One of the more popular aspects of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is the provision that bans so-called “no-knock” warrants for all federal law enforcement and revokes all aid to state and local police forces unless they follow suit. Given the vast amount of money that the federal government makes available for law enforcement, this is likely to be an effective way to change protocols across the country: by some accounts, various federal agencies pay over a billion dollars a year to state and local police forces.
No-knock search warrants became particularly infamous in 2020 because of the death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville during the execution of a no-knock warrant. These warrants are relatively common: one estimate is that over 20,000 no-knock search warrants are executed each year. They are used most often in drug cases–by some estimates, over 80% of these warrants are for suspected drug locations. Police need only demonstrate a reasonable belief that the usual practice of “knock and announce” (followed by an appropriate waiting period of 15-20 seconds) would lead to the destruction of evidence or would endanger officers. But by now we have enough evidence that the potential risks of these warrants far outweigh the potential gains.
The justification for these warrants is that they prevent the suspects from destroying evidence, and that they may be safer for officers because the suspects do not have time to prepare a violent response. Given the fact that a traditional warrant execution only gives the residents of the building fifteen to twenty seconds of warning before police force entry, there is little chance that criminals could effectively destroy of all of the evidence of their crime, even if it something as disposable as drugs, in such a short period of time. And an empirical study in Kansas City found no evidence that no-knock search warrants are safer than traditional warrants. Instead, it appears that these warrants endanger the lives of the police who execute them and the lives of those in the home being searched. Although there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of innocent individuals like Taylor being killed in no-knock raids, there is not very much in the way of hard statistics about how many deaths each year occur as a result of this practice. A New York Times investigation found “only” 81 civilian deaths and 13 police deaths over the six year period between 2010 and 2016, but that investigation only looked into raids conducted by SWAT teams, and so did not cover all of the no-knock warrants during that time period. Although this is a small percentage of the total number of deaths caused by police officers, abolishing no-knock warrants is almost certainly the lowest-hanging fruit as far as reforms go–the move will increase the safety of civilians (and officers) without costing much in the way of crime control.