Knock, knock . . . who’s there: DOJ policy to limit no-knock raids
In most states, police can secure a warrant that enables them to enter a house without knocking or announcing themselves first. The element of surprise mitigates the risk that evidence will be destroyed, and it is safer for officers who believe an announcement of their presence may put them in danger—but what about safety on the other side of the door?
Although police officers generally must knock and announce their presence prior to entering a house, the “war on drugs,” beginning in the 1970s, gave rise to the use of no-knock raids. The 1997 unanimous Supreme Court decision inRichards v. Wilson upheld the legality of no-knock raids in situations where officers believe “announcing their presence and intentions may be dangerous, futile, or result in the destruction of evidence.”
Advocates estimate 20,000 raids are conducted every year; however, Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University who studies no-knock raids, believes the number is closer to 60,000 a year. No-knock raids can turn deadly—an estimated 81 civilian deaths resulted from the raids between 2010 and 2016. Only recently, however, did the murder of Breonna Taylor propel the topic into national headlines.
In Taylor’s case, police in Louisville executed a no-knock warrant after suspecting her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, had drugs delivered to the residence. Thinking the police were intruders, Walker shot at the officers, and the officers fired back, striking Taylor six times. Following Taylor’s death, numerous state and local legislatures have proposed (and some enacted) total bans on no-knock raids. Louisville dubbed their ban “Breonna’s Law.”
On Sept. 20, 2021, the Department of Justice announced their own version of Breonna’s Law. The department-wide policy limits the use of no-knock raids to situations where agents have a reasonable belief that knocking and announcing their presence would create an imminent threat of violence. Even in these limited scenarios, agents seeking to secure a no-knock warrant must get approval from a federal prosecutor and a supervising agent. The Department of Justice memo notes that the execution of no-knock warrants poses risks to both law enforcement and civilians and thus should be exercised only in the most necessary situations.
Proponents of limiting the use of no-knock raids, including Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, hail the DOJ’s new policy as a crucial step in balancing law enforcement safety with accountability. Garland stated: “Building trust and confidence between law enforcement and the public we serve is central to our mission at the Justice Department.”
The Movement for Black Lives has yet to publicly comment on the policy but earlier argued that legislative limitations of no-knock raids are not going far enough to address police accountability. In a letter published by the Coalition in March 2020, the Movement stated, “[a] no-knock warrant ban would not have saved Breonna’s life, just like a ban on chokeholds did not save Eric Garner’s life.”
While it is unknown if a complete or partial ban on no-knock raids will accomplish the ultimate goal of police accountability, Taylor’s legacy continues to call on every individual to do something—to do what is right and to stand up for others. For some, that means taking to the streets in protest, and for those who are privileged with access to a legal education, it is important to use that power to advocate and support communities most affected by injustice.