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.