A new proposal to formally limit the use of “no-knock” warrants, which allow officers to enter homes without warning, is raising questions about whether San Francisco should ban the practice altogether.
Police Chief Bill Scott has asked the Police Commission to approve a policy update that would explicitly bar his officers from seeking a no-knock warrant from a judge solely to prevent evidence from being destroyed.
But the policy changes stop short of banning the practice entirely, allowing officers to request a no-knock warrant if they can show that announcing their presence before entering would endanger police or the public.
The Police Commission was scheduled to vote on the changes Wednesday, but delayed the decision to a later date after advocates raised concerns that the updates didn’t go far enough to ban no-knock entries.
The news comes as cities across the nation are similarly considering pulling back on the practice after Louisville police fatally shot Breonna Taylor while executing a no-knock warrant at night in March 2020.
The high-profile killing was held up as an example of just how dangerous the warrants can be for both police and the public. While it’s in dispute whether officers announced their presence before forcibly entering her apartment, an exchange of gunfire erupted between police and her boyfriend, killing Taylor and injured an officer.
In letters to the Police Commission on Wednesday, both the ACLU of Northern California and the Public Defender’s Office cited Taylor’s death as evidence that no-knock entries should be completely banned by the San Francisco Police Department.
“SFPD should stand as a national leader to eliminate the practice altogether,” wrote Danielle Harris, a managing attorney for the Public Defender’s Office. “There is no practical need for no-knock warrant entry into a private dwelling, given the inherent potential harm.”
Yoel Haile, criminal justice program director with the ACLU of Northern California, wrote that anything less than a full ban would “inevitably lead to more terror, brutality, and death to the over-policed communities, namely communities of color and poor communities, in San Francisco.”
But in a statement to The Examiner, Scott defended the practice. He said police have only petitioned the court to obtain seven such warrants in the last two years, and executed just one of them. All seven involved violent felons, and six were related to gun crimes.
“No-knock warrants are necessary in instances where life and safety are at stake,” Scott said. “Their availability to police officers is especially important at a time when we are seeing a dramatic increase in shootings and gun crimes.”
Scott said department procedures already limit no-knock warrants to cases where there is reasonable suspicion a knock-notice would be dangerous to an officer or the public. They are not used to prevent the destruction of evidence.
The proposed changes to department policy are simply expected to codify existing police procedures.
Tony Montoya, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, also said no-knock warrants are needed to protect police and the public. He was speaking generally and not directly addressing the policy update.
“Anyone proposing to completely eliminate the use of this tool either does not (know) or is ignoring the significant personal risk that officers take when serving warrants,” Montoya told The Examiner.
The issue was set to reach the commission Wednesday, a day after the U.S. Department of Justice announced similar restrictions on no-knock warrants for federal agents across the nation. The policy allows unannounced entries only if knocking “would create an imminent threat of physical violence to the agent and/or another person.”
Harris, from the Public Defender’s Office, criticized the San Francisco proposal for being “even weaker” than the federal policy.
“San Francisco’s policy certainly should be no more conservative than the federal one,” she said.
The restrictions are among a slew of other changes to the SFPD search warrant policy that have been in the works for two years.
The changes also include explicitly requiring officers to follow the California Shield Law, which broadly protects journalists, the identity of their sources and their unpublished material from being subject to search warrants.
Officers seeking a search warrant that may turn up such protected information would need permission from police brass, prosecutors or the City Attorney’s Office under the proposed changes.
The update is likely a response to San Francisco police wrongly obtaining five search warrants against freelance journalist Bryan Carmody in 2019 during an investigation into a leaked incident report on the death of former Public Defender Jeff Adachi. The warrants were later quashed amid fallout from the scandal.
The department first presented the proposal to the Police Commission last Wednesday. At the meeting, Capt. Jim Aherne of the Investigations Bureau said the search warrant policy was last updated in 1997. Aherne said he, SFPD attorney Kara Lacy and the Department of Police Accountability worked to bring the policy “out of the Stone Age.”
“Think about all the advances in technology and changes in search and seizure law that occurred over the last 24 years,” Aherne said. “Kids weren’t walking around on cellphones, social networking sites didn’t exist, you still had pagers and payphones… And the internet was still on dial-up.”
Once approved by the commission, the proposal is expected to be sent into labor negotiations with associations representing rank-and-file officers and members of police brass.