PHILADELPHIA – After a year marked by police killings of Black men and women and mass civil unrest over racial injustice, some activists are taking aim at police tactics that can lead to deadly middle-of-the-night raids they say are used overwhelmingly in communities of color.
Rather than waiting for direction from lawmakers, a group of academics, policing experts and activists called Campaign Zero has created model legislation around so-called no-knock warrants they hope will be attractive to cities, states and President-elect Joe Biden, as they work to curtail police tactics that lead to both civilian and officer casualties. While Biden has said his administration will support criminal justice reforms, it’s unclear where he will focus.
SWAT team and tactical drug raids — in which heavily armed police teams bust down doors — have ballooned from about 3,000 in the early 1980s to more than 60,000 annually in the last few years, mostly because of drugs and drug task forces, according to Peter Kraska, a criminology professor at Eastern Kentucky University who has studied police raids for decades. The data includes no-knock and other warrants.
Generally, under the law, police must knock and announce their presence when serving a warrant, meaning they must wait before entering a property. But with no-knock warrants, officers don't have to say anything and don't have to wait. That's because the warrants are reserved for extraordinarily dangerous moments or if suspects are likely to destroy evidence if they are alerted to officers' presence, but critics say not always.
“There has been an historic issuance of no-knock warrants for inappropriate purposes, basically for fishing expeditions for drug evidence,” said Kraska, who helped Campaign Zero write its recommendations. “There are very few situations where Timothy McVeigh is standing behind that door when it gets knocked down.” McVeigh carried out the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people.
Kraska said the raids happen disproportionately in communities of color. Officers were executing such a warrant in Kentucky when 26-year-old emergency medical technician Breonna Taylor was fatally shot.
"The rest of us got to see that level of militarization with the protests ... but it’s happening literally every night in these communities,” Kraska said. “You have to think there’s going to be some lasting trauma from that.”
But just banning the warrants isn't enough, because the raids would only continue in other ways, said Campaign Zero manager Katie Ryan. She says that's why the group has included in its legislation a complement of reforms: requiring officers to be in uniforms that make them easily identifiable, requiring warrants to be served between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. and requiring the officers to know when asking for the warrant who lives at the residence, including whether there are children, older people or anyone with a disability.
“We had to create something comprehensive to cut off flimsy legislation and get real change," Ryan said.
The model also mandates officers use body-worn cameras and fill out within 72 hours a warrant execution report that is reviewed by an independent board. It would also require any property seized during those raids to be returned if a person isn’t convicted of a crime.
Campaign Zero was started by police reform activists in 2015 after Michael Brown was fatally shot by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer, triggering protests nationwide. Capitalizing on this year's resurgence of police reform protests following the death of George Floyd, they worked with at least 315 cities and eight states that adopted portions of their recommendations to reduce fatal force, including banning officers from putting their knees on the neck or head of suspects to restrain them.
The group is now working with 37 cities and states to introduce legislation on no-knock warrants. A bill filed earlier this month in New York by Sen. James Sanders, D-New York City, is among the first to include all 15 of the campaign's recommendations.
Sanders said Taylor's death brought the practice to people's attention, but his district has its own examples of dangerously executed raids.
The family of Alberta Spruill, a 57-year-old grandmother who died of a heart attack in 2003 after police officers fired a flash bang grenade into her apartment, has given Sanders its support. Officers had been looking for a drug dealer who lived in a different apartment and who they already had in custody.
Sanders said the bill will work its way through the legislative process after the new year. He's heard a lot of support from other legislators, and he's hoping to hear support from law enforcement, too. Officers are often injured in such raids.
“I'm a Marine, and I think (the police officers) know I would never do anything to endanger their lives,” Sander said. “We're talking about the majority of these warrants being served in non-violent situations for non-violent crimes. There's a safer way to do this for everyone involved."
In Charlotte, North Carolina, when police Chief Johnny Jennings took over his post in July he dug into the issue of no-knock warrants and ended their use for the department's 1,800 officers.
“We found that if there is something that is so dangerous that it requires a no-knock search warrant, that we did not need to take that risk. We use other means to try to get someone to come out of a structure,” he said.
Some law enforcement advocates have cautioned that departments need warrants for situations like human trafficking or kidnapping, and others have said a recommendation that officers wait 30 seconds to enter after announcing their presence could open a window for suspects to fire on police.
Mark Lomax, a retired major with the Pennsylvania State Police and the past executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, worked with the campaign to make sure there are exceptions in some of the recommendations.
“When it comes to narcotics, knocking down doors to go in and get a pound of weed can be dangerous not only to people on the other side of the door but to the officers also," he said. "I'm thinking of Breonna Taylor losing her life, but I'm also thinking of the officer who was shot in the leg.
"Neither needs to happen."