In the months after police officers in Louisville, Kentucky, burst into the home of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, killing her as they conducted a botched narcotics raid, Lashrecse Aird knew that she wanted to take action.
“I’ve witnessed first-hand officers showing up at a home or family members being arrested,” she said. As a mother, and as a Black woman only a few years older than Taylor, the death of the young medical worker felt “deeply personal”.
Aird, a Democratic member of Virginia’s house of delegates, introduced legislation that would ban police officers in the state from using “no-knock” search warrants. The warrants, which have been explicitly legal in roughly a dozen states and allowed through courts in others, have long been controversial, with critics focused on how they allow police officers to initiate a surprise forced entry into a home.
The officers who conducted the raid at Taylor’s apartment had a no-knock warrant, but said that they announced their presence before entering, something that Taylor’s family and some of her neighbors have disputed.
In introducing the legislation last August, Aird joined a growing group of municipal and state politicians working to ban or restrict no-knock search warrants across the country in the wake of Taylor’s death. Calls for the bans, often called Breonna’s Law, increased last summer as a wave of protests for racial justice and against police violence swept American cities.
According to Campaign Zero, a group which promotes police reform policies, at least 23 cities and 27 states are now considering such legislation. But policing experts and activists argue that the bans must be accompanied by stronger police accountability measures to be effective.
Collectively, the effort is sparking a deeper discussion of militarized policing in the US and what must be done to address it. And as legislators continue to push for changes to no-knock warrants and forced entry police raids in general, they are finding that simple solutions won’t be enough.
At the beginning of 2020, a handful of cities and just two states, Oregon and Florida, had banned or otherwise restricted no-knock warrants.
Since Taylor’s death lawmakers have introduced or considered proposals in states such as Kentucky, New York, Nevada and Utah and cities like Cincinnati. In Chicago, city officials announced plans to sharply limit when no-knock warrants are allowed. A recent analysis by the Louisville Courier Journal found that about 84 proposals in 33 states “would monitor, curtail or ban no-knock warrants”.
At the federal level, two proposals seek to ban no-knock warrants. The Justice for Breonna Taylor Act, introduced by the Kentucky senator Rand Paul last June, would prohibit federal law enforcement and any local or state agency receiving money from the justice department from entering a home without first announcing themselves and their purpose for seeking entry. Paul has argued that his bill “will effectively end no-knock raids in the United States”.
A comprehensive policing proposal from congressional Democrats, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, would ban no-knock warrants in drug cases in addition to other policing reforms. The measure passed the House early in March, and now faces an unclear path in the Senate.
But demands for an end to no-knock warrants have often been best received at the local level where activists are able to directly point to incidents where surprise raids were used with disastrous consequences.
This was the case in Louisville, where activists and community members quickly rallied behind a Breonna’s Law measure in the city in the wake of Taylor’s death. Keturah Herron, a local activist and organizer, says that the city met those demands within weeks, passing an ordinance last June that banned no-knock search warrants and also required that police officers have body cameras turned on in the moments before, during and after executing a search warrant.
“When I think about policing, and how many tools officers have access to, I think that no-knock warrants are just a lazy tactic,” Herron, a policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, told the Guardian. “I believe that there are ways to apprehend people without breaking into their homes, and terrorizing them, and catching them off-guard while they’re sleeping.”
In recent months, Herron has worked to increase support for a proposal that would enact a statewide version of Breonna’s Law, which was introduced by the Kentucky state representative Attica Scott in January after first being announced last August.
In Kentucky, Democratic legislators like Scott have attempted to couple bans on no-knock warrants with measures that would also change how officers conduct raids more broadly. That’s the sort of direction that Katie Ryan, a campaign manager for Campaign Zero’s #EndAllNoKnocks project, wants legislators to consider.
“Law enforcement agencies can obtain a ‘knock and announce’ search warrant, but completely execute it in the style of a no-knock warrant, using things like flash-bang grenades, battering rams, and be out of uniform at 3 in the morning, and there’s no oversight for that,” she said. “So when you remove a no-knock warrant, you don’t actually address the issue of a no-knock raid. You have to restrict all search warrants.”
Measuring progress is difficult because there’s little data on police raids and no-knock warrants to begin with. A 2014 ACLU analysis of more than 800 raids conducted by Swat teams in 20 states found that a clear majority, 79%, of the raids were conducted to serve search warrants, particularly in drug-related cases.
A 2017 investigation from the New York Times found that from 2010 to 2016, at least 81 civilians and 13 law enforcement officers died in raids, and that far more people reported injuries from flash-bang grenades, shattered doors or windows, or physical confrontations with officers. In one high-profile incident, a Habersham county, Georgia, Swat team using a no-knock warrant threw a flash-bang grenade into the playpen of an 18-month-old toddler.
Looking at the data that does exist, it is clear that police raids are disproportionately likely to affect Black and brown communities, exposing them to an inherently violent practice that experts say frequently culminates in physical and emotional injury.
According to a December 2020 report from the Louisville Courier Journal, which analyzed 27 court-approved no-knock raids conducted before last year’s no-knock warrant ban took effect, the majority of warrants in Louisville targeted Black people suspected of low-level drug offenses and were concentrated in the city’s majority Black West End neighborhood.
As activists and politicians call for banning no-knock warrants, they often cite the Taylor case. But a closer look makes it clear that while a ban might have affected the warrant application officers used to approach Taylor’s apartment, it wouldn’t have entirely changed the ways they entered the residence.
Taylor was home with her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, last 13 March when officers used a battering ram to burst into her Louisville apartment after midnight as part of a drug investigation into two men, one of whom had once dated Taylor. According to Walker, he and Taylor were in bed when they heard banging at the door, and, fearful that someone was breaking in, left the bedroom and called out to see who it was.
When officers broke down the door, Walker, a registered gun owner, fired one shot from his weapon towards the entryway, striking an officer in the thigh. Three officers fired their weapons in response, shooting more than two dozen rounds into the apartment and fatally striking Taylor.
One scrutinized aspect of the case has been the fact that officers had a court-approved no-knock warrant to enter and search Taylor’s apartment. The officers have also maintained that they knocked at Taylor’s door and identified themselves before entering with the battering ram.
Even if police did “knock and announce” their presence, activists and policing experts say the case highlights the ways that even raids where police give a verbal warning before forcing entry can quickly turn into dangerous encounters.
“It doesn’t matter what piece of paper you have in your hands, whether you walk up to a door and you hit it with a battering ram and yell ‘police’ [or don’t],” says Peter Kraska, a police militarization expert and professor at Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies. “Both methods are a forced surprise dynamic entry based on the Navy Seals model of hostage rescue protocol.”
Kraska has been researching the increasingly militarized nature of policing and the growing use of surprise raids by American law enforcement since the 1980s. He traces the issue of no-knock warrants and raids back to the “war on drugs”, which was launched in the 1970s by the Nixon administration.
No-knock raids quickly became a contentious practice, with civil rights groups arguing that surprise entries violated the fourth amendment’s protection from unreasonable searches and seizures. But a series of court rulings affirmed the power of law enforcement to conduct the raids, adding that surprise entries were warranted if there was “reasonable suspicion”.
The practice has been more frequently used in the decades since it was first introduced, with Kraska estimating that the number of no-knock and quick-knock police raids conducted each year has jumped from 1,500 annually in the early 1980s to between 60,000 and 70,000 a year by 2010. He said the 2010 figure, which largely comprises raids used for suspected low-level drug offenses, is an “extremely conservative number”.
And that work is often having disastrous results in communities, particularly communities of color. “The issue isn’t just people being killed, it’s the terrorizing of neighborhoods and communities,” he says.
“Surprise dynamic entry raids by paramilitary teams is an extreme form of violence whether someone is shot or not.”
Because ending no-knock warrants is unlikely to fully end the use of surprise raids, advocates argue broader reforms are needed.
Campaign Zero has proposed a legislative model that they say would effectively end not only no-knock warrants, but also surprise police raids. It includes provisions like banning nighttime raids, ending civil asset forfeiture and requiring more detailed information on search warrant applications. The group is currently working with 46 cities and states according to Ryan.
The New York state senator James Sanders Jr agrees that change starts with revising the broader search warrant process. In December, Sanders joined with other legislators to announce a bill that would limit the use of no-knock warrants in the state to cases where a person’s life is in immediate jeopardy.
The measure, created in collaboration with Campaign Zero and Kraska, would also increase the amount of information officers have to report on a warrant application, requires officers to clearly identify themselves and wait at least 30 seconds before attempting to enter a residence, mandates that police departments pay restitution for property damaged during a raid, and makes evidence obtained during a raid inadmissible in court if police violate those provisions.
“We tried to get rid of no-knocks, but also slow knocks where officers go to a door, announce and then immediately press it in,” Sanders says of the legislation, which is an updated version of a bill that has been repeatedly introduced, but never passed in the state. It is currently the one of the most comprehensive warrant proposals introduced since Taylor’s death.
Scott argues that her legislation was especially important for her constituents living in the city’s predominantly Black neighborhoods. “We know that there is a disproportionate impact with no-knock warrants, that Black people are more often the target of these raids,” she said.
But the argument that police raids as a whole need to be reduced drastically or eliminated have elicited a range of reactions from police officers and prosecutors.
“We don’t want to lose options,” Thor Eells, a former Colorado Springs Swat commander and current executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, told NPR in November, adding that his group now tells officers that no-knocks should be seen as a “last resort”.
Their main concern – that ending no-knock warrants and raids would compromise the safety of people involved in violent scenarios – is being overstated, according to supporters of reform. “If police are going after an active shooter in a neighborhood and someone holes themselves up in a house, police don’t need a no-knock warrant to go inside that house,” Kraska says.
The aforementioned 2014 ACLU report found that just 7% of the Swat raids it studied were conducted to resolve violent situations like that of an active shooter, or hostage situation, while a far larger number of raids, more than 50%, were used in connection to drug-related offenses.
One year after Taylor’s death, it is possible that the coming months will see a number of proposals banning or limiting no-knock warrants become law.
But the delegate was unable to push through other reforms that she thought were crucial, such as a proposed 30-second waiting period before officers could attempt forcing entry. And Aird and other legislators have already faced efforts to amend the law.
While police reform advocates have largely supported bills that would ban no-knock warrants, some measures have been criticized by activists worried that lawmakers are focusing too much on reactive, incremental reforms rather than addressing the root causes of police violence against Black Americans.
“A no-knock warrant ban would not have saved Breonna Taylor’s life, just like a ban on chokeholds did not save Eric Garner’s life,” the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of 150 racial justice organizations, wrote in a recent letter announcing its opposition to the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The collective has backed alternative legislation.
Other police reform advocates argue that the movement to end surprise police raids should be seen as just one part of a much larger effort to drastically change policing and reimagine public safety.
“I feel like banning no-knock warrants is low-hanging fruit,” Herron says. “When we’re talking about ensuring that another Breonna Taylor doesn’t occur, I think that it only makes sense to pass Breonna’s Law.
Despite high overall rates of vaccinations in the US, more and more Americans are getting infected with the new, rapidly spreading ‘delta’ variant of the coronavirus, once again testing the limits of hospitals and reportedly sparking talks about new mask-up orders from authorities.
The rapidly increasing number of new COVID-19 cases in the US caused by the more infectious delta strain of the virus is frustrating the Biden administration, as the problem draws attention and resources away from other priorities that the White House would like to concentrate on, the Washington Post reported, citing several anonymous sources. Among the problems that the administration reportedly had to de-prioritise are Biden’s infrastructure initiatives, voting rights, an overhaul of policing, gun control and immigration.
The White House reportedly hoped that the pandemic would be gradually ebbing by this time, allowing it to focus more on other presidential plans. Instead, the Biden administration is growing “anxious” about the growing number of daily COVID-19 cases, the newspaper sources said. The White House press secretary indirectly confirmed that Biden is currently preoccupied with the pandemic the most.
“Getting the pandemic under control [and] protecting Americans from the spread of the virus has been [and] continues to be his number-one priority. It will continue to be his priority moving forward. There’s no question,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on 22 July.
The administration had reportedly expected new outbreaks in the country, but not as many as they’re seeing. Current analytical models predict anything between a few thousand new cases and 200,000 new infected daily, the Washington Post reported. Washington also fears that daily deaths might reach over 700 per day, up from the current average of 250. However, the White House doesn’t expect the pandemic numbers to return to their 2020 peak levels.
At the same time, the Biden administration is trying to find scapegoats to blame for the current shortcomings in fighting the coronavirus pandemic in the country. Namely, Biden last week accused the social media platform of failing to combat the spread of disinformation on COVID-19 and thus “killing people”. The statement raised many eyebrows since many platforms mark COVID-related posts and insert links to reliable sources of information regarding the disease and the vaccination efforts aimed at fighting it. The White House also hinted that the Republican-controlled states became the main sources of new COVID cases, while often underperforming in terms of vaccination rates.
Sierra Leone has become the latest African state to abolish the death penalty after MPs voted unanimously to abandon the punishment.
On Friday the west African state became the 23rd country on the continent to end capital punishment, which is largely a legacy of colonial legal codes. In April, Malawi ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional, while Chad abolished it in 2020. In 2019, the African human rights court ruled that mandatory imposition of the death penalty by Tanzania was “patently unfair”.
Of those countries that retain the death penalty on their statute books, 17 are abolitionist in practice, according to Amnesty International.
A de facto moratorium on the use of the death penalty has existed in Sierra Leone since 1998, after the country controversially executed 24 soldiers for their alleged involvement in a coup attempt the year before.
Under Sierra Leone’s 1991 constitution, the death penalty could be prescribed for murder, aggravated robbery, mutiny and treason.
Last year, Sierra Leone handed down 39 death sentences, compared with 21 in 2019, according to Amnesty, and 94 people were on death row in the country at the end of last year.
Rhiannon Davis, director of the women’s rights group AdvocAid, said: “It’s a huge step forward for this fundamental human right in Sierra Leone.
“This government, and previous governments, haven’t chosen to [put convicts to death since 1998], but the next government might have taken a different view,” she said.
“They [prisoners] spend their life on death row, which in effect is a form of torture as you have been given a death sentence that will not be carried out because of the moratorium, but you constantly have this threat over you as there’s nothing in law to stop that sentence being carried out.”
Davis said the abolition would be particularly beneficial to women and girls accused of murdering an abuser.
“Previously, the death penalty was mandatory in Sierra Leone, meaning a judge could not take into account any mitigating circumstances, such as gender-based violence,” she said.
Umaru Napoleon Koroma, deputy minister of justice, who has been involved in the abolition efforts, said sentencing people on death row to “life imprisonment with the possibility of them reforming is the way to go”.
Across sub-Saharan Africa last year Amnesty researchers recorded a 36% drop in executions compared with 2019 – from 25 to 16. Executions were carried out in Botswana, Somalia and South Sudan.
The European Commission announced it is on track to share some 200 million doses of vaccines against Covid-19 before the end of the year. It says the vaccines will go to low and middle-income countries. “We will be sharing more than 200 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines with low and middle-income countries by the end of this year,” said European commission president Ursula von der Leyen.