Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'No-Knock' Ballot Measure Could Open Door To More Police Accountability, Activists Hope

Megan Harris
90.5 WESA
Activist Brandi Fisher says new rules for serving warrants could help transform the relationship between the police and public

Though policing has been among the most contentious issues in national politics, a ballot question before Pittsburgh voters — inspired by one of last year’s most notorious police shootings — has drawn little controversy. But supporters say if passed, the measure could change not just police behavior, but the relationship between cops and the community they serve.

"Our current approach to policing is based on fear," said longtime police-accountability activist Brandi Fisher. And in the case of a surprise police raid, that fear can have deadly consequences for police and citizens alike. "We asked ourselves: How do we change that?"

The question asked by the measure is straightforward: “Shall the Pittsburgh Home Rule Charter be amended [to] bar employees of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police from executing warrants at any residence without knocking and announcing themselves?”

If voters answer yes on May 18th, the city charter would require police to knock and announce their presence at a home, and then wait at least 15 seconds for occupants to answer before entering. Officers would also be required to have body cameras switched on and wear clothing clearly identifying themselves as police

The city’s police bureau says it already does that, as a matter of policy and state law. A spokeswoman for Pittsburgh’s public safety department said the 15-second limit was “not really relevant,” since SWAT teams perform “multiple verbal hails [that] can continue for a very long time.” Even in the face of an imminent safety threat, “they still wait 15-20 seconds or more before taking an action.”

To which Fisher has a ready reply: “If Pittsburgh police are saying they do not do no-knock warrants, then great. There shouldn't be any pushback to us doing these bans.”

Skeptics may shrug at a measure that requires police to do what they say they have already been doing. But Duquesne University law professor Wesley Oliver says that evening TV news gives Black residents ample reason to be wary of those claims. And the need to heal community distrust is a key reason to support a knock-and-announce rule.

“There is a community legitimately on the edge” due to a nationwide pattern of police misconduct that often targets Black people, said Oliver, who heads Duquesne’s criminal justice program. “This is a real opportunity to increase police/community relations by saying 'this is exactly what we do, and we want to let you know that we do it by saying we support a requirement.’"

Too much time ... or not enough?
Measures like the one facing Pittsburgh voters are often referred to as “Breonna’s Law,” named after Louisville, Kentucky resident Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police last year during a raid of her apartment. The laws are often referred to as “no-knock warrant bans,” though the term is arguably a misnomer.

No one WESA spoke to had seen an actual “no-knock warrant” — a signed-by-a-judge order that gives police advance permission to enter a home without warning. A spokesman for District Attorney Stephen Zappala, said that when police seek a warrant from a judge, “There is no option to request that the judge categorize it as a ‘no-knock’ warrant.”

The larger concern addressed by the city’s ballot question is that police don’t give adequate warning, even when they serve conventional warrants.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen an actual no-knock warrant,” said attorney Maggie Coleman. The larger problem, she said, is that “Police don’t knock at all, or they only knock and give you a few seconds to answer.”

Coleman has handled two cases involving police raids — a 2010 raid in Carrick and a 2014 Brighton Heights raid in which police broke down the wrong door — often cited as case studies in what can go wrong. She said the most dangerous raids often use SWAT teams to go after drug offenders with military-style tactics. Police often justify the tactics by saying they need to preserve evidence, but Coleman said “It’s government-sponsored terrorism, directed primarily at the African American population.”

Still, she’s not sure a 15-second delay would be enough, since the raids often take place at night or the early morning.

“Ultimately, I really think 15 seconds won’t make the difference people might hope it will,” Coleman said. “Imagine a SWAT team pounding on your door at 6 in the morning: Is 15 seconds enough to wake up and figure out it’s the police?”

Meanwhile, some criminal-law experts say 15 seconds might be too much in some cases. The ballot question does not include a provision for “exigent circumstances” — a legal phrase to describe unforeseen events which might compel officers to break down a door because they hear, for example, a scream inside.

Even Oliver, the Duquesne University professor who supports no-knock bans, said he had misgivings about the lack of exceptions in the 15-second rule.

“It absolutely is a bad idea to ban entry in any situation until you've waited 15 seconds,” he said. “There will be times when police may need to go in immediately.”

The city’s Fraternal Order of Police did not respond to a request for comment on the measure, but Fisher said that such concerns were “hypothetical.” The ballot question, she said, involved the serving of a warrant — an action that takes place when police choose rather than in an emergency, and “a lot of the time people are in their beds sleeping.”

And while Fisher shared Coleman’s concern that it was hard to pinpoint an adequate amount of time for police to wait before entering, “We wanted to be reasonable. We’re not trying to be unreasonable — we’re trying to keep people safe” while ending “the practice of [police] coming in our neighborhoods and tearing up homes just because you can.”

Fisher said the ballot measure would send a message not just to police, but to elected leaders and citizens themselves.

“Politicians shouldn’t be telling us what we need. They should hear us,” she said.

She said she hoped the measure would give city voters additional incentive to turn out for an election where the city’s mayoral race and nine Common Pleas Court seats — roughly a quarter of the Allegheny County bench — were up for grabs.

Judicial races typically draw little attention, she said, but “This is a way to make sure people get to the [polls] to make these very important decisions that impact their everyday lives. That’s what this ballot initiative is going to show: that the power is with the people.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.