‘Knock and Announce’ search warrants — faulty narrative driving poor policy

Shootings of Minnesota peace officers executing search warrants have increased significantly since the de facto ban on “no-knock” search warrants. Our peace officers deserve better.

The use of no-knock search warrants has been heavily debated in Minnesota in recent years. Those opposed to their use cite the deaths of Amir Locke and Breonna Taylor as evidence why they should be banned, while those supportive of their use cite practical experience and seldom referenced data as evidence that no-knock search warrants offer peace officers a far superior tactical option for making entry into an armed suspect’s home.

The banning of no-knock search warrants limits officers’ tactical options, eliminates the use of speed and surprise, and puts officers in the unquestionably more dangerous position of announcing their presence outside the door to a residence for 15-30 seconds before making entry.

During the last legislative session, the Minnesota Legislature attempted to pass an outright ban on no-knock search warrants. Thankfully, after receiving a fair amount of pushback from advocates, a final version of the bill to completely ban their application was avoided, but the new legislation made it far less likely any judge would or could issue a no-knock provision.

Furthermore, the National Tactical Officer’s Association (NTOA) issued a statement following the Amir Locke shooting, which came out in favor of discontinuing the use of no-knock search warrants in most instances — a position that was arguably more politically motivated than tactically motivated, and one the NTOA has failed to defend despite several inquiries on my part.

The legislative change and the NTOA position statement created a de facto ban on no-knock search warrants in Minnesota. While no live database is available tracking whether no-knock warrants are being issued, anecdotal information and news reports indicate their use has been stopped since the Locke shooting in 2022. A No-Knock Search Warrant Report to the Legislature for 2023 will be issued by the BCA sometime in 2024.

Has this de facto ban made things safer? The number of incidents and officers being shot offers a persuasive argument that moving to a strictly “knock and announce” posture has made things more dangerous for everyone, especially our peace officers.

Last week five (5) peace officers with the Sherburne County Drug Task Force were shot during the execution of a knock and announce search warrant in Benton County.  The suspect, previously convicted of multiple controlled substance violations, reportedly retreated to his bedroom and armed himself with multiple firearms when police came to his door to execute the warrant. The suspect and his wife watched the officers on a camera they had installed to watch their front door while the suspect laid out his guns on the bed. After knocking and announcing themselves, and after no one came to the door, officers were left to breach the door and encounter an armed suspect who had been given time to barricade himself in his bedroom and prepare for a fight. The suspect fired blindly though his bedroom door, striking five of the officers.

At least two (2) other knock and announce search warrants in 2023 have resulted in at least three (3) other officers being shot after knocking and announcing their presence before entering the residences — one in Yellow Medicine County and two in McLoud County.

That’s eight (8) peace officers shot in Minnesota over a nine-month period in 2023 while executing knock and announce style search warrants. That number of shootings during the execution of search warrants has never happened in the past.  It is a dramatic number of shootings and is deserving of attention — not only by those opposing no-knock search warrants, but more importantly by police administrators who have been too quick and frankly too timid to push back against the narrative that no-knock search warrants were unsafe — despite evidence to the contrary.

As part of the debate to maintain no-knock search warrants in the police toolbox, I wrote and testified before the 2023 Minnesota Legislative public safety committees, saying the following:

It is my professional opinion based on 3 decades of public safety experience that the use of “no-knock” entries, when necessary and when vetted and managed properly, offer both citizens and the police the safest and most effective manner for securing a residence prior to conducting a court authorized search for evidence and/or violent offenders.

I am strongly opposed to HF 2290 which would create a blanket prohibition for Minnesota courts to authorize “no-knock” entries.  This bill is a gross overreaction to a handful of high-profile incidents that have been largely misrepresented in the media and misunderstood by the public, politicians and sadly some law enforcement leaders. The narrative suggests, without evidence, that “knock and announce” entries represent a panacea to potential violence during a search warrant – they don’t, and data and anecdotal experience support that assertion.

“No-knock” entries have been supported by the courts and used successfully by law enforcement for decades. They came about precisely because officers were being shot standing outside residences knocking and announcing their presence and giving violent individuals time to react and mount an assault against the officers. As a result, law enforcement developed techniques that use dynamic entry and the element of surprise to quickly secure a residence before occupants can react. It is estimated that 20,000 “no-knock” entries are conducted nationally each year, involving violent and heavily armed suspects wanted for some of the most serious crimes that occur. Despite this, the overwhelming majority of these entries occur without incident.

There is no comprehensive national tracking system for search warrant service. However, the New York Times conducted a nationwide review of search warrants over a seven-year period between 2010-2016. It found that during “knock and announce” entries, 47 civilians and 5 police officers were killed, while during “no-knock” entries 31 civilians and 8 officers were killed.

To give this some context, nationally there are about 1,000 fatal officer involved shootings of civilians each year, and 215 officers are killed in the line of duty each year.  Folding this data into the “no knock” entry data collected by the NY times reveals that just 4 of the 1000 fatal officer involved shootings, and 1 of the 215 officers killed each year occur during a “no-knock” entry. Another way of explaining this data is that while dealing with some of the most violent and aggressive suspects there are, in some of the most dangerous situations police face, the use of “no-knock” entries resulted in a fatal encounter for citizens and police in less than three one-hundredths of a percent (.03%) of these entries.

In 2021, in response to legislative action, law enforcement in Minnesota began tracking no-knock entry activity.  The first annual report came out last year, and the 2022 data is expected this spring.  This was a great idea, and the data collected should be used by the legislature and law enforcement leaders to continually monitor and evaluate no-knocks in an informed and unbiased manner.

The 2021 Minnesota BCA No-Knock report reveals the following data:   During the entire year of 2021, Minnesota law enforcement requested just 132 “no knock” search warrants. Of those, just 105 were executed. Of the 105 that were executed, only 54 were executed using a “no-knock” technique, meaning that despite having the authorization to enter using a “no-knock” entry police exercised caution when the situation dictated and conducted a “knock and announce” entry nearly 50% of the time.  Of the 54 “no-knock” warrants executed, officers encountered 186 subjects. Of those 186 subjects, just four were able to react and resist police, while the other 182 were secured without incident – a testament to the use of speed and surprise. Of the 186 subjects encountered, just one was injured, zero fatally. When the involved police officers are added to this number, an impressive 1,082 people were involved in the execution of “no-knock” warrants service, some of the most dangerous situations police face, and just one non-fatal injury occurred in 2021.

The data is clear — “no knock” entries are not representative of a critical issue in law enforcement requiring a legislative ban. The anecdotal examples support this as well.

Restricting the use of no-knock search warrants by Minnesota law enforcement has had demonstrably poor results.  Unfortunately, these poor results were predicted and presented to our lawmakers and police administrators during debate over the fate of no-knocks.  The idea that knock and announce search warrants offered some form of panacea was a narrative that should have never been given the credibility it was given.  The welfare of our law enforcement officers has suffered as a result.

Our Legislature should return to the language that governed search warrants in 2022, the Minnesota Police Officers Standards and Training Board (POST) should produce model policy for vetting the use of knock and announce search warrants, and police administrators should recognize and support the use of no-knock search warrants under a well-regulated process.