It’s hard to overstate just how much Taylor’s death has changed the politics of this issue. No-knock raids as a policy have been around for nearly 60 years. Yet, despite the long trail of innocent bodies left in their wake, it wasn’t until last year that, for the first time in a generation, lawmakers finally began to ask if sending armed cops barging into homes in the middle of the night might not be the best way to prevent drug addiction.
The dirty secret about the no-knock raid is that it was never a tactic that emerged out of law enforcement organically. Instead, it was a policy born of politics, a wedge issue concocted to exploit middle-class fears about crime and drugs.
For centuries, U.S. courts and British common lawrecognized a principle known as the Castle Doctrine, which states that the home is a place of peace and sanctuary, and that the government can violate that peace only under extreme circumstances.
Police could enter homes without knocking and announcing themselves only if someone’s life was in danger, if they were chasing a fleeing felon, or in a few other emergency scenarios, after which they were required to justify their actions in court.
The first legislation authorizing no-knock raids as a policy — in which police could get a pre-authorized warrant allowing them to force entry without an announcement — passed in New York in 1964, during the tenure of crusading anti-drug governor Nelson Rockefeller. By 1970, 28 states had a similar law. But the tactic was still rarely used. At the time, New York state police obtained about 12 no-knock warrants per year. By the early 2000s, the NYPD conducted around 15 such raids per day.
During Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential run — a “law and order” campaign designed to exploit White fear of Black crime — a young campaign aide named Donald Santarelli proposed pushing a federal version of New York’s no-knock policy to show the campaign was serious about fighting drug crime. Nixon ran with the idea, and in 1970, the year after his inauguration, Congress authorized preapproved no-knock warrants for federal narcotics officers and police in D.C.
One supportive senator assured skeptics that law enforcement would use the new tactic “in the most discriminating manner possible.” Instead, horror stories emerged in which federal cops raided the wrong house, terrorizing, injuring and killing innocent people inside. In 1974, Congress held hearings and, in a rare moment of shame and self-evaluation, actually repealed the law authorizing federal agents to conduct no-knock raids.
But by the 1980s, the no-knock raid returned with a vengeance, fueled by the era’s general anti-drug fervor. Corresponding with an explosion in SWAT teams and anti-drug task forces around the country, armed cops barging into homes in the middle of the night quickly became a popular way to serve drug warrants.
Unlike the early 1970s, these deaths weren’t seen as a warning, so the carnage continued. In 1991 alone, for example, a 26-year-old Texas man was shot and killed in front of his 17-month-old son. Eight months later, a 6-year-old was killed in crossfire during a no-knock raid in Georgia. Two months after that, an 84-year-old woman with paraplegia in Texas died when a police officer shot her during a fruitless drug raid.
These victims have been largely forgotten, buried under the sea of names to come. By the 2000s, the Internet and emerging social media helped amplify unjustified police killings. Raids such as those that took the lives of Kathryn Johnston, Jose Guerena and others generated enough backlash to bring at least some minor local changes, though most promised reforms never happened, expired or were later retracted. But only Taylor’s death has brought the sort of nationwide rethinking of these tactics unseen since the early 1970s.
Santarelli came to regret his role introducing the country to the no-knock raid. “Law enforcement is just like any other interest group,” he said in a 2013 interview for my first book. “They’re always after greater power. And I think there was a real willingness on the part of the public to give them whatever powers they sought.”
But once police are given new powers, it’s hard to take them back. “Law enforcement has never been good at self-discipline,” Santarelli told me. “Once they had that sort of capability, it would be difficult to limit it to those circumstances.”
Police powers are often debated as a trade-off between security and liberty. But there’s little evidence that no-knock drug raids have made us safer. They neither ended the drug trade nor really limited it. Given the large percentage of homes who own guns for self-defense, and that the drug war is often fought with dirty information, these raids are almost guaranteed to end sometimes in tragedy. That includes making things more dangerous for police: There’s a long list of law enforcement officers killed in these raids. And there’s certainly no evidence the raids reduced crime.
For decades, we’ve tried to stop people from using certain chemicals by sending heavily armed paramilitary officers barreling into homes. By design, these tactics inflict punishment and terror on people not yet charged with a crime, much less convicted of one. They purposefully appeal to our basest retributive impulses: that drug suspects deserve brutal treatment and preemptive punishment — context and due process be damned.
But as a policy, the no-knock raid is a sledgehammer in search of ants. And its only real legacy has been unnecessary death.