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Cities Banned No-Knock Search Warrants After Breonna Taylor’s Killing — But Not Chicago

Criminal justice advocates say even a ban won't make Chicago safer because officers have made a habit of going into homes unannounced when they don't have the legal authority to do so.

A Chicago Police car turns off of Michigan Avenue.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — No-knock search warrants, a controversial policing tool that has fallen under increased scrutiny following Breonna Taylor’s killing, are legal in Chicago and can be issued at a judge’s discretion.

Leaders in other cities across the country — from Louisville, Kentucky, where Taylor was killed, to Memphis and Indianapolis — have banned no-knock warrants in the wake of Taylor’s death. But so far, Chicago leaders have not taken the same action.

Asked whether Mayor Lori Lightfoot is considering banning the controversial warrants, Lightfoot’s office didn’t directly answer the question, saying the practice “should be extremely rare and only used under exigent circumstances.”

The Mayor’s Office added the warrants “are very rarely utilized in Chicago and only permitted under strict department guidelines for the most serious and dangerous case.”

No-knock search warrants allow officers to enter a home without having to announce their presence or their grounds for entering. Illinois law allows judges to issue such warrants if officers believe a person would use a weapon or if there is “imminent danger that evidence will be destroyed.”

But criminal justice advocates in Chicago and across the country have long decried the warrants as dangerous. When police bang on a person’s door without announcing their presence, it creates confusion and chaos, which can lead to a violent encounter, advocates said.

Louisville police officers were executing a search warrant when they barged into Taylor’s apartment and shot her six times March 13. The officers obtained the warrant as part of their investigation into Taylor’s ex-boyfriend for drug trafficking.

The Police Department got approval for a no-knock warrant, but its orders were changed to “knock and announce,” according to the New York Times. While police say they knocked several times and identified themselves, a man who was with Taylor has said police did not identify themselves before coming in.

After Taylor’s tragic death, “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” became a rallying cry in the nationwide push for police reform.

Taylor’s case put a national spotlight on no-knock search warrants and reignited decades-old calls to abolish the use of them. Chicago leaders have been absent in the movement, which has criminal justice advocates questioning whether the city and its police department are committed to real reform.

“When it comes to criminal law, we’re always behind the curve,” said Chicago defense attorney Shay Allen. “Chicago is like the Alabama of the 1950s when it comes to criminal law. … Nobody wants to stand up for people’s rights. Everyone wants to just stand tough on crime.”

‘CPD Treats Every Search Warrant Like A No-Knock Warrant’

The use of no-knock search warrants has been controversial since the 1980s, when the warrants became a widely-used policing tool to fight the war on drugs.

In Chicago, many lawsuits have been filed against officers for raiding the wrong home and causing physical or emotional harm to innocent residents when executing no-knock search warrants.

But no incident has prompted Chicago leaders to change the law.

After Taylor’s killing, Chicago criminal justice advocates are again calling on Lightfoot and the Police Department to ban the use of the “highly dangerous” warrants.

The right thing for the city to do is to ban them so officers “don’t have that tool,” Allen said.

But a ban alone won’t stop wrongful police raids from happening in Chicago, Allen and other advocates emphasized.

That’s because Chicago police officers have made a habit of barging into homes unannounced even when they don’t have the legal authority to do so.

“CPD treats every search warrant like a no-knock warrant,” said Al Hofeld, an attorney whose law firm represents victims of wrongful police raids. “They almost never knock and announce.”

Brendan Shiller, defense lawyer and board president of the West Side Justice Center, agreed, saying there’s an unspoken agreement between the officers and the judges who grant the warrants.

“Both cops and judges wink and nod and understand anything that has to do with guns and drugs is a no-knock search warrant, whether they call it that or not,” Shiller said.

Until the city and the Police Department address this issue, officers will continue to force their way into suspects’ homes, endangering themselves and the public — without any oversight, advocates said.

Still, advocates said banning the use of the warrants is the right thing to do, so long as it’s being done in combination with other accountability measures, like enforcing the use of police body cameras and streamlining the department’s clunky system for tracking warrants.

“I think it sends a message,” said Chicago defense attorney Tamara Walker. “I think if you build in the respect and accountability and maybe clear house in some regards, that’s when you can start to see some real change. If you have funny business with your body cam, then you’re on some sort of probation.

“There should be penalties. It shouldn’t be a willy-nilly, Wild West scenario that it too often is.”

‘Despite 50 years Of Failure, They Keep Doing It’

Police advocates said no-knock search warrants can help officers apprehend dangerous people because it doesn’t give the suspects time to react. Many point to the element of surprise as a justification for conducting the warrants.

Asked why the Chicago Police Department considers the use of such warrants important, a police spokeswoman directed a Block Club reporter to the department’s directives, which outlines the procedures around obtaining the warrants.

Asked whether the department is considering ending the practice — as the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department did this summer — a spokeswoman said, “All department practices and procedures are constantly reviewed and monitored to ensure the safety and security of both the officers and the public.”

Lightfoot’s office said the guidelines surrounding no-knock search warrants “have only gotten stricter” under her leadership.

Lightfoot appointed the first-ever chief risk officer “to reform the Chicago Police Department’s search warrant policy … to prevent tragic circumstances from occurring in the first place,” the Mayor’s Office said.

The city’s no-knock search warrant policy, which was updated earlier this year, “ensures that if any raid is executed, all officers are wearing clothing identifying themselves as [Chicago police], at least two officers are in full uniform and any officers with body-cameras must be rolling the entire time for full transparency and accountability,” according to the Mayor’s Office.

Criminal justice advocates said no-knock search warrants are rarely issued in Chicago, but they say Lightfoot is missing the point.

“The fact that almost all of the search warrants and searches in the city of Chicago are about guns and drugs and are not tied to the investigations of actual crimes, like murder and sexual assault, is a product of a 50-year failed policing strategy that believes as long as you get guns and drugs off the street … [you’ll bring down crime],” Shiller said. “It’s a proven failed strategy.

“Despite 50 years of failure, they keep doing it.”

Across the country, no-knock raids and “quick-knock” raids — when officers don’t give suspects much time to answer after knocking — disproportionately impact Black and Latino people, according to Mother Jones. The news outlet found such raids are on the rise.

When conducting raids, police are usually only in search of small amounts of drugs, not enough to justify risking someone getting hurt or killed, Shiller and other advocates said.

“These are low-level people who don’t have a say in the expanse of the drug trade. If they knocked, people would answer the door. They would let them do what they needed to do,” Allen said.

“The amount of resources that are wasted for these things — they come out with 30 grams of cannabis. All of these [tactical] teams, all of these special units, all of this nonsense.”

In the case of Taylor, officers raided her apartment in search of drugs but didn’t find any.

“There will continue to be more Breonna Taylors in major cities throughout the country,” Shiller said.

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