Brown: No more no-knocks


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Columnist Aaron Brown argues for change in how the American justice system operates. 

Aaron Brown

So imagine you’re fast asleep, you’re dreaming about dancing with old friends. Or you’re picnicking with Care Bears or something peaceful like that. Suddenly, everyone in the dream starts screaming at you and running toward you. You are awoken from this dream to find there are actually people running toward you. I am pretty sure most people have experienced that state between dreaming and being awake where you are confused. You are trying to figure out what’s going on around you. I myself have had dreams within dreams within dreams — think “Inception” (2010) — where I wake up from a dream and don’t know for a while if I am still dreaming or not.

Some people like surprises. Some people hate surprises. But how about surprise death? “Surprise! You’re dead.” I would guess that almost nobody prefers to have surprise death. I would bet Amir Rahkare Locke was just a regular 22-year-old lad who did not fancy surprise death. Unfortunately, I am unable to survey him. Amir Locke was killed Feb. 2, early in the morning, while still waking up from his dreams. In the final analysis, the perpetrator put an end to all of Amir’s dreams with one shot.

If I were to rush into your room at 6:48 a.m. and shoot you right after waking you up, I would hope that the people of central Iowa would be outraged at my behavior. The people of Ames would rightly call for my execution. It would be just to publicly shoot me with a firing squad or simply hang me. Are people of the Minneapolis–Saint Paul area calling for the hanging of Mark Hanneman? Are they calling for a murder trial for Mark Hanneman? From what the general public knows, they should not. If I were to charge into your room and shoot you, it might very well be murder. But the way things are set up in this portion of the world makes the action that Hanneman took manslaughter, not murder.

Hanneman is guilty of two things. First, he killed some random bloke who was just getting a good night’s sleep on the couch. Locke was not engaged in any criminal activity and didn’t even have a record. The second thing for which Hanneman is guilty is following the crowd and not disobeying his boss when ordered to do something wrong. When ordered to stealthily and silently intrude into somebody’s house, he should have said, “No, sarge, that’s wrong.” But he followed along with the group who had rationalized and normalized the behavior. He went along for the raid and ended up being the one to kill an innocent man. 

What makes the situation different between me killing you and Hanneman killing Locke is the foundational problem here. Why is it normal for a policeman to silently break into somebody’s home, but not for me? Why is it normal for policemen to shoot up man and dog alike? Why is it normal to cause “regrettable incidents” to make “tragic scenarios” play out or to lead to “unfortunate events”? We continue to have innocent people die by police bullets. One of the big problems that contribute to this is the “no-knock raid.”

A no-knock raid is when policemen, SWAT members or sheriff’s deputies silently approach somebody’s house. They don’t announce their presence before taking a battering ram to the front door and running inside with guns drawn. These types of raids started in the 1970s when everyone was getting all excited about the “War on Drugs.” People thought they could go all James Bond on “the bad guys” and finally nab the villains that had been eluding “the good guys.” Though the War on Drugs has failed and will continue to fail, we still haven’t gotten rid of the unjust practices. It persists like a memory leak, for all you computer science majors out there. 

No-knock warrants continue to be issued at increasing rates. It all started out with wanting to finally get some big bad drug kingpin who kept on destroying evidence before police got inside. The guy was surrounded, and it was their “one chance” to get him before he fled the country. Now they are used because somebody might or might not be somewhere, or somebody may or may not have some illegal substance. We don’t exactly know what’s in the house, but in case there is something, we have to run in as quickly and as surreptitiously as possible. If we get scared by anything in this foreign territory with people we’ve never met and objects we have never seen, we just blast it away. And these sneak attacks happen tens of thousands of times per year now. 

Many people tend to mix up the way things should be with the way things are. Policemen should be noble and upright role models. Policemen should be respectable and esteemed men of their community. Policemen should be the best of the best, the cream of the crop, the top of the class. We should select people from our community who are above reproach and honest in all things to be the ones who seek out criminals to bring them before the judge. But the ideal is not real.

We reject people from being police if they are too intelligent. If police departments aren’t throwing away applications from college graduates, they’re not receiving them in the first place because who would want to enter a stereotypically dangerous profession when their degree offers a broad number of alternatives? To be sure, recruits get a background check, so we are not drawing from the worst human beings. But we are not drawing from the best. Policemen are just average people. 

There are upright policemen, and there are ones that will sell drugs and weapons low-key for some side income. Then there are the in-between folks who are neither here nor there. There are cops who like football, basketball or neither. There are cops who drink beer, or wine or neither. They have their varied interests and hobbies just like anybody else. For some reason, they like to beat their wives more frequently than the average Joe. But they are otherwise a random sampling of the population if you look at ethnicity (at least our strange American idea of it) or statistics on the working adult ages in the United States.

There are honest policemen, and there are liars. In Locke’s slaying, the policemen lied about what happened. Video footage from the body camera was promptly released, which contradicted the testimony of the SWAT team. Years ago, I spent 60 days in jail because of a lying cop. Unfortunately for me, the video camera “had been malfunctioning all day.” Thankfully for me, I now have a clean record — and I survived. Mr. Locke has no voice to fight against injustice, so here I stand.

Police with integrity do not last long in the average department. Police departments have become little armies, except without the history, oversight and discipline. Strict obedience is demanded of all the underlings. Those who hold themselves to strict moral standards must find another job or conform to the “way things are,” abandoning their principles. 

No-knock raids started for a bad reason, but they continue because we haven’t stopped them. They have become normal behavior for policemen and normal procedure for judges like Judge Peter Cahill. The system has to be reset, and people need to change their idea of normality. There are no reasons for these dishonorable raids. Stopping hostage situations and apprehending murderers do not require no-knock warrants. I am not arguing for the cessation of all warranted searches. But we need to use common sense. If we have a building surrounded, perhaps we can wait until the suspect leaves for work or goes to buy groceries rather than enter a crowded, unknown space populated with innocent people? 

Though many may say otherwise, justice for Amir Locke has little to do with his skin color or his age. Hanneman voluntarily put himself in the situation where he suddenly had to choose between taking another’s life and having his own taken. I doubt he saw Locke’s gun and thought, “Well, he’s black, so I’m going to protect myself.” He got scared like anybody else would be. The police who shot Jose Guerena or Eugene Mallory didn’t say, “Well, he’s not black, so let’s not kill him in his bed or in front of his children.”

I definitely won’t believe the politicians who will try to use Locke’s death and his skin color for their gain without making any change to the unjust laws. The same politicians who are talking about supporting “the black community” and having only a black woman for the next Supreme Court justice are the same people who spent big money on blocking a black man from becoming governor of California. Politicians aren’t immune either, though. In 2008, police in Maryland accidentally did a no-knock raid on the mayor’s house, killing his dogs, handcuffing his mother-in-law next to their bodies and tracking the blood throughout the whole house. I guess it happens to the best of us. 

It’s been ten years since Lindy Vopnfjörð released his piercing and pithy song “No Knock Raid.” It’s been five days since Amir Locke dreamed of making his own songs. Let’s fix the law and enforce it equally for everyone. It’s time for no more no-knocks.