Cincinnati City Council delays restricting no-knock warrants so police, city manager can weigh in

Cincinnati City Council delays restricting no-knock warrants so police, city manager can weigh in
Updated: Jan. 20, 2021 at 1:13 PM EST
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CINCINNATI (FOX19) - Cincinnati City Council’s Law & Public Safety Committee is holding off for two weeks before proceeding with a motion that, if passed, would severely limit police use of no-knock warrants to give the police department and city manager time to weigh in.

If passed, police would only be allowed to perform no-knock warrants in cases involving terrorism, murder, kidnapping or an active shooter.

The new policy also would clarify that drug activity does not qualify for no knock warrant use and ensure officers are in uniform and not in plain clothes without also having obvious identifying police attire such as a badge.

This new restrictions would include any Cincinnati police officers participating in operations run by task forces and multi-agency units.

“WE MOVE that the City Administration take all necessary steps to amend the CPD Procedures based on the attached document - top ensure that CPD’s warrant-execution procedures will keep our communities and officers safe, protect more lives, and limit no-knock raids,” reads the proposal from Councilman Chris Seelbach, who teamed up with Cincinnati activist Iris Roley.

“WE FURTHER MOVE that the Administration should review this policy in consultation with the Manager’s Advisory Group. If the Administration seeks any changes/exceptions to the attached policy, the Administration should explain the basis for such changes/exceptions, secure input from the Manager’s Advisory Group, and then seek approval of such changes/exceptions by the Council, prior to further amending the procedure and implementing a policy.”

If the new policy changes are passed in a full City Council vote, the city administration would be required to review the policy with the city manager’s advisory group.

If city officials seek any changes or exceptions to the police in the future, they will be required to first explain the basis for those, get input from the City Manager’s Advisory Group, and then get Council approval.

A new legal opinion from the city’s top lawyer released Wednesday, however, says the ultimate authority to direct the Cincinnati Police Department and its police chief lies with the city manager, not council.

“Under the Charter form of government, the City Manager’s role is to run a professional administration, which is insulated from politics,” City Solicitor Andrew Garth wrote.

“Changes to City policies and procedures require an expertise in the underlying subject matter as well as understanding the full context which the changes may impact. Procedural changes require input from professionals in the administration who draft or execute search warrants and who investigate or discipline officers for procedural violations. Those individuals are knowledgeable about best practices.

“They will also be able to reconcile or eliminate conflicting or duplicative obligations in other City policies. For that reason, directing specific procedural amendments without consultation with the City’s professional administrators is fraught with dangers which the Charter is specifically designed to prevent.”

In conclusion, the city solicitor wrote, “The ultimate authority to direct the Police Department and the Police Chief lies with the City Manager.

“Council does not have the authority under the Charter to direct work that involves the administration of the Police Department, but may inquire about Department’s operations.

“Ohio law does not preempt the City’s authority to enact an ordinance banning the use of no-knock search warrants by CPD officers within the City limits,” City Solicitor Andrew Garth wrote in a memo to the committee.

“However, Council does not have the authority under the Charter to legislate an ordinance that involves the administration of the Police Department. Council can ask the City Manager to provide a report from the Police Department regarding the use of no-knock search warrants and make recommendations.

“Administrative changes made to police operations by the Manager and the Police Chief regarding no-knock search warrants should take into account the current holdings of the Supreme Court of the United States and implications of officers’ work within other agencies and jurisdictions.”

Seelbach said Wednesday the intention is not to force the city manager to make the changes, it’s a recommendation and it puts council’s will on the record.

His motion initially emerged last year as one completely banning the practice after the March death of Breonna Taylor during a no-knock warrant executed by Louisville police that resulted in a shootout with her boyfriend.

Louisville has since banned the practice.

Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Lisa Allen told the committee Wednesday no-knock warrants are already rarely granted in Hamilton County and the city.

She said in the 18 years she has been on the bench, she’s only approved the use of 12 or 13 such warrants.

The city is blessed with a very professional police department, the judge said, stressing ‘They do it right.’

Police Chief Eliot Isaac told council last year he would not support an outright ban of no-knock warrants but would agree to limiting them.

He was not, however, consulted on the current proposed changes to the policy, according to Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman and Councilwoman Betsy Sundermann.

Both said they wanted to wait until the police department could have a say.

Councilman Steve Goodwin said he also wanted to hear more from the police department about drug investigations and no-knock warrants.

Seelbach said he attempted to reach the chief over the Near Year holiday but did not hear back and was frustrated at that.

While Councilman Greg Landsman wanted to proceed anyway, Seelbach agreed to hold off.

Other highlights to the proposed changes would require all Cincinnati police conducting no-knock warrants include police:

  • Have and operate body cameras
  • Start the recording devices no more than five minutes before and leave them on at least 15 minutes after
  • Keep all recordings for at least seven years
  • Make recordings accessible for review by the Citizen’s Complaint Authority. City of Cincinnati, and council members.
  • Physically knock on an entry door to the premises “in a manner and duration that can be heard by the occupants” (at least 60 seconds)
  • Use force to enter the premises only after waiting if police have knocked and announced themselves for a reasonable amount of time for an occupant to open the door or there are “verifiable exigent circumstances”
  • “Verifiable exigent circumstances” is defined as an event occurring in real-time that can create serious bodily harm or death to an officer or an occupant of the property.

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