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No-knock warrants the exception for Willmar PD, whose officers typically announce themselves

No-knock warrants can be dangerous and Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt explained his department's use of them, which is infrequent.

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Officers of the Willmar Police Department applied for and received a no-knock search warrant for a southwest Willmar duplex to investigate the possible kidnapping of a minor last month. The juvenile was safely located and an arrest was later made.

WILLMAR — The Willmar Police Department served a no-knock warrant in November at a duplex in the southwest section of the city in an effort to find a minor who had allegedly been held for ransom in one of the building's apartments.

Serving no-knock warrants in general can be dangerous, for police and civilians alike. A New York Times investigation into SWAT operations found 81 civilians and 13 law enforcement officers died following the use of these tactics from 2010 to 2016 .

The increased focus on their use, most notably the botched March 13 raid in Louisville, Kentucky, that ended with the death of Breonna Taylor, has led to multiple local and state governments banning or limiting their use.

While the Willmar Police Department operation that night went fairly smoothly and no one was hurt, Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt told the West Central Tribune his department’s use of no-knock warrants has followed a downward trend, specifically for drugs. Felt cited both the lack of willingness of courts to approve them and the increase in danger to officers and civilians weighed against the loss of potential evidence.

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Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt

“Back when I first started in 1990, if you applied for a drug search warrant, you kind of as a matter, of course, did a no-knock warrant,” Felt said. “The thought was, if you go in, all they might have to do with those drugs is just flush them down the toilet, they’re gone.”

While the chance of a person or an animal being shot during a regular search warrant execution or even during the course of a regular workday is present, no-knock warrants increase the likelihood that something may go wrong due to the dynamic type of entry required. Someone being served a no-knock warrant may not initially realize it's police breaking down their door and react accordingly.

In response to increased public pressure and the increased danger of no-knock warrants, the Minneapolis Police Department recently announced restrictions to its use of no-knock warrants , according to the Star Tribune.

Felt wrote in an email that the new Minneapolis policy closely aligns with what his department already had in place, but there is a difference in policy for when officers must announce themselves.

"Their order talks about making an announcement once they cross the threshold of the building," Felt wrote. "For us, it’s at the point someone is likely to know we’re there. This could include us walking on the property and before we even reach the building in some cases."

No-knock warrants first came into prominence as a federal law enforcement tactic during President Richard Nixon's administration and the war on drugs before gaining more national acceptance in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan, eventually making its way to local law enforcement agencies.

According to PBS, data collected by Peter Kraska, a professor with the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, showed no-knock or quick-knock warrants were used by local law enforcement about 1,500 times in the early 1980s, rising to between 60,000-70,000 no-knock or quick-knock warrants by 2010 .

According to the Kandiyohi County records department, as of Nov. 13, the Willmar Police Department and the Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s Office have served 211 search warrants this year.

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Felt said a majority of those would be for driving while impaired and CEE-VI Drug and Gang Task Force warrants and about 10% were for no-knock warrants.

Part of the danger in serving warrants, and in policing in general, includes accidental discharges which shows a training gap in some law enforcement entities , according to the Associated Press.

According to Felt, the Willmar Police Department had one firearms incident in 2020 so far and one in 2017.

“Other than before that is going back into the '70s,” Felt said.

Police shooting of dogs has also reached concerning levels, with a Department of Justice official estimating police shoot about 25-30 dogs per day or about 10,000 per year. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has also issued a statement calling for more training for law enforcement when faced with animal contacts .

The Willmar Police Department uses a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher along with other less-than-lethal equipment like stun guns when faced with an aggressive dog, according to Felt.

“The last thing we want to do is shoot a dog,” Felt said. “Dogs are looked at like family here.”

How do police decide to use a no-knock warrant?

Most warrants fall within a specific set of requirements, according to Felt. For example, most must be served between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. and are knock-and-announce warrants by default.

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Those warrants are required to list exactly what law enforcement is looking for and the reasons why a person’s privacy should be intruded upon.

Law enforcement can apply for exceptions in the case of public safety to officers or somebody else. Officers must outline circumstances for those exceptions to a judge in order to be approved.

The Willmar Police Department also uses a point-based risk assessment for warrant services to see if SWAT should be involved — for example, if the presence of firearms is known or if there has been previous use of firearms by the suspect. Felt said the risk assessment for the Nov. 4 search warrant on the southwest Willmar duplex ultimately was that SWAT was preferred due to the crime being against a person and the number of people and rooms they would need to cover at the same time.

No-knock warrant use in real life

According to the criminal complaint for the 46-year-old Willmar man charged with two felony counts related to the kidnapping of a minor for ransom that led to the Nov. 4 incident, police were told the building where the minor was located but not the specific apartment number.

The building is a duplex and is separated into upper-level and lower-level apartments.

A nighttime and no-knock exception was granted in order to “prevent the loss, destruction, removal of the objects of said search, or to protect the safety of the searchers of the public,” according to the search warrant.

Felt said if the circumstances had been different and they were looking for a stolen computer or something else along those lines, the department probably would not have applied for a search warrant until they figured out which apartment to target, along with it being a daytime knock-and-announce warrant.

“But because a person was involved, and I didn’t write the search warrant, but what I perceived from (those who did), is that believing that a person may be in danger ... they had exhausted the possibilities of figuring out which apartment it was,” Felt said. “So in order to ensure the safety of this person, we’ve unfortunately got to check both.”

The juvenile was located in the bottom apartment and the Willmar man was later arrested by the Belgrade Police Department in Stearns County.

Public policing

“It’s a big deal when somebody’s door gets kicked in,” Felt said. “And we recognize that too, and heaven forbid you kick in the wrong door or an innocent person minding their own business, is, probably the mildest term, inconvenienced, for a while.”

Felt said his department tries to be conscious of what the public wants when policing the community.

“The police are the public and the public are the police,” Felt said.

“ ... We live in these communities too, our kids go to the same schools, we shop at the same Walmart, the same stores,” Felt said. “ It’s not like (we) can be the anonymous, faceless enforcer that just disappears at the end of the shift.”

Law enforcement doesn’t get to pick and choose what laws to enforce, according to Felt, and community trust in law enforcement along with their cooperation is needed for effective policing.

“Sometimes you have to be firm and sometimes you have to take decisive action that might be unpopular or force might be used, and force is never pretty, but we want to be judicious about how we do that,” Felt said.

Editor's Note: West Central Tribune reporter Mark Wasson has direct knowledge of this incident as his apartment is located in the same duplex, and the search covered the entire building. The alleged kidnap victim was found in the neighboring apartment.

Mark Wasson has been a public safety reporter with Post Bulletin since May 2022. Previously, he worked as a general assignment reporter in the southwest metro and as a public safety reporter in Willmar, Minn. Readers can reach Mark at mwasson@postbulletin.com.
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