Salisbury’s ‘no knock’ warrants under new scrutiny

Salisbury City Council members have agreed to consider a ban on the use of no-knock warrants in the city police department, but they told advocates of the proposal they want to wait for the city’s new Criminal Justice Reform Task Force to meet and make recommendations.

To do otherwise “doesn’t make sense,” Council President Jack Heath said during a Monday evening work session.

The city received 215 applications for the 15-member task force and a selection committee is still in the process of narrowing down the list, said City Administrator Julia Glanz. Interviews of the finalists are expected to begin next week, she said.

The request to ban no-knock warrants in the city came from members of the Lower Shore Progressive Caucus and other supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement who cited the case of Breonna Taylor, a woman killed by Louisville police after they stormed her house and exchanged gunfire with Taylor’s boyfriend who thought the officers were intruders.

“I’m urging you to think about what if this happened in our community,” said caucus member Ryan Conrath.

The group has obtained 171 signatures on a petition in support of a ban, Jared Schablein, the caucus president and a Pittsville resident, told council members.

Community activist Amber Green said the city’s task force hasn’t been formed yet and action is needed now rather than later. “This is a direct request from the community,” she said.

A no-knock warrant is a search warrant that allows police officers to enter the premises without first knocking and announcing themselves. They are generally used when police fear that evidence could be destroyed or if safety is an issue.

In Salisbury, the Police Department served 115 warrants in the past five years, but only 40 of them were classified as no-knock, and of those, 36 of them were served as no-knock, said Chief Barbara Duncan.

Warrants are signed by a judge and are designated as either knock-and-announce or no-knock, said Lt. Jason Yankalunas, head of the Salisbury Police Department’s tactical team.

Since warrants are good for 15 days, officers are allowed leeway to upgrade to a no-knock if the conditions have changed. Likewise, they can downgrade a warrant if there is no longer a perceived threat to safety or evidence, he said. A threat assessment is done in advance of no-knock warrants.

“We’re very, very careful to make sure we do our homework,” he said.

After the warrant is served, there is a debriefing and a report is filed.

The tactical team is responsible for serving no-knock warrants in Salisbury, but the majority of warrants are served by other officers, Yankalunas said. Most involve little to no drama.

The tactical team follows the guidelines of the National Tactical Officers Association and trains on a regular basis. Most members have been on the city police force for an average of seven years or longer. Their extensive training includes dealing with people in stressful situations.

Over the years, Yankalunas said he and other team members have been faced with gunshots and even a man wielding a samurai sword, but the officers didn’t shoot anyone.

Other agencies, including the Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office, Maryland State Police, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Marshals Service, also serve warrants within city limits, but if the City Council decides to ban no-knock warrants it would apply only to the Salisbury Police Department, not any outside agency, city attorney Mark Tilghman told council members.

Council Vice President Muir Boda said it will take time, further discussion and research before any potential legislation can be introduced.

“We have to make sure that anything that we do conforms and complies with state law,” he said. “We’re not at that point yet.”

Heath also again stressed the need to let the new Criminal Justice Reform Task Force do its job.

“We need to get their input and see what we can come up with as a group,” he said. “We ask them to do their job and then we’re going to do their job for them? That seems a little counterproductive.”

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