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Chicago should go bolder in limiting no-knock police searches

Reforms proposed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Police Supt. David Brown may not make much difference. Botched police raids often are not the result of bad policies but rather how those policies are carried out.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a press conference at City Hall in the Loop, Wednesday morning, where she and Police Supt. David Brown announced reforms in how search warrants are approved, planned, carried out and reviewed following the botched raid on Anjanette Young’s home in 2019. Male police officers entered the wrong home while executing a search warrant and handcuffed Young, who was naked and pleading, for 40 minutes.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

We’re glad Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Police Supt. David Brown on Wednesday announced reforms on the use of no-knock and other search warrants, which give police permission to enter homes and other buildings. But we wish they had gone farther and urge them to do so.

No-knock warrants, which allow police to barge into homes without warning with their weapons drawn, have been controversial since they were introduced in 1967 in Wisconsin. Although police say they are rarely used, innocent people have been victimized. In October, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he wanted to ban no-knock search warrants in Illinois. Three states have done so.

Traditional search warrants have also led to botched police raids, including in the case of Anjanette Young, who was left naked and handcuffed when Chicago police mistakenly broke into her home in 2019.

In February, five aldermen proposed stricter search warrant reforms than Lightfoot and Brown are calling for. And in January, Chicago’s Office of the Inspector General also called for the police department to reform its search warrant policies.

On Wednesday, Inspector General Joe Ferguson said Lightfoot’s and Brown’s plan “is responsive to our urgent recommendations . . . but by no means is this all that needs to be done.”

For example, improved police training must be part of the reforms going forward, Deputy Inspector General for Public Safety Deborah Witzburg said.

“This is a really important down payment on the work that needs to be done to reform the police department’s policies and practices,” Witzburg said.

Lightfoot and Brown would ban no-knock warrants except in “specific cases where lives or safety are in danger.” But state law already bans no-knock warrants unless a judge concludes a weapon would be used against police or another person or that crucial evidence could be destroyed.

The mayor and police superintendent also proposed additional safeguards. Among them include requiring a “bureau chief or higher” to approve no-knock raids; other search warrants to be approved by a “deputy chief or higher;” requiring a police team preparing to execute a search warrant to hold a planning session to identify “any potentially vulnerable people who may be present at the location in question, including children,” and an independent investigation to verify and corroborate that the information used to obtain the warrant is accurate.

But there is a concern that in police practice on the street, the reforms won’t make a big enough difference. Often, botched police raids are not a result of bad policy but rather the way police implement those policies.

In the case of medical worker Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky, last year, a detective was indicted for firing without a clear line of sight into Taylor’s apartment. And even with a traditional warrant, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police need wait only 20 seconds after announcing themselves before breaking into a home. That’s not much time for occupants of a home to react.

In some raids gone wrong, there has been a dispute as to whether police did in fact announce themselves.

When reform policies are heavily influenced by the police, the department has been criticized for prioritizing its own concerns over other values and interests, such as civil liberties. Last year, critics said the city watered down proposals for use-of-force reforms. In the case of search warrant reform, Mecole Jordan, coordinator of the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability, said the city should have hammered out proposals in partnership with community groups instead of announcing them at a news conference with a 15-day comment period.

“A community voice is needed at the table now more than ever,” Jordan told us.

Search warrants are a difficult part of police work. Not only can residents be at risk, but so can cops when there is resistance to officers executing a warrant, particularly if the occupants of the building are armed. Good training, supervision and discipline are essential.

There is a growing consensus that, for everyone’s safety, the police should stop executing search warrants completely for small amounts of drugs.

Chicago continues to move too slowly in carrying out reforms called for under a federal consent decree. It’s time to speed things up.

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