Amir Locke Murder Shows “Reforming the Police” Isn’t Enough, Activists Say

Activists say the Minneapolis Police Department’s initial portrayal of the “no-knock” SWAT team raid that killed Amir Locke — and the portion of body camera footage released to the public — are the latest evidence that police and their backers are willing to distort the truth in a political effort to shield their embattled system from scrutiny.

Protesters filled the icy streets of the Twin Cities this weekend after Minneapolis police fatally shot Locke while executing a “no-knock” search warrant at an apartment on February 2. The surprise raid and deadly shooting represent the latest police-perpetrated killing of a Black man in a city where activists sparked nationwide uprisings against racist state violence and voters narrowly rejected a historic ballot referendum to dissolve the police department into a broader office of public safety.

Family members and civil rights attorneys say Locke was “executed” by the SWAT team that busted into the downtown apartment where the 22-year-old was sleeping on a couch around 7 a.m. The team was executing a search warrant for the police in neighboring St. Paul and opted for a “no-knock” entry — a controversial and deadly practice that Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s campaign boasted about “banning” while running for reelection on a pro-police platform last year.

No-knock warrants are banned in some cities, and in 2020 Minneapolis adopted a policy meant to restrict and clarify when police can make an “unannounced entry” into a household. However, reporting in the wake of Locke’s killing revealed that no-knock warrants had clearly not been “banned” as Frey’s campaign and its supporters have claimed, and Minneapolis police have requested multiple no-knock warrants in 2022 alone, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Frey quickly placed a moratorium on no-knocks last week as his administration and the police department attempted to quell media attention, raising painful memories of initial efforts to downplay and obfuscate the 2020 murder of George Floyd and a long list of police-perpetrated killings in Minneapolis and beyond. No-knock warrants became infamous after the police-perpetrated killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, which — combined with Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis — fueled protests around the world.

“Cops lie; we know cops literally lie,” said Miski Noor, the co-executive director of Black Visions, an activist group pursuing police abolition in Minneapolis, in an interview. “We cannot get accountability, and that’s why we say they are functioning just the way they are supposed to — to control Black and Brown bodies and others who are disenfranchised.”

Lock was reportedly staying as a guest at a relative’s apartment when the SWAT team opened the door with a key obtained from the building’s management. Wrapped in a blanket, Locke apparently awoke to police shouting and pointing guns and bright lights as an officer kicked the couch. Locke was holding a handgun his family and attorneys say he was licensed to carry. He was shot dead within 10 seconds of the SWAT team entering.

In an initial statement, the police said the gun was “pointed in the direction of the officers,” but the video appears to contradict this claim, showing Locke stirring from his sleep with a gun pointed away from the body-worn police camera. During a heated press conference last week, Minneapolis Police Chief Amelia Huffman repeated the claim that officers announced their presence before entering the room, but the video shows an officer turning the key and entering the apartment as the SWAT team began yelling.

“Bodycam footage clearly shows that police failed to ask Amir Locke to drop the gun, to warn that they’d shoot, or to take any other actions available to them while they were executing a search warrant,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota said in a statement. “Instead, an officer chose to shoot and kill a man sleeping on a couch, who was still wrapped up in a blanket, within 9 seconds of entering an apartment.”

The police also referred to Locke as a “suspect” in their initial press release, but officials later confirmed that Locke was not named in the search warrant or a suspect in the homicide investigation that prompted the early morning home invasion. The police also included photos of Locke’s legally owned gun, angering activists and family members who say the police wrongly attempted to paint him as disobeying the law.

Huffman, Frey and the local media outlets that immediately trumpeted the city government’s version of Locke’s killing “repeated a well-worn pattern of dishonesty,” according to a statement from ISAIAH, a multi-racial coalition of faith-based communities in Minneapolis.

“There is really justified anger about not just the murder of Amir Locke, not just the fact that it was completely avoidable, but that actually resembles this pattern,” said JaNaé Bates, communications director for ISAIAH, in an interview. “There is a clear pattern that we see where MPD does something awful … then they put out a press release that lies about what actually happened.”

Bates is the former spokesperson for the campaign behind a 2021 ballot initiative that would have required city policymakers to make the kind of deep, structural changes to policing and public safety that activists demanded after the killings of Floyd, Locke, Daunte Wright, Philando Castille, and many others. The initiative would have abolished a quota for the number of police officers employed by the city, allowing for broader investments in other public safety interventions besides armed police, such as unarmed mental health responders and a stronger social safety net.

The ballot initiative garnered a significant 43 percent of the vote in November but did not reach the 51 percent needed to pass. Still, more than 62,000 voters supported a measure that would have been a first in the United States — outnumbering the voters who listed Frey as their first choice for mayor on the city’s ranked-choice ballots. Facing two opponents who backed the initiative, Frey stood with the police and opposed the measure, arguing that the current system could be reformed incrementally as new public safety services were developed on the side.

Although Frey’s reelection campaign touted the ban on no-knock warrants as evidence that policy reform is underway, his campaign scrubbed the claim from its website last week after Locke was killed in the no-knock raid. Frey admitted this week that his campaign’s language did not reflect the “necessary precision or nuance” of the 2020 policy change. Frey’s new moratorium still allows the police chief to approve no-knock raids in certain “dangerous” scenarios, according to the Minnesota Reformer.

“Back when Mayor Frey first said he banned no-knock warrants, we refuted that over and over again … but didn’t have as large of a bullhorn,” Bates said.

Bates said spending on police in Minneapolis has increased since 2020, when “defund the police” protests erupted after the murder of Floyd and others. The city continues to “overspend” on police officers while neglecting investments in other services, such as fire departments and the city’s Office of Violence Prevention, she said.

Noor emphasized that organizers are tired of rhetoric, obfuscations and minor reforms; they’re calling for large-scale transformation.

“To be Black in Minneapolis over the past few years has been a lot of grief, and I think I also feel an exhaustion in community, where we are just so tired of this in so many ways,” Noor said. “I think that, this is why we said reform isn’t enough. There is no reforming this murderous institution, there is no reforming the police. Which is we fought for and know that we need a transformative approach to safety, one that goes beyond policing.”