Justice in Public Safety

Breonna Taylor, Amir Locke, and the Dangers of Warrant Executions

By John Guzman
Communications Associate— Police Accountability

Two years ago, Breonna Taylor went to sleep; and, nearly two months ago, Amir Locke did the same. The commonplace, tranquil act of falling asleep in one’s own home should not have ended in tragedy — but it did for Breonna and Amir. These tragedies, and so many others, were the direct result of police callously and recklessly executing warrants.

The link between search warrant executions and casualties is not a new one. No-knock warrants have been executed by police officers with horrifying consequences for decades. Between 2010 and 2016, dozens of civilians and multiple law enforcement officers have died during no-knock raids. Due to law enforcement’s notorious refusal to transparently track information of this sort, we will likely never know the extent of how many people have been lost or harmed because of these warrant executions. But we know enough.

We know many examples of police executing no-knock raids at wrong addresses, such as the raid that resulted in seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones’ death. We know of police throwing a flashbang and grievously injuring an 18-month-old toddler known as “Bou Bou” by his family. We know that plain-clothes law enforcement officers forcefully entered 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston’s residence in a no-knock raid, and, when she fired one shot that did not strike any officer, police shot at her 39 times, killing her.

In Johnston’s case, officers then continued to engage in galling conduct after her death to cover up their misconduct. They were sentenced to prison after lying under oath, falsifying warrant justification documents, planting marijuana in Johnston’s residence, and falsely claiming that cocaine was purchased at Ms. Johnston’s residence. This raid is just one of many conducted in the deeply-racialized War on Drugs that has resulted in deaths, property damage, and extreme violence.

Police Turn the Public into The Enemy

When examined, the rationale behind no-knock warrants makes little sense. No-knock warrants allow law enforcement to force entry into and search private residences without knocking or identifying themselves. The reasoning behind this largely revolves around officer safety and the fear that drugs or other evidence pertaining to an investigation will be disposed of if police announce their presence before entering. But no-knock warrants create impossible circumstances that expose the public to predictably deadly consequences while also placing officers in danger.

Consider this: we all wake up differently. Some people struggle to shake off sleep, to the point where it takes minutes for the world to slip into focus. Others are alert more quickly, but even then, there is variance. What if they were ill the night before? What if they took medicine that made them drowsy? What if this was their first time sleeping well in days? The factors that affect sleep and wakefulness are endless. Yet, it’s clear that when we wake, sleep inertia is routinely present, and it shows itself through disorientation and cognitive impairment. This is not controversial, and even anecdotal experience points to the obvious: people are less alert when they transition from sleep to wakefulness. Police officers know this. Even children recognize this.

We know one other thing, too: police — and the system that enables them — don’t seem to care. The point of no-knock warrants is to leverage the element of surprise in order to serve law enforcement interests. This is particularly disturbing because many warrant executions are for gathering evidence, but police still prioritize securing this evidence over people’s lives.

No-knock warrants and other similar warrants create a troubling paradigm. It is one where law enforcement officers intrude into a home without meaningfully identifying themselves, break down doors, and damage property while pointing guns at people – who may have just been asleep or who are otherwise shocked by the abrupt, armed intrusion into their residence. Everyone, regardless of their involvement, can potentially get caught in any resulting crossfire.

The underlying logic accompanying these raids is chilling, as they invoke militarism in equipment, tactics, and mindset — one in which civilians become enemies regardless of due process. After all, officers are forcefully entering residences with the willingness to kill people, while also endangering the lives of those in nearby residences. The presumption of innocence does not seem to apply to any individual. During these raids, police execute warrants in ways reminiscent of a home invasion from the perspective of civilians. As a result, the fact that people have fired upon police officers or believed they were being robbed is absolutely unsurprising.

But the deference accorded to law enforcement in these circumstances is confounding. Instead of the lay person sleeping or otherwise enjoying the comfort of their home — who is expected to respond “correctly” to strangers suddenly breaking down their door, pointing guns and flashlights at them, and yelling — it is the trained, armed law enforcement professionals with years of experience, specialized equipment, and backup who are routinely given the benefit of the doubt in these circumstances.

Officers frequently escape consequences, and the refrain of “officer safety” is routinely touted about as justification for killing someone, as it was in the case of Amir Locke. That these incidents and killings occur in seconds is of alarming concern given the protections and discretion afforded to officers. And this is all particularly galling due to how officers accused of egregious misconduct have been involved in such raids, such as those accused of “hunting” protesters. 

Memorial for Breonna Taylor at Injustice Park in Louisville, KY. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A banner with portraits of Amir Locke is displayed in front of the stage during his funeral at Shiloh Temple International Ministries in Minneapolis, MN. (Photo by Brooklynn Kascel/Getty Images)

Courts Fail in their Duty to Protect

In theory, search warrants are supposed to protect people from unreasonable searches and seizures. In theory, a judge is supposed to sign off that no-knock warrants satisfy legal requirements, use specific language, and contain reasoning for why the element of surprise is needed. None of this lends itself to reality.

For one, judges are dangerously deferential to law enforcement warrant requests at the expense of the citizenry. An investigation by the Denver Post revealed that no-knock warrants are approved with such regularity that judges issue no-knock warrants even when law enforcement asks for regular warrants. In Utah, there have been instances of judges approving search warrants in seconds or a few minutes. In Minneapolis, warrants have been challenged after they were approved using boilerplate language. The usage of boilerplate language has also been found by other courts and through investigative reporting  — such as in Little Rock, Arkansas, where, in 97 of 105 cases, law enforcement violated the law by not providing specific information for why a no-knock warrant was needed. Available evidence also points to racial disparities in warrant executions, which is quite worrying given the patterns of minimal judicial scrutiny.

Certain jurisdictions have enacted limits to no-knock warrants, but it’s clear that these limits do not meaningfully curb the myriad problems with these warrants. Some of these limits include provisions changing the times under which a warrant can be executed — a reform more performative than effective, given that people can be asleep at any time during the day. Worse, these limits do not adequately address the harrowing militaristic circumstances that these warrant executions create.

In fact, the recent push to address no-knock raids resulting in fatal consequences is a recipe in déjà vu. Law enforcement’s ability to execute no-knock warrants was first codified into federal law during the racialized “law and order” initiatives of the Nixon administration in 1970 through provisions in the Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act and the District of Columbia Court Reform and Criminal Procedure Act. These provisions were later repealed in 1974 following a number of violent raids at wrong addresses. And now, nearly 50 years after that federal repeal and several court decisions again carving allowances for no-knock warrants, we are once again faced with the same problem.

Where do we go from here?

A prohibition on no-knock warrants is undoubtedly critical, but let’s be clear: it is also the bare minimum. No-knock warrants are simply one symptom in a law enforcement system rife with accountability lapses and dangerous policies uniquely positioned to harm communities across the country. Intense scrutiny must be paid to the associated aggressive police tactics surrounding search warrant executions and the militarization of policing largely. And accompanying, comprehensive steps — including changes to policy and proposals to limit or otherwise stop the transfer of military equipment and funding for such equipment to law enforcement agencies — must be taken to address these practices at the federal, state, and local levels.  

In the absence of this, there is only one damning question. How many more people will police kill before things change?

Published: March 18, 2022

Aug. 5, 2022 Update: Charges Filed Related to Breonna Taylor’s Killing

On Aug. 4, 2022, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that the Justice Department has charged four current and former Louisville Metro Police officers involved with the death of Breonna Taylor with federal crimes. The charges include civil rights offenses, unlawful conspiracies, unconstitutional use of force and obstruction offenses. The pattern and practice investigation launched by the Justice Department in April 2021 is still ongoing. 

Brett Hankinson, the officer accused of firing into Taylor’s home, was charged with depriving Taylor, her boyfriend Kenneth Walker, and their neighbors of their civil rights by firing 10 shots into the apartment. Detectives Joshua Jaynes and Kelly Goodlett, and Sergeant Kyle Meany have been charged with conspiracy for allegedly falsifying the affidavit for a search warrant and lying to cover it up. Meany has also been charged with lying to the F.B.I. for falsely claiming that the SWAT team had requested a no-knock warrant.

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