Denver police quietly stopped using no-knock warrants

Denver police haven’t served a no-knock warrant in three years.

The police department quietly stopped using no-knock warrants in 2020 amid a nationwide outcry against police brutality and push for criminal justice reform, police records show.

That year, then-Chief Paul Pazen informally changed the Denver Police Department’s policy to disallow no-knock warrants in narcotics cases, an adjustment formalized in 2021. That policy shift essentially ended the department’s use of no-knock warrants, though they are still allowed in exceptional circumstances, Division Chief of Investigations Joe Montoya said.

The decline of the no-knock search warrant — which allows officers to enter a person’s home without first identifying themselves as police — marks the end of an era in Denver law enforcement. But it also coincides with a rise in the number of knock-and-announce warrants handled by the city’s SWAT team. Those warrants can be similar to no-knock warrants, except that police clearly identify themselves before entering a home.

The controversial no-knock technique has been criticized nationwide for decades, from the 1999 Denver police killing of Ismael Mena during a no-knock raid at the wrong house to the 2020 police killing of Breonna Taylor, who was shot to death during a no-knock drug raid in Louisville, Kentucky, that was based on flawed information.

Aurora city officials banned no-knock warrants in 2020, and Colorado lawmakers this year passed a law allowing no-knock warrants only in situations where there is a credible threat to someone’s life.

A number of police departments in metro Denver still allow for no-knock warrants, a review of their published policies shows. Boulder, Colorado Springs, Westminster, Wheat Ridge, Englewood, Thornton, Lakewood and Denver all allow no-knock warrants in some circumstances, according to their published policies. At least one agency, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, is currently revising its policy to align with the new state law.

Police departments across the country are moving away from no-knock warrants, said Paul Taylor, assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver.

“It’s certainly been a trend nationwide,” he said. “…We have seen quite a few outright bans in jurisdictions, but I’ve also seen agencies take the approach of, ‘We are going to limit this, severely limit the use of no-knock but not absolutely ban them.’ ”

Steady decline of no-knock warrants

The Denver Police Department used no-knock warrants much more frequently two decades ago than in recent years. Before Mena’s killing forced reforms in 1999, Denver police served no-knock warrants 95 times over a nine-month span. That dropped to 27 as scrutiny mounted in the nine months after Mena’s death.

Mena was killed when police burst into his home while serving a no-knock warrant at the wrong house. Police said Mena picked up a gun and fired at them before they shot him to death; an investigator for his family later alleged police staged the scene to make it look like Mena fired when he did not.

His killing led to changes in both Denver police policy and state law, including an added requirement that no-knock warrant applications be reviewed by district attorneys before they are signed by judges and a requirement that police serve the warrants within three days of judicial approval instead of 10.

Twenty years after Mena’s death, Denver police served only 17 no-knock warrants in all of 2019, according to statistics published by the police department. That dropped to six in the first six months of 2020, and to zero since then.

“Obviously 2020 was a volatile year,” Montoya said. “We had to take a hard look at how we were doing things… and quickly (came) to the decision that the motivation to secure narcotic evidence wasn’t worth the risk of a no-knock warrant.”

A study group created by Colorado lawmakers in 2021 to examine no-knock warrants found that the approach is “undesirable and should be avoided” because it is dangerous to both officers and residents when police burst unannounced into a home.

“One of the issues with no-knock warrants is the person doesn’t know who is breaking down the door,” Taylor said. “Even when police get the house right, when they enter the house without giving warning, there is a real danger both to officers and those inside that the person inside believes that this is not the police, and we end up in a shooting-type incident.”

In 2021, a Jefferson County man sued after he was shot in the abdomen with a projectile that police used to break open his door during a no-knock raid. The man had stepped up to the door to open it when he was struck; the projectile ripped a baseball-sized hole in his abdomen. That lawsuit is pending.

Before Denver police changed their no-knock policy, most no-knock warrants were tied to narcotics investigations, Montoya said. Historically, the argument was that police officers needed to surprise suspects to prevent them from destroying evidence, he said. No-knock warrants were also used in situations where police felt surprise was necessary to keep a suspect from escaping or presenting a threat to officers, Taylor said.

Prohibiting no-knock warrants in drug cases dramatically reduced their use in Denver, Montoya said.

“Taking those out of the mix really is what changed that quite a bit for us,” Montoya said.

Pazen said Breonna Taylor’s killing in Louisville and the racial justice protests during the summer of 2020 impacted his decision to make the policy change, which he said was part of a larger effort to review the police department’s operations in light of the call for reform. Officers needed to shift the way they investigated narcotics cases so that the cases didn’t rely on finding evidence during a no-knock raid, he said.

“If you have to do more investigatory work, more preliminary work, then that is what you need to do,” he said. “Serving the warrant doesn’t need to be part of the building of the case.”

Narcotics investigations haven’t been adversely impacted since the change, Montoya said.

“I can’t see going back,” he said. “I can’t see any real reason for that to change. It’s working too well and it makes too much sense.”

Similarly, in Aurora, where City Council members banned no-knock warrants in 2020, the ban hasn’t had much impact on police operations because officers so rarely used no-knock warrants before the ban, Aurora police Investigations Division Chief Mark Hildebrand said in a statement.

“No-knock warrants historically represented a tiny fraction of the total number of search and arrest warrants sought by the Aurora Police Department in any given year leading up to the ban in 2020,” he said.

Rising use of SWAT in knock-and-announce

Denver police still use knock-and-announce warrants — in which officers declare themselves and then can force entry into a home if the occupants don’t respond in a reasonable amount of time, or if appears residents are trying to flee, arm themselves or destroy evidence.

Those warrants can be functionally similar to no-knock warrants — with officers forcing entry into a home relatively quickly if no one comes to the door — though police do announce their presence and wait for a response before entering.

“There’s no surprise element,” Montoya said.

Denver police have used the SWAT team to serve a growing number of knock-and-announce warrants in recent years, according to numbers provided by police. The city’s SWAT team served 71 knock-and-announce warrants in 2019, 74 in 2020, 100 in 2021 and 114 in 2022, according to the department. So far this year, the SWAT team has served 49 knock-and-announce warrants, according to police.

In 2022, the SWAT team served a knock-and-announce search warrant at the home of then-77-year-old Ruby Johnson, looking for a stolen phone that had pinged nearby and was believed to be inside a stolen truck along with several guns. Johnson, who was ordered out of her Montbello home by an officer with a bullhorn, later sued, alleging police used excessive force in the raid.

Mark Silverstein, legal director emeritus at the ACLU of Colorado, which is handling Johnson’s lawsuit, said the end of no-knock warrants is “really good” for Denver. But he said Denver police should clarify how long is a ‘reasonable’ amount of time to wait before forcing entry during a knock-and-announce search warrant.

“That’s a step forward,” he said. “But to the extent they’re using the SWAT team and a very short wait after a knock to make forced entry, that is still a very dangerous situation.”

Denver police were not able to immediately provide the number of knock-and-announce search warrants that involved forced entry; Montoya said dynamic forced entries during knock-and-announce search warrants are rare.

Current Denver police policy still allows for no-knock raids in exceptional circumstances; applications for warrants must be approved by the officer’s chain of command in addition to being reviewed by the district attorney’s office, and then reviewed and signed by a judge.

“It’s always good to have it for that very rare occasion when you really do need it,” Montoya said, citing a potential hostage situation. “But it is very highly scrutinized and it would have to be a very rare opportunity for us to consider it.”

Under the new state law that took effect in July, police departments can only use no-knock warrants if there’s a credible threat to human life. Additionally, all search warrants of homes must be served between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. unless otherwise authorized by a judge, and law enforcement officers must identify themselves, wear a uniform or badge, and activate their body-worn cameras when entering.

“This fits into a broader conversation around how communities and law enforcement are working to try and rebuild trust that has been deeply broken,” said Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, one of the sponsors on the bill. “Whether that is through policy change or whether that is through change in practice, those are two meaningful steps. I welcome the shift from Denver, and we’ve also worked to clarify for all law enforcement agencies our concern and our reticence to allow law enforcement agencies to utilize that tactic.”

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