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No-knock warrants are under new scrutiny after fatal shooting in Minneapolis

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

New court documents show that when 22-year-old Amir Locke was shot and killed by Minneapolis police last week, they were actually looking for his 17-year-old cousin. Police used a no-knock warrant for the predawn raid, a so-called fast-entry tactic that is once again under scrutiny. NPR's Martin Kaste explains why. And a warning - you will hear the sound of gunshots in this story.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The point of a no-knock warrant is, of course, surprise. In the body camera video of last week's early morning raid, you see Minneapolis officers, serving a warrant in connection with a murder investigation, quietly using a key to unlock a door, then bursting into an apartment, rifles out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Police. Search warrant.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: Police. Search warrant.

KASTE: And it happened so fast that the Minneapolis Police Department also released a version of this video in slow motion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Police. Search warrant.

KASTE: And in that video, you can see a figure wrapped in a blanket getting up from a couch as the police swarm around him. There's a glimpse of a gun in his hand. He was later reported to be a legal gun owner. And then an officer shoots him.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

KASTE: That was Amir Locke, a 22-year-old Black man, not the person the police were looking for, who'd had less than nine seconds to understand what was happening before he was shot. Thor Eells says this is the problem with no-knocks. That element of surprise can also generate confusion for the cops.

THOR EELLS: The shorter time that I have to see you make a movement - is that a cellphone or is that a gun?

KASTE: And this is hardly a new insight. Eells is the head of the National Tactical Officers Association. They train SWAT officers. He says no-knocks were used the most about 20 years ago, but there was a reassessment around 2010. And in recent years, his organization has discouraged their use.

EELLS: There has been a significant decrease in the number of SWAT teams utilizing no-knock warrants as a matter of routine or with any degree of regularity. It's really become more of an exception.

KASTE: Activists agree that the political climate has shifted against no-knocks, including a number of states and cities that have banned or restricted the tactic, especially after the high-profile shooting of Breonna Taylor in a fast-moving police raid in Louisville in 2020.

KATIE RYAN: I think we've seen a lot of symbolic bills.

KASTE: Katie Ryan is chief of staff for Campaign Zero, which seeks to end all no-knocks. Their website has a map that tracks new limits on the tactic, but she says the reality on the ground can be more complicated.

RYAN: There is still so much work to be done, and there is so much nuance to understand in order for there to be substantive change.

KASTE: Minneapolis appears to be a case in point. The mayor had limited no-knocks after the George Floyd protests of 2020. But in the aftermath of last week's shooting, it's become clear that the police were still regularly getting them. In fact, in this case, Minneapolis police may have insisted on a no-knock. The Star Tribune reports that Minneapolis police told St. Paul police, whose homicide investigation this was, that they would serve the warrant only as a no-knock. Now the mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, has announced a new moratorium as the city looks into what happened, and Rachel Moran says there's a deeper problem.

RACHEL MORAN: No one has reined the Minneapolis Police Department in.

KASTE: Moran is an associate professor of law at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, where she researches police accountability.

MORAN: The police department itself is not interested in stopping its use or even reducing its use, and no one has made them do it.

STEVE IJAMES: So much of this is organizational culture.

KASTE: That's Steve Ijames, a police practices trainer and consultant. Without commenting specifically on Minneapolis, he says Americans should keep in mind the decentralized nature of policing in this country, not to mention the willingness of local judges to sign off on the warrants.

IJAMES: Are judges really peeling the layers of the onion back on this? In my experience, the answer is no. They largely defer, trust the expert, the officer, and that officer may differ dramatically from one jurisdiction to another what an officer would approach a judge for and talk no-knock.

KASTE: So while experts such as Ijames think no-knock warrants are on the decline, he says it still really comes down to your local police department.

Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.