Lawrence police can apply for no-knock warrants but don’t, spokesperson says
Plus answers to questions about warrant execution, body cameras and more
photo by: August Rudisell/Contributed Photo
Across the country for several months, protesters have rallied behind a common refrain: “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor.”
Taylor, a 26-year-old Louisville, Ky., emergency medical worker, was shot several times when plainclothes officers executed a search warrant at her apartment on March 13. Her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, is accused of shooting a police officer as the police entered because he thought they were being robbed, though prosecutors dropped an attempted murder charge they had filed against him.
After a grand jury did not indict any officers in connection with Taylor’s death and instead just charged one with wanton endangerment for allegedly shooting into the occupied apartment next door, more information about the case has been released to the public.
The Journal-World has received questions from readers about some of the issues at play in Taylor’s death and other police shootings — namely, how does the Lawrence Police Department handle these kinds of situations?
Lt. David Ernst, of LPD’s Public Affairs Unit, answered some of those questions via email last week.
The Louisville Metro Police Department officers had obtained a “no-knock” warrant, signed by a judge, to enter Taylor’s apartment, meaning they didn’t have to announce themselves before making entry. After the no-knock warrant was issued, the terms were changed to knock-and-announce. The officers, who used a battering ram to gain entry, have said that they did announce themselves. Walker and some neighbors who were interviewed said they did not hear them. There is no body-camera footage of the incident.
No-knock warrants allow officers to surprise suspects to prevent destruction of narcotics; however, particularly since Taylor’s death, such warrants have come under scrutiny, and the city of Louisville has now banned them.
A New York Times investigation in 2017 found that “at least 81 civilians and 13 law enforcement officers died in such raids from 2010 through 2016. Scores of others were maimed or wounded.”
Officers with the Lawrence Police Department have the ability to apply to a judge for such warrants, Ernst said. However, he said that he had spoken with several department members and can’t recall any uses of no-knock warrants by the department in at least the last 10 years.
“We recognize the safety hazards presented by these types of warrants for the suspects, the officers and the community,” Ernst wrote. “We choose to employ alternate, safer forms of entry or apprehension.”
Oregon and Florida are the only states that have outlawed no-knock warrants, according to the AP.
Louisville police found no drugs in their search of Taylor’s apartment, the AP has reported.
Body cam footage?
In a separate Louisville incident, officers shot and killed a barbecue cook, David McAtee, on June 1. The officers who were involved failed to activate their body cameras, and the police chief was fired as a result of the “institutional failure,” The Associated Press reported.
LPD rolled out body-worn camera systems departmentwide in January, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there would be footage for every incident.
LPD’s body cameras automatically activate at the sound of a gunshot, and they have a 30-second “look back” period. That means that barring technical issues with a camera, if a shooting were to occur, footage would be available for the 30 seconds preceding it.
LPD policy states that officers are not expected to jeopardize their own safety to activate their body cameras. Asked what safety concerns could make it impossible to turn on the cameras, Ernst said it would be difficult to identify every possible scenario, but “for instance, when an officer is not on a call for service and is unexpectedly presented with a situation that requires them to immediately react.”
He did not directly answer when asked why, if there could be a safety concern in turning the cameras on and off, they aren’t on at all times, but he said it is department policy to continuously record until the officer believes the incident is complete “or the situation no longer fits the criteria for activation.”
The Drug Enforcement Unit includes officers with the Lawrence Police Department as well as the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. Ernst said that members of the DEU who are LPD officers — including plainclothes officers — are issued body-worn camera systems.
Ernst said any officers present or assisting with the execution of a warrant would be required to activate their body cameras, and that warrants are commonly served by officers, detectives and members of the DEU. One exception in the department’s policy is that officers are prohibited from recording encounters with undercover officers or known informants.
Most of LPD’s unmarked cars do not have in-car camera systems, Ernst said, which are primarily installed in patrol vehicles.
“Generally, when personnel in unmarked vehicles intend to stop a vehicle or conduct a search warrant a police officer in full uniform and a fully marked patrol vehicle is summoned to assist,” Ernst said.
In Taylor’s case, audio that was presented to the grand jury and later released publicly revealed conflicting accounts of what had occurred — specifically regarding whether the officers had identified themselves before breaking down the apartment door.
In other incidents nationwide over the summer, video footage disproved officers’ accounts of incidents in which they injured protesters. Oftentimes, in incidents that occur in very public settings such as protests, footage may be released almost instantaneously online; in others, such as the execution of a search warrant, there might not be members of the public around to capture the moment, which then leaves the question of video footage up to the police.
Whether body camera or dashcam footage is released may depend on department policy and state law. For instance, Kansas law enacted through July 1, 2021, states that any recording from a body camera or vehicle camera is considered a “criminal investigation record,” and therefore is an exception to the Kansas Open Records Act that is not required to be disclosed. However, people who are subjects of the recordings, legal guardians of minors in recordings, an heir at law to a decedent who is the subject of the recording, or their attorney may view or listen to recordings upon a request to the law enforcement agency.
Ernst said that audio/video recordings might not capture an entire incident or interaction, but “the presence of audio and video recordings are equally important to the public and the officers.”
“We believe this compact, reliable tool helps our officers record observations, document police interactions, and aid in criminal prosecution,” Ernst said. “Our body-worn camera program is another aspect of our professional policing strategies that add a layer of safety and accountability.”
What happens when recordings aren’t available and officers have different accounts of an incident?
Ernst said that LPD’s officers document their actions and perceptions of how an event occurred in their written reports. He said it is not uncommon for officers to have a slightly different perception of an incident based on their relative positions, what they were focused on and what they heard.
“This is also common when obtaining statements from witnesses, victims etc.,” he said. “These varied perceptions are expected. We do not want our officers colluding and making certain their reports are identical.”
Which officers write reports about incidents varies, depending on the circumstances, Ernst said.
“When multiple officers encounter the same situation, each officer will complete their own report providing their own perspective of the incident,” Ernst said.
Typically, he said, officers will have a role or roles in investigations — interviewing a suspect, collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses and so on — and they’ll report their own actions or findings.
Interim Chief Anthony Brixius told the Journal-World recently that officers found to have been untruthful resign from their positions or are terminated.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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