Minnesota prosecutors declined to file charges on Wednesday against a Minneapolis police SWAT team officer who fatally shot Amir Locke while executing an early morning no-knock search warrant in a downtown apartment in February.
Locke, age 22, who was Black, was sleeping on the couch in the apartment when authorities entered it on February 2 as part of an investigation into a homicide in the neighbouring city of St Paul.
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Locke was startled awake and picked up a handgun when the special weapons and tactics (SWAT) officer shot him, police body camera video shows. He was killed within seconds of police entering the apartment. Minneapolis authorities claimed Locke pointed the gun in the direction of officers, but his family has questioned that.
Locke’s mother, Karen Wells, has called his death “an execution”. His family said Locke had a licence to own the gun and was startled awake by police before being shot within seconds.
Minnesota state’s Attorney General Keith Ellison and Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman, whose offices reviewed the case, said they determined that Officer Mark Hanneman was justified in firing his weapon.
“Amir Locke’s life mattered. He was a young man with plans to move to Dallas, where he would be closer to his mom and – he hoped – build a career as a hip-hop artist, following in the musical footsteps of his father,” Ellison and Freeman said in a joint statement. “He should be alive today, and his death is a tragedy.”
But, “there is insufficient admissible evidence to file criminal charges in this case. Specifically, the State would be unable to disprove beyond a reasonable doubt any of the elements of Minnesota’s use-of-deadly-force statute that authorizes the use of force by Officer Hanneman,” Ellison and Freeman said.
Locke’s death in February came as three former Minneapolis police officers were on trial in United States federal court in St Paul for the May 25, 2020 killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody. The case sparked protests and a re-examination of no-knock search warrants.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey announced an immediate moratorium on such warrants, and on Tuesday, he formalised a new policy that will take effect Friday and that requires officers to knock and wait before entering a residence.
In their applications for search warrants of the Minneapolis apartment and other locations, authorities said a no-knock warrant was necessary.
Police were looking for Locke’s 17-year-old cousin, Mekhi Camden Speed, who has been charged with two counts of second-degree murder in the January killing of Otis Elder, a 38-year-old father who had been found shot and lying in the street.
Body camera video shows an officer using a key to unlock the door and enter, followed by at least four officers in uniform and protective vests, time-stamped at about 6:48am [11:48 GMT] As they enter, they repeatedly shout, “Police, search warrant!” They also shout “Hands!” and “Get on the ground!”
The video shows an officer kicking a sectional sofa, and Locke is seen wrapped in a comforter, holding a pistol. Three shots are heard and the video ends.
Ellison and Freeman issued a 44-page investigative report on Locke’s death in which they detailed their conclusion that there was no legal basis to charge Officer Hanneman with any crimes. Locke’s death showed no-knock warrants are “highly risky” and can pose “significant dangers” to people who are not engaged in criminal activity, they said.
“Local, state, and federal policy makers should seriously weigh the benefits of no-knock warrants, which are dangerous for both law enforcement and the public alike,” Ellison and Freeman said. “Other cities, like Saint Paul, and some states, have ended the use of no-knock warrants entirely.”
A year ago, Kentucky enacted a new state law limiting the use of “no-knock” police raids to cases involving violent crime after police shot and killed Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman in a misdirected drug raid. Taylor’s death set off nationwide demonstrations.
The US Department of Justice announced in April 2021 that it had opened an investigation of potentially unconstitutional policing practices inside the Minneapolis Police Department following Floyd’s death.