Two police officers and a squad car.
Photo from Shutterstock, May 2022.

The San Francisco’s Police Commission on Wednesday updated the city’s more-than-25-year-old search warrant policy, adding what it called “critical safeguards,” but stopping short of outright bans on controversial practices, such as no-knock warrants.  

The policy, which has been in negotiations for the past year and a half, allows police officers to execute a search warrant without knocking first, if there is reason to believe there is an “imminent threat of physical violence” to the officers or the public. No-knock warrants would be served by the tactical unit and require an assistant chief and a judge to sign off, but the policy also lets officers make an on-the-scene judgment not to knock if they believe such a threat exists. 

No-knock warrants have received intense scrutiny in recent years since the high-profile killings of Breonna Taylor and Amir Locke, both unsuspecting and unaffiliated victims of no-knock searches. A few jurisdictions have banned no-knock search warrants altogether, including Florida, Virginia, and Oregon. 

“The policy is not perfect, and indeed, not every stakeholder got what they wanted, as angry emails and texts and phone calls I’ve had will show,” said commissioner Kevin Benedicto at Wednesday’s meeting. “But I think it’s, in some ways, that’s the hallmark of a good negotiation and of a productive process.”

The seven commissioners voted unanimously to approve the new policy. Next, the document will go through an approval process with labor negotiators. 

Although the police chief and the director of the Department of Police Accountability recognized the Public Defender’s Office role in developing the policy, deputy public defender Brian Cox, who had spoken out against no-knock warrants in 2021, said the office has “not been engaged since it became clear that there was no momentum to remove, among other items of concern, the no-knock provision from the policy.” 

He acknowledged some improvements since the last draft policy was presented to the public in September, 2021, including additional restriction of no-knock warrants.

An earlier draft of San Francisco’s search warrant policy, which has not been updated since 1997, was last brought before the commission for approval in September, 2021. At the time, commissioners tabled the policy amid protests from the Public Defender’s office and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California against the no-knock provision, and concerns that the policy was being fast-tracked without enough public input. 

Although some of those concerns still exist, on Wednesday evening, commissioners passed the policy with no debate. Unusually for what was once a hot-button issue, no one offered public comment on the agenda item.  

The new policy attempts to limit searches at locations where only youth are present, but still allows for cases where police may conduct a search when no adults are present. It also recommends that police consult with the District Attorney’s office on search warrants, and requires this consultation when conducting a search of a particular place.

Privacy concerns about “geofence” warrants, which allow police to track all mobile devices within a general area, were limited with “strict and narrow” allowances for these searches, Benedicto said at Wednesday’s meeting. He noted that few other jurisdictions have taken action to limit those searches. 

Benedicto was appointed to the oversight body in early 2022, and was the commissioner assigned to oversee the policy negotiations since then. He called the new policy “tremendously improved.” 

Additions to the new policy: 

  • Geofence warrants limited 
  • Youth presence considered
  • No-knock warrants limited
  • District Attorney consultation recommended or required

He said that the Department of Police Accountability and the police department agreed on about 90 percent of the draft, and had come to an eleventh-hour compromise just the day before on remaining differences. 

“They said it would be two weeks, originally,” said Benedicto, adding that there was no “idle time,” since the policy was tabled in 2021 and that more than 60 recommendations were considered; some were adopted, while others were not. 

Benedicto previously worked on the other side of the bargaining table for the San Francisco Bar Association, which has also been negotiating on the policy with the police department since it was last before the commission in 2021. 

Commission president Cindy Elias, who commended Benedicto’s ability to “herd cats” and build consensus within a divided group, said the policy was in limbo for a long time.  

But, as recently as this week, deputy public defender Cox told Mission Local that the process was had still not included enough public input. He compared the process to the pretext stop policy passed earlier this year, which had a robust engagement with members of the public and various communities. 

Benedicto told Mission Local that stakeholders, including the Public Defender’s office, the Bar Association and the District Attorney’s office, had a voice in the process, and that he was pleased with the outcome. He acknowledged that this policy was “more informal,” and did not have the same community input as other policies had.

Leadership of policy revisions by the SFPD, instead of the commission, Cox suggested, could be to blame for limited public input. 

“I think that lack of openness, coupled with how dangerous execution of no-knock warrants can be underscores the need to have the Commission lead the DGO’s revision process,” Cox wrote in an email, “to bring more voices to the table and create policies that consider, among other things, the harms SFPD causes.” 

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REPORTER. Eleni is our reporter focused on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim nearly 10 years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

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  1. Louisville medical worker Breonna Taylor was an innocent person who was sitting in her home minding her own business when she was shot and killed by a cop through her window who was part of a no-knock raid of her residence.

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  2. No-knock police invasions of residence have cost the lives of innocent people, and in one case not only was the resident innocent, the cops invaded the wrong address.

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  3. If this doesn’t kiss the ring of the POA, I don’t know what does.
    Is someone on the Police Commission running for election or re-election?
    The policy, as adopted, carves an exception to the Penal Code requiring officers to announce their presence and purpose by allowing individual officers on the scene to make a spontaneous call as to whether there is “an imminent threat of harm” to officers who are present.
    These commissioners must not be familiar with reading police reports. Police officers are in a continual state of fear when making detentions, arrests or executing warrants. Their adrenalin is in overdrive. Hence the screaming, shouting of conflicting orders, pointing loaded guns at children, treating half-dresssed women as if they are Hannibal Lecter, calling people M___F___ers. See also, the senseless killings of Jessica Williams, Keta O’Neill, Sean Moore, Mario Woods to name just a few.
    I’ve had a lifetime of reading police reports about inexplicable police discharge of firearms against unarmed Black people. Each cop, without exception, writes about fearing “for my safety” or “believe I saw a weapon.” It’s rote. They are taught in the academy the stock phrases they need to put in their reports.
    Too many senseless deaths that our business-as-usual culture lets fade into distant, “hazyography.” (new word) The pain is an eternal flame burning inside the families’ hearts.
    Now, the watchdog agency says, “it’s okay, Officer, you keep doing you.”
    This new policy is against public safety and common sense. Heaven forbid the next Breonna Taylor happens in San Francisco.

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    1. This new updated DGO (policy) will codify, for the most part, what SFPD has been doing for the last ten or more years. SFPD emphasizes risk-avoidance, avoids forced entries and no-knock warrants. There is considerable thought put into planning for the service of the warrants. Overtime, SFPD came to understand that time and planning can reduce confrontations in search warrant settings. The “no-knock” exceptions are for exceptional and rare situations. I do not expect Rebecca Young to acknowledge that such a circumstance might ever exist – I think the police commission does. The POA has little whip with the commission but they are listened too. The command staff and experts within SFPD are also influential. SFPD is also painted as a dysfunctional, rogue and inept department. Not the case. Not perfect, but none of the foregoing. SFPD has changed much since over the years – yes, belatedly.

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  4. Cool. We can sue the commissioners if an innocent party gets killed, right?

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  5. In a country armed to the teeth with guns, “no-knock” warrants are just an invitation for death. Isn’t there an automatic “imminent threat of physical violence” when you break down someone’s front door unannounced? Hopefully the tactical unit will still be looking for their catalytic converters whenever some half-wit allows a no-knock warrant.

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  6. Good way for cops to get shot and/or justify killing people in their homes. Great job!

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  7. Cops steal drugs,

    ‘No Knock’ mostly used to steal drugs in SF ?

    Of course, that’s just anecdotal evidence from criminals to me.

    Said there was cowboy unit that broke down his door and took a gym back containing 150k in Ecstasy tabs.

    But, they didn’t arrest him.

    Now, they can do it again.

    There is even video of the cops carrying the bag out of the room and down the hall.

    There’s a conundrum for a defense attorney.

    Their job is to keep their clients out of jail and complaining about this would surely accomplish the opposite.

    Obvious answer is to follow European model and de-criminalize drugs.

    Go Niners !


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