is the subject of a patterns and practices investigation by the civil rights division of the Justice Department. Community members who have been interviewed in that investigation say Justice officials have also been looking at the Locke case as part of that inquiry and have recently questioned family members of others who have been killed by Minneapolis police in recent years.

Floyd’s killing sparked almost universal calls for police reform. But Minneapolis remains deeply divided on how to get there. Last fall, voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have replaced the police department with a new agency, amid fears that it would only further diminish public safety efforts amid scores of officer departures and rising violent crime.

Mayor Jacob Frey (D), who was elected to a second term in November, has vowed to make public safety a major focus of his new term, emphasizing his plans to transform policing by rebuilding the diminished department with new officers and embracing “needed” changes. But he has repeatedly complained about such changes being overridden or blocked by state and federal policing regulations.

In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, Frey instituted a policy against the use of no-knock warrants in Minneapolis that his campaign described as a “ban.” But critics say the wording of the policy still allowed police to use such warrants.

On Tuesday, Frey implemented a new policy that he said prohibits Minneapolis police from applying for or executing no-knock search warrants. But the latest ban, which goes into effect Friday, still allows an exception for “exigent circumstances,” including when police determine there could be “imminent harm” or “imminent destruction or removal of evidence” — a loophole that critics say police could use to get around the latest effort to prohibit the use of such warrants.

The warrant that led to Locke’s killing was not initially slated to be a no-knock raid. The report released Wednesday reaffirms that the St. Paul Police Department had initially asked Minneapolis police to carry out “daytime, knock-and-announce search warrants” for three apartments linked to suspects in a January homicide.

But the report says Sysaath, the SWAT team officer, reviewed the case and recommended to another SWAT team leader that “MPD should not agree to execute the warrants unless they were ‘no-knock’ warrants” because of security risks to the officers.

Both Ellison and Freeman were deeply critical of the use of no-knock warrants in Minneapolis, saying the policing tactic puts not only the public in danger but officers as well and pointed to cities including St. Paul that have stopped using the procedure “with no harm to public safety.”

Both men said they had spoken to the Locke family ahead of their charging decision, which they described as a “heartbreaking situation.”

“They, like us, believe that if a no-knock warrant hadn’t been used, Amir Locke might well be here today,” Freeman said.