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No-Knock Warrants: How Common They Are And Why Police Are Using Them


In the middle of the night on March 13, Breonna Taylor was lying in her bed when she was shot at least eight times by police. Trace events backwards from there. You would see three Louisville police officers storming her apartment using a battering ram. Before that, you would find those police seeking the kind of warrant that would allow them to do so wearing plain clothes with no warning. It is called a no-knock warrant.

Fast forward to now. The Louisville City Council has just unanimously banned the use of no-knock warrants on the national level, Republican Sen. Rand Paul has introduced a bill that would ban the practice for federal law enforcement agents. Let's talk more about no-knock warrants. I'm joined by Radley Balko, an investigative journalist and author of the book "Rise Of The Warrior Cop."

Radley Balko, welcome.

RADLEY BALKO: Thanks for having me on.

KELLY: When did no-knock warrants first came into wide usage?

BALKO: 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. And, you know, it is primarily used to serve warrants for people who are suspected of drug crimes.

KELLY: Was it controversial from the start? Was there big opposition to this, or did it just slide onto the national scene?

BALKO: 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.

KELLY: Do we know how often they end as tragically as in the case of Breonna Taylor? - not the only person, sadly, to have been killed by police using no-knock warrants. And they can be dangerous for police, too.

BALKO: The argument is that they're safer for police because these are dangerous people, and they need to be taken by surprise. I don't think that's true. I mean, my experience in reporting on this issue for about 15 years is that, you know, when you break somebody's door down in the middle of the night, you elicit a very primal reaction in them, kind of a fight-or-flight response. And, you know, if they don't know it's the police, if the police make a mistake, if they don't get in quick enough and somebody has the opportunity to reach for a gun - you know, they're just extremely volatile with very low margin for error.

As far as, you know, how many people have been killed, you know, I would say on average, we see about 8 to 10 cases per year where a completely innocent person is killed among these raids. We probably see another 20 or 30 where someone who, you know, may have had some drugs in the house is killed. Or maybe they pulled a gun on the police. But even somebody who's actually involved in drug trafficking - when the police use these surprise tactics, a lot of times, they're probably going to think this is a rival drug dealer, not the police, you know, when they try to defend themselves or defend even their drug supply. I just think that they're extremely volatile and dangerous tactics.

KELLY: So what may be the future of the no-knock warrant? As we look around the country, are there other states, other cities considering bans?

BALKO: We've seen, you know, the legislation - the police reform legislation that the Democrats introduced at the national level is suggesting banning no-knock warrants for federal law enforcement with some exceptions. We've seen this Louisville - the Louisville City Council has banned no-knock warrants now unanimously. Yeah, I think we're going to see a lot of pushback from police on this.

I think we're also going to see maybe sort of a symbolic ban on no-knock warrants but very little effort to actually enforce it. And I fear that what we're going to see is we're going to see a lot of sort of paper bans on no-knock warrants with no, you know, means or method of actually enforcing it. You know, I think most of the change here, most of the reform that's going to happen, it's going to happen - have to happen at a local level. It's going to have to happen with city councils and also, I think, in district's attorneys' offices.

KELLY: Radley Balko of The Washington Post. He is also author of "Rise Of The Warrior Cop."

Thank you.

BALKO: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.