In the summer of 2020, as the public erupted in outrage after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd and other police killings were soon broadcast nationwide, members of the Minneapolis City Council pledged to defund and dismantle the police department. Among the incremental reforms the city implemented was a restriction on the use of no-knock warrants, like the one Louisville, Kentucky, police were executing when they killed Breonna Taylor that March. But last week, when Minneapolis police shot and killed 22-year-old Amir Locke, they too were executing a no-knock warrant — despite the restriction — and the limitations of the city’s policy became clear.
As protesters filled the streets of Minneapolis on Friday, Mayor Jacob Frey, facing calls for his resignation, announced a moratorium on no-knock warrants. During a meeting with city officials Monday to discuss their use, Frey gestured to the limits of his new policy.
City Council members asked Frey to clarify the difference between the new moratorium and the policy put in place in 2020 — which had seemingly failed before. Last April, Frey apologized to a woman who was held at gunpoint with her 12-year-old daughter by a SWAT team executing another no-knock warrant that raided the wrong address in Anoka County, which contains suburbs of Minneapolis. At the time, Frey said that the city had “effectively” ended “‘no-knock’ warrants, outside of exigent circumstances in the city of Minneapolis” and that the county SWAT team was exempted from the policy.
So what distinguished the new plan? And why, one City Council member asked, hadn’t the city just banned no-knock warrants in 2020?
The moratorium prevents officers from requesting no-knock warrants at all, Frey explained. He added a caveat: “I have to note that even with this moratorium in place, there may be extremely dangerous circumstances where an officer still can enter without an announcement.” Asked by another City Council member if there were factors that made him hesitate in creating an outright ban, Frey said his hands were tied.
“You’re right,” Frey said. “An outright ban isn’t even an outright ban because there are instances where an officer can, without any permission — without permission from the chief or a search warrant — go to protect people.”
Last August, Minneapolis police reported that they had requested 90 no-knock warrants in the nine months after the 2020 policy change. The city reported that prior to the change, police requested an average of 139 no-knock warrants per year — but before last year, the numbers issued were usually higher. Frey’s office told The Intercept the Minneapolis Police Department served 78 no-knock warrants last year, 171 in 2020, 194 in 2019, 153 in 2018, 168 in 2017, and 121 in 2016. This year, the office said police have served 11 no-knock warrants since January 1 and that they announced their presence when conducting each.
Frey’s new moratorium includes an exception that allows police to request a no-knock warrant if they determine that there would be “an imminent threat of harm” without it. Examples of such circumstances might include a hostage situation or extreme domestic violence, among many possible others, Frey said Monday. Such a ban would also exclude “hot pursuit” of suspects by police.
But emergency situations like the ones Frey mentioned don’t require warrants at all, Rachel Moran, an associate professor and founder of the Criminal and Juvenile Defense Clinic at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, told The Intercept. Some extreme emergencies allow police to enter a home without requesting a warrant, but “that doesn’t prevent the mayor from imposing a moratorium on no-knock warrants,” she said. “If it’s a situation where there’s enough time to get a warrant, then the mayor can impose a ban that can require all warrants to be knock-and-announce warrants. I think he’s dancing around the issue or perhaps not even correctly understanding it. … He has the power to ban no-knock warrants.”
“I think he’s dancing around the issue or perhaps not even correctly understanding it. … He has the power to ban no-knock warrants.”
The Minnesota Legislature also passed a law last June to restrict the use of no-knock warrants, but like Frey’s 2020 policy, it’s not clear that the regulation is having its intended impact, according to Moran. The law requires police across the state requesting no-knock warrants to provide facts explaining why they can’t use regular knock-and-announce warrants, but Moran said its effects are hard to assess based on limited public information.
“Is there a related problem going on with judges rubber-stamping warrant requests?” she posed. “Because in theory, judges should be scrutinizing these really carefully now to make sure that the Minneapolis police admit this bar of proving that they’re unable to use a regular warrant.”
“Much of the language is very repetitive,” said Mary Moriarty, Minneapolis’s former chief public defender, of the way police draft applications for no-knock warrants. “Part of the boilerplate language will be, ‘In my experience as a police officer, when there are drugs, there are often guns.’” Attorneys like Moriarty, who served as Hennepin County public defender from 2014 to 2020 and is currently running for Hennepin County attorney, have challenged Minneapolis’s use of boilerplate language in no-knock warrants numerous times in court.
“When you look at some of the warrants after they’re signed, it does not appear that there’s been a lot of scrutiny of them.”
On Sunday, Minneapolis police arrested Locke’s 17-year-old cousin in connection to the murder case for which they had obtained the no-knock warrant. According to the cousin’s charging documents, the police knew that the boy did not live at the apartment where they killed Locke but rather had been present “as recent as January 2022” and had previously used a key fob to enter.
“When you look at some of the warrants after they’re signed, it does not appear that there’s been a lot of scrutiny of them because of boilerplate language, because of information you learn after the fact,” said Moriarty. No-knock warrants “give police a lot of leeway and trust that they are putting information in the affidavit which is true and accurate. We’ve had some situations where that hasn’t been the case. I think that the judges need to also adjust and make sure they are asking good questions of the police officer to make sure that the information that is in the affidavit is accurate and timely, and that this warrant is really needed.”
City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, who asked Frey several questions about the policies Monday, told The Intercept that he doesn’t have access to data on no-knock warrants and that “this information is inaccessible to members of the public.” The Star Tribune, Minneapolis’s newspaper, reported that the MPD has requested one more no-knock warrant than it has regular warrants so far in 2022 — 13 and 12, respectively. “The 2021 state law requires annual reporting of warrant [requests],” Ellison said, but “I believe this reporting should be more frequent than that. Whether weekly, monthly, or quarterly is up for discussion. There’s nothing to prevent the city from setting a higher bar than what’s mandated by the state.”
“There’s nothing to prevent the city from setting a higher bar than what’s mandated by the state.”
Frey’s new moratorium “is not an outright ban and … it should be,” Ellison said. “Other cities and states have instituted a full ban, and St. Paul has not executed a no-knock warrant since 2016. And I believe that the evidence is beginning to show that there are no situations in which a no-knock warrant improves public safety.”
Of St. Paul, Minnesota’s capital, Moriarty said, “They seem to be just fine there. So what is the explanation for Minneapolis continually asking for so many no-knock warrants?”
Explaining the ambiguity of the 2020 policy on Monday, Frey said that he and his campaign had used language that was too “casual” to describe the previous change. By the time of publication, Frey’s office had not provided further comment to The Intercept.