Editor’s note: This story was originally published in September of last year, but we are putting it back on our home page because of its relevance to the killing of Amir Locke during a no-knock raid by Minneapolis police on Wednesday morning.
In November 2020, Minneapolis police announced a new set of restrictions on the controversial practice of no-knock search warrants, one of several policy changes made in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
At the time, the department said it had been carrying out roughly 139 no-knock warrants a year, and wanted new guidelines for a tactic that has drawn nationwide scrutiny after Louisville, Ky., police shot and killed Breonna Taylor in a botched raid earlier that year. While Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said the regulations were only making existing “best practices” into official standards, some in the city took the move as a major shift away from no-knock search warrants.
Almost a year later, however, that doesn’t appear to be the case. A department spokesman said Aug. 20 that city officers obtained 90 no-knock search warrants from courts since November of 2020.
Even though city officials contend their policy has made no-knock warrants safer — and not all of those warrants were necessarily carried out — critics of the practice have expressed surprise at the figures, and called for more information on the approved warrants.
“Ninety, especially compared to previous numbers before the policy, it clearly isn’t the exception,” said Mary Moriarty, the former top public defender in Hennepin County, who is exploring a run for county attorney.
What the new city policy changed — and didn’t change
Police have historically used no-knock search warrants to recover evidence of a crime before someone can destroy it. Law enforcement also says the element of surprise can be crucial to prevent someone from grabbing — and shooting — a gun when police enter a home.
Still, the tactic has come under scrutiny because it can create chaotic and dangerous situations in which someone thinks they’re being attacked in a robbery or home invasion. State lawmakers in 2021 approved new rules for how and when officers can apply for no-knock warrants and banned police from using the tactic in cases tied to drug possession for personal use.
Minneapolis’ November 2020 news release said its new rules would be the first time the department had an official policy governing no-knock warrants.
Under that policy, one option for police is to ask a judge for “knock and announce” entry search warrants. In those cases, an officer can’t force their way into a building immediately looking for evidence of a crime. They have to knock, say they are police, announce their intent and give people inside reasonable time to respond.
However, if a judge grants police a no-knock search warrant, they now have two options under the department regulations. In most cases, police must announce themselves before crossing into a building — although not before opening or busting down a door. “An unannounced warrant means we breach first, then announce,” said Garrett Parten, a spokesman for the department. Police also must periodically announce their presence inside a building, too.
But, if officers decide that announcing themselves would create an imminent threat of physical harm to someone, police can enter without any type of announcement. This might be necessary, for example, in a hostage situation, said the city press release from the time.
When the new rules were announced, some thought they might induce a bigger shift in tactics than they really did. The Star Tribune wrote the policy would ban most no-knock search warrants, and Moriarty, the former top public defender, believed the same, citing a line in the press release that said: “Outside of limited, exigent circumstances, like a hostage situation, MPD officers will be required to announce their presence and purpose prior to entry.”
“What I took away was that no-knock warrants would be the exception,” Moriarty said.
Both Parten and Moriarty said they still consider the tactic of opening a door and then announcing police presence before entry to be a no-knock warrant, meaning they aren’t limited to hostage situations or similarly dangerous events.
“The difference was … do they have to knock on the door before they break it down to give the occupants an opportunity to answer the door before the door is broken down?” Moriarty said.
Moriarty said an announcement from police after busting down a door is a minimum that police should do. “It’s not helpful, it’s not safer for anybody, if you’re breaking down the door and announcing while you’re essentially breaking down somebody’s house door and coming in,” Moriarty said. Especially considering they often execute the warrants at night when people are asleep and may not know what’s going on, Moriarty said.
In 2020, Minneapolis did note the policy may not be much different than how officers already acted. Arradondo said last year that the regulations ensure best practices, already recommended for the SWAT unit, would be “cemented in policy.”
“It’s been the common practice for a long time is, ‘Breach, announce, announce, announce,’” said Parten, who didn’t comment on why others may have interpreted the department’s new policy to be an effort to reduce the number of no-knock warrants. “The pace at which they are issued will be determined on a case-by-case basis.”
At the same time, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said the policy really did bring about some change. Beforehand, police likely operated under a “patchwork of different practices that didn’t necessarily require an announcement prior to entry,” the mayor said.
“They are announcing on the way in, they’re announcing down the hall, they’re announcing at some point,” Frey said. “What this policy did was to produce a very objective and clear line, which says: the announcement has to be made prior to the breach of the threshold. That’s the change.”
Frey said there may have been plenty of instances in which MPD already carried out no-knock warrants this way before the policy change. “But there are also instances where that didn’t happen,” Frey said.
He also noted the policy gives police a uniform way to carry out no-knock warrants, and entails tracking if officers follow the policy.
The new policy also includes disciplinary action against officers who don’t follow the new guideline. “If, for instance, an officer were to breach the threshold prior to the announcement, without exigent circumstances, then discipline could be a remedy,” Frey said. “Where before, where there was a patchwork and there’s no real clear policy, there’s no discipline.”
Parten also defended the existing policy as useful and important, saying announcing police presence after breaching a door can indeed prevent people from mistaking cops for burglars. The bar is also high for officers to get a no-knock warrant from a judge, Parten said, adding unannounced entry warrants remain an important tool for police.
Others hope to largely, or entirely, eliminate the practice. Sarah Murtada with Knock First Minnesota, a student-led group from the Community Justice Project at the University of St. Thomas, called the recent state law, as well as policy changes made by Minneapolis officials, “a start.”
“I think, for the most part, an all-out ban would be the goal,” said Murtada of no-knock warrants. “I’m sure there are some exceptions. But we should not be having 139 a year. We should never, ever, ever have a situation where it’s disproportionately affecting different groups.”
On Tuesday, the department issued another new policy, bringing city rules in line with state law passed earlier this year regulating no-knock search warrants. Officers must get approval from two superiors for a no-knock warrant application and the department must track and report to the state the use and outcome of no knock warrants requested and executed.
Frey said he also plans on adding more policy to no-knock practice. “We are constantly exploring how to push this even further,” he said. “We’re still exploring some specifics. Whether that’s a certain time frame after the announcement that should be required.”
What we know about the 90 no-knock warrants
Minneapolis police didn’t produce much detail about the 90 no-knock search warrants granted to department officers by the court system.
Parten wouldn’t say what proportion may have been carried out under the clause allowing police to not announce their presence in exceptional circumstances. That’s because the department doesn’t have enough staff to pull each warrant and track how they were carried out, Parten said. MinnPost requested police records of the raids, but it takes time for the city to compile and release them.
Frey emphasized that, though there may have been 90 no-knock search warrants issued, not all may have been executed. “It often times occurs that a warrant is requested and issued but never executed for a number of different circumstances,” he said
Court records do show the justification given by officers for requesting a no-knock search warrant, and some information on what they found as a result of whatever police action was taken.
In a search warrant application from March, one Minneapolis officer said police had determined that a man seen on surveillance video firing a gun during a homicide lived in the Webber-Camden neighborhood of North Minneapolis. The alleged gunman, who was on probation for a weapons charge and couldn’t legally possess a firearm, was also a “documented” gang member, the officer wrote.
The officer said he believed he’d pinpointed the residence to find the man, and that inside would be firearms, ammunition, drugs and money from drug deals. Because of what police suspected to be inside, they also requested that the search warrant be carried out unannounced.
“An unannounced entry is necessary to prevent the loss, destruction, or removal of the objects of the search, or to protect the safety of the searchers or the public,” noted the no-knock application.
Hennepin County Judge Luis Bartolomei granted the no-knock warrant, agreeing that “entry without announcement of authority or purpose” would be necessary.
The police executed a search a day later, and said they found drug paraphernalia, mailings addressed to their suspect, firearms and ammo. The “receipt, inventory and return” for the search-warrant does not indicate if it was unannounced or not.
In an April warrant application granted by a judge, a Minneapolis officer said police wanted to search for guns, ammunition and cell phones in a northside house where someone was suspected of taking a woman and her infant after breaking into their home and pistol whipping the adult. The woman and child had escaped. But other unidentified people were still inside the house, so the MPD asked for permission to use a no-knock warrant “if necessary,” though the officer who had asked for the warrant also said police would “make every effort to call the individuals out of the house prior to raising the risk level for officers and the remaining individuals in the house.”
Police said they found a handgun and several cell phones after searching the house at 1:20 a.m.