Discussions of police violence in American cities have led to the introduction of some troubling policy changes since the initial surge of protests in the summer of 2020. Rather than addressing the conduct of law enforcement, lawmakers across thirty-four states have been pushing more than 80 bills that strip the protections peaceful protesters have against both state and anti-protester violence, thereby limiting free speech (1). Recent incidents have led to a resurgence of anger directed at a specific practice that some police departments take part in: no-knock warrants.
It is generally illegal for police officers to break into private property without announcing themselves beforehand and attempting to gain compliance, even if they have a warrant to search the property (2). However, there are specific types of warrants, called no-knock or quick-knock warrants, that give police the legal right to forcibly enter a home without any previous notice or just seconds after announcing themselves.
No-knock warrants were first implemented in the United States by the Nixon administration in the 1970’s as part of “the war on drugs” and their used has increased exponentially in the decades since (3). The idea is that the suspects would have less time to dispose of evidence (drugs) if the police can enter as soon as they make the suspects aware that they are there. In practice, these kinds of warrants are more often executed by heavily armed teams with military-levels of strategy and weapons (colloquially called SWAT teams) who are generally sent to raid a place for marijuana (3). Interestingly, 80% of all SWAT team deployments in the US are used to serve drug search warrants (4), rather than for purposes like riot control or confrontation with violent criminals.
No-knock warrants, like most police actions, are disproportionately carried out against racial minorities, especially black people (2). No-knock warrants also increase the probability that the confrontation will end in violence, and have led to the deaths of several dozen people, both ordinary citizens and officers. There were two recent and very high-profile cases of police entering a home at night under a no-knock warrant that resulted, both times, in the deaths of civilians who were not even named on the warrants; Breonna Taylor in Louisville, 26, and Amir Locke in Minneapolis, 22, were both killed by police officers during no-knock raids (5). If no-knock warrants continue, these same exact tragedies will also continue to repeat themselves. Are these innocent deaths justified by the slight potential of convicting a few more people of non-violent, drug-related crimes?
No-knock warrants have also received a great amount of criticism from second amendment advocates (2). Much of the violence that has resulted from no-knock warrants began specifically because legal gun owners thought their homes were being invaded by non-police individuals, and they reacted accordingly. Even when the civilians have some amount of trigger discipline in these immediate and frightening circumstances, the police often do not, and will fire as soon as they see anything resembling a weapon.
So, no-knock warrants are broadly considered to be bad on an individual level because they increase the risk of personal harm to both civilians and police officers, with minimal evidence of benefits. But what relationship does this practice and its widespread use have with the democratic system of the United States?
The increased use no-knock warrants is a part of the broader trend of the militarization of American police forces over the last several decades. Police forces have been allowed more power over citizens, both physically in terms of access to military-grade weapons and legally in their ability to suspend and circumvent personal rights. Even though the police are formally decentralized in the United States, meaning there isn’t one central authority calling the shots for every police department in the country, there is still a broader police culture, with standards of normalization in their behavior (6). If one department starts crossing the line between increasing security and impeding individual rights and then receives little to no consequences, other departments are likely to follow suit.
This overextension of enforcement power is inherently an issue of democracy because the rights ensured by the democratically established federal laws are being usurped by local, procedural ordinances, but there is also the potential for this to actively interfere with democracy. If the interests of this police culture begin to fall out of line with the general public, the lack of checks on police power may unduly affect elections, policymaking, and, especially, freedom of speech.
Police are actors of the state; they are supposed to carry out the will of the state and are thus entrusted with the power of the state. In a perfect democracy, the will of the state is the will of the people, but perfect democracies do not exist. When the police are given such leeway, when their actions are not restricted to executing the law of the land, the biases that have developed with police culture will begin to suffuse in and affect their actions. “Law enforcement groups” have a large amount of financially-backed sway over both political parties (7) and the physical measures police culture will resort to (very often without facing any repercussions) when it is threatened by democratic consensus were made very clear every in the summer of 2020. While a few of the protests against police brutality involved some violent outbursts against property, the vast, vast majority of the tens of millions of Americans protesting denounced the violence, yet police all over the country overwhelming responded with escalation and violent suppression tactics (8).
Peaceful protest, gathering in public spaces to advocate for policies people want enacted because they will lead to better living conditions is textbook freedom of speech, a cornerstone of democracy. State actors enacting such brutal measures against these peaceful protesters, with open encouragement from the federal administration of the time, should be deeply troubling for anyone concerned with the future of democracy in America.