Demands for more police accountability after George Floyd's death are pushing U.S. cities and states to curtail the controversial law enforcement strategy
* Legislative initiatives to limit 'no-knocks' gather pace
* Warrants pose risks for residents and police, critics say
* George Floyd's death fuels calls for police accountability
* Minority communities disproportionately targeted by raids
By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, May 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It was 4.30 a.m. when armed men burst into Hernan Palma's bedroom at his home in a Washington suburb.
Palma, a firefighter who lives with his wife and teenage daughter in Montgomery County, Maryland, assumed the intruders were robbers, and demanded to know what they were doing in his house.
He got no answer but was punched and shoved in the chest with a gun by the men, who turned out to be county police officers raiding the wrong unit, according to a complaint filed this month in a U.S. district court about the 2019 incident.
The officers had been granted a "no-knock" warrant, a controversial police tactic that is being challenged by a series of local, state and federal legislative initiatives - including in Montgomery County, which outlawed most such warrants in July.
"The no-knock raid executed on innocent homeowners was nothing short of a violation of the Palmas' constitutional rights," Joseph Caleb, an attorney for the family, said in an email.
"This violation, and the general practice of and overuse of no-knock warrants, is the result of overzealous policing, disregard for individual rights, poor police training, and in this case the lack of a policy for one of the most dangerous and deadly police activities utilized by police in this country," he added.
A spokesman for the Montgomery County Police Department declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
Police have been using "no-knocks" for decades, particularly when drug offenses are suspected, or when there is concern that suspects could be armed or quickly dispose of evidence.
But the strategy has faced intense scrutiny from the public and policymakers since the March 2020 death of emergency room technician Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed in her apartment during a police raid that also led to the death of an officer.
Critics say that besides being dangerous for both residents and officers, the warrants allowing police to enter homes unannounced are used disproportionately in minority communities.
George Floyd's death in police custody a year ago fueled debate over the warrants amid wider demands for police accountability, and dozens of cities and states have since moved to pass so-called "Breonna's Law" measures to curb the raids.
The pushback is long overdue, campaigners said.
"Both because of Breonna Taylor but also George Floyd and the recent verdict, there's a level of attention being given to this issue that just wasn't there previously," said Jason Williamson, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Criminal Law Reform Project.
For the Palmas, the effects of the police raid have been long-lasting, according to the complaint, leaving the family "traumatized and feeling betrayed, ashamed, and afraid".
The officers who burst into their home had been searching for the son of a tenant who rented the family's basement unit, which had an independent entrance, on suspicion of drug and firearm possession.
More than 77% of the 140 search warrants carried out by Montgomery County tactical law enforcement teams in 2019 were for no-knock operations, according to the Palmas' attorneys.
"The use of no-knock warrants should be the exception, not the rule," Caleb said.
DRUG WAR LEGACY
Across the United States, about 60,000 no-knock and "quick-knock" operations take place each year, according to advocacy group Campaign Zero.
At least 10 cities and 15 states have proposed bans on the practice, and legislation is currently in progress in 23 cities and 27 states, according to a tracker the group maintains.
Multiple bills touching on the issue have also been introduced in Congress, including one named after Floyd that would ban no-knock warrants at the federal level and push local jurisdictions to do the same.
That the momentum is being driven by the racial equity protests is in recognition of the outsize impact these operations have on minority communities, Williamson said.
"Because there was such heavy use of no-knock warrants in connection with the drug war, it's not surprising this tactic has been used disproportionately in Black and Brown communities," he said.
More than 42% of no-knock warrants have been carried out in such communities, he said, citing ACLU data.
But as policymakers increasingly view drug abuse as a public health problem rather than a criminal matter, the tactic may look more out of step, said retired captain Ashley Heiberger, a police practices adviser and adjunct professor at Moravian College in Pennsylvania.
He said that while carefully evaluated no-knock raids should remain an option in cases such as suspected terrorism, the risks meant they are rarely justified in run-of-the-mill drug cases.
"If we don't believe the average drug case is worth the increased risk to occupants and officers, then we won't use this tool routinely," said Heiberger, who served in the police force in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
'SURPRISE BUT ALSO FEAR'
In Minnesota, where Floyd was killed on May 25, 2020, lawmakers are trying to use the momentum for reform to significantly curtail the use of no-knock warrants.
"There has been a push for police accountability measures since George Floyd's murder, and I see this as part of that push," said State Representative Athena Hollins, mentioning a recent local incident in which police raided the wrong house.
"We wanted to make sure they're not being used in a situation where a drug possession was the only possible charge," Hollins, who is leading the legislative drive, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The proposal, which is currently in committee and should be decided upon by July, would still allow no-knocks in some situations when the element of surprise is important, but seeks to significantly limit their use.
"(Residents) deserve privacy and deserve not to have their door knocked down in the middle of the night, striking fear and trauma into their lives," Hollins said.
(Reporting by Carey L. Biron @clbtea; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.