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Allegheny County Council Dusts Off Year-Old No-Knock Warrant Bill

Brandi Fisher.jpg
Megan Harris
90.5 WESA
Alliance for Police Accountability president and CEO Brandi Fisher urged Allegheny County Council's public safety committee on Tuesday, June 29, to pass legislation to prevent the use of no-knock warrants by county law-enforcement officers. State law already stops officers from using the tactic, expect in certain emergencies.

Two months after Pittsburgh voters overwhelmingly approved an effort to ban the use of no-knock warrants by city police, an Allegheny County Council committee kicked off talks about how it can advance a similar goal at county law-enforcement agencies.

On Tuesday, council’s public safety committee discussed the issue with a prominent backer of the Pittsburgh initiative. Alliance for Police Accountability president and CEO Brandi Fisher advised the panel to be “proactive” in preventing the use of no-knock warrants, a practice that is prohibited under state law except in certain emergencies.

“It really is a safety thing, I think, for police officers and for the community,” Fisher said. “Who wants a surprise? Most [search] warrants are conducted in the wee hours of the morning … or late at night. [It’s] understood police want to surprise people.”

“But,” she added, “that surprise element is what also adds to danger,” considering that it could prompt building occupants to use firearms to protect themselves from unwelcome intruders.

Democratic public safety committee chair Liv Bennett described Tuesday’s meeting as “informational.” Council did not discuss the particulars of a bill that Bennett and fellow Democrat Bethany Hallam introduced about a year ago to require annual training for Allegheny County police officers and sheriff’s deputies on search warrant rules. The bill does not apply to the 104 municipal police departments in the county, because council has no jurisdiction over them — though Fisher said a ban should apply in areas outside Pittsburgh too.

Bennett and Hallam’s proposal notes that state law and court rulings already bar officers from executing search warrants without first knocking and announcing their presence, except in “exigent circumstances” where, for example, the officers are in danger or an occupant flees or tries to destroy evidence. At Tuesday’s meeting, Bennett noted that the county police and sheriff’s departments have said they do not use no-knock warrants.

Under her legislation with Hallam, those who violate search warrant laws could be punished with up to a $300 fine, 30 days in jail, or both.

The bill is less sweeping than the no-knock warrant ban that Pittsburgh voters approved in the May primary. That policy, an amendment to the city charter, requires officers who execute a search warrant at a home to wait at least 15 seconds for occupants to answer before entering. Police also must have their body cameras turned on and wear clothing that clearly marks them as law enforcement.

More than 80% of voters supported the ban, which took effect June 7, the day Allegheny County election results were certified.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.
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