By Senator Lena C. Taylor
“Say her name, Breonna Taylor” has become a chant that is etched in my memory. It was the tragic death of this 26-year-old young woman that required the nation to further examine our use of no-knock warrants in policing. Like many, I was jolted by the news that this first responder, who had been on the front lines of engaging Louisville residents battling COVID-19, would lose her own life, while sleeping in her own home. Shot eight times, in the course of a process that went terribly wrong, Taylor’s horrific death demands we do things differently.
It was also because of Taylor that I actually began to explore the origins of the practice of no-knock warrants. I was stunned, when I came across a June 12, 2020 NPR interview with Radley Balko, an investigative journalist who had studied this issue of these warrants and policing for more than 15 years. In the interview, Balko was asked when did no-knock warrants begin to be used widely. This was his response:
“Well, they were kind of a construction of the Nixon administration. The origin is pretty interesting. It wasn’t something that police chiefs were asking for or sheriffs were asking for. It was actually the brainchild of a 28-year-old Senate staffer who became a campaign aide. And it was this idea of just showing, you know, how tough we were on crime and drugs by letting cops just sort of kick down doors without announcing themselves first. That aide has, you know, since said that he regrets this. And it’s one of the biggest mistakes of his political career. But it became sort of widespread – really widespread in the 1980s in police departments across the country as we kind of, you know, really militarized and ramped up the war on drugs.”
The interviewer than asked whether no-knock warrants were controversial at its inception or did it just kind of slide into the national scene. Balko replied:
“No, it actually was very controversial. It was implemented at the federal level, you know, shortly after Nixon was elected. And there were a lot of botched drug raids and mistaken drug raids across the country. And some people were even killed because of them. What was really interesting is Congress held hearings about these. And they actually ended up repealing the federal no-knock raid law a few years later. It then comes back in the ‘80s. And, you know, Congress hasn’t been particularly concerned about mistaken raids or people who end up being the victims of those raids. But there was a time, you know, shortly after it was passed that there was some concern about this at the federal level.”
If Balko’s account of the creation of no-knock warrants is correct, this is something the legislators created and this is something legislators can fix. Senate Bill 472 is a bill I co-authored to address reporting the use of no-knock entry in the execution of a search warrant. I am the first to admit that it doesn’t go far enough.
No-knock warrants have become embedded in policing toolkits and it is difficult to convince many in law enforcement that their use should be banned. Yet, we know that both innocent civilians and officers have been injured or lost their lives, as a result of this practice. While some will argue it is safer for police, someone has to argue for the safety of residents who may be wrongfully targeted with this practice. With this bill, we can better track these warrants, gather data and make more informed decisions. SB 472 moves us in the right direction. While it’s not the reform many of us want, doing nothing is not an option.