MINNEAPOLIS — Bodycam video obtained by KARE 11 raises new questions about how and when Minneapolis police use no-knock warrants.
The video shows MPD SWAT team members ramming and blasting through the front door of a home and smashing side windows in a pre-dawn, no-knock raid last year, months after Mayor Jacob Frey claimed he was banning those raids in all but the most serious cases.
So, what serious crime were they investigating?
A stolen puppy.
At 5:54 a.m. on March 17, 2021, bodycam video shows the Minneapolis SWAT team exit a van on Logan Avenue North in Minneapolis.
The heavily armed team makes their way across snowy yards to remain unobserved as they approach their target.
At the door of a house, they begin to yell, “Police – search warrant!” as they immediately use a battering ram in an attempt to smash open the door. The door is heavy and doesn’t immediately give.
Just six seconds into the raid, an officer with a breaching shotgun begins firing rounds through the door as another officer runs around the outside of the house loudly smashing windows.
Once inside the home, officers quickly zip tie a naked man and barely dressed woman who surrender without resistance.
"This is crazy,” sobs Princess Fort as she begs the officers, “Please, please don’t break nothing else. Please, just don’t break nothing else.”
Fort and her boyfriend, Marvin Johnson, are placed on the couch with blankets draped over them as officers search the home.
The couple repeatedly asks what is going on – and to be allowed to put on some underwear.
“I would have to say that we’ve been very cordial,” a SWAT officer tells them. “There’s a search warrant going on, ok?”
“To get us here something big is going on,” he explains.
The “something big” that’s going on is the search for a stolen dog.
“Where is the baby pit bull?” an officer asks.
“There’s two dogs in the basement,” a SWAT member announces. “They kenneled up?” another officer asks.
“One is, the little puppy is not, but it’s fine,” the officer responds.
Court records reveal the investigation that prompted the no-knock raid began nearly a month prior.
On Feb. 20, a family that runs an American Bully breeding business walked into MPD’s 2nd precinct to report a theft.
They said they’d been communicating with an individual over Facebook Messenger about selling a puppy for $2,000.
They agreed to meet at a home in the 2600 block of Humboldt Ave N. in Minneapolis to complete the sale.
The husband and wife – along with their young son – arrived at the meeting place and saw a man standing next to a gated fence.
He asked to hold the puppy.
“He was like, ‘Oh, the puppy is so cute. Can I see him?’” the woman told the officer taking the police report. “So, I give him the puppy and he opens the gate and took off running.”
The man running away with the puppy slipped and fell. The victims, who said they had started to chase him, saw a black handgun drop out of his pocket onto the ground.
The couple told police that the thief, who was wearing a mask, picked up the gun and pointed it in their direction as he continued to run away.
The No-Knock Warrant
Minneapolis Police Sergeant David Swierzewski, who investigated the theft, wrote in a search warrant application that he used Facebook and phone records to determine the identity and address of the suspect – Marvin Johnson.
The investigator detailed how a few hours after the dognapping, Johnson’s girlfriend posted a photo on Facebook holding what the victims positively identified as their stolen puppy, with a caption about how the puppy is her new present.
Sgt. Swierzewski wrote that because a handgun was used when the puppy was taken, and because the suspect, had convictions of 2nd degree assault back in 2008 and prohibited possession of a firearm in 2014, that an unannounced entry was necessary to prevent the loss of evidence or to protect the safety of the searchers and public.
Records show that 30 minutes after Sgt. Swierzewski submitted the request for the no-knock warrant, Judge Luis Bartolemei signed off on it.
Two days later, the SWAT team raided.
No-Knocks supposed to be limited
Four months earlier, in November 2020, Mayor Jacob Frey and then-Police Chief Medaria Arradondo announced that Minneapolis was changing its policy to put strict limits on the use of no-knock warrants. Their announcement came amid a nationwide reckoning over policing prompted by the murder of George Floyd and shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville.
In campaign materials, Frey claimed to have effectively banned no-knocks in Minneapolis.
Despite that claim, the Minneapolis SWAT team executed a no-knock warrant to gather evidence in the dognapping.
Policing experts tell KARE 11 it’s an example of a case in which MPD had plenty of other, safer alternatives.
Thor Eells is executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, which trains SWAT officers. For the past 10 years, he says trainers have discouraged using no-knock warrants to gather evidence in criminal cases.
“It’s just tactically unsound and, quite honestly, it’s unnecessary in most cases,” he said.
Eells says no-knocks increase safety risks because they decrease time and space for officers, suspects, and even innocent parties to react.
Instead, Eells says his organization advocates other options – some as simple as surrounding a location and calling for those inside to come out.
“Unnecessarily endangering the lives of officers and suspects – and even unwitting citizens who may be in close proximity – just isn’t worth it,” he said.
“Unfortunately, when they go bad, they go really bad,” he explained.
Those risks were borne out all too recently in Minneapolis.
An officer on the Minneapolis SWAT team shot Amir Locke to death in early February while serving a no-knock warrant to gather evidence in a homicide investigation.
Locke, who was sleeping on a family member’s couch, sat up with a gun in his hand when officers ran into the apartment yelling commands. Within seconds, he was shot and killed.
Locke wasn’t a subject of the warrant or a suspect in the murder case and legally possessed the firearm.
The Locke family has joined the growing calls to ban no-knock warrants in Minnesota.
Earlier botched raid
In April 2021, Mayor Frey publicly apologized to a Coon Rapids family after another botched no-knock raid.
The mayor’s apology came one day after KARE 11 reported that a mother and her 12-year-old daughter had been terrorized by a pre-dawn raid in February 2021.
Assisting a Minneapolis police investigation and acting on a no-knock warrant signed by Judge Thomas Fitzpatrick and obtained by the same detective from the dognapping case, the Anoka County Sheriff’s SWAT team raided an innocent family.
The problem? Records show authorities assaulted the wrong address.
What’s more, a KARE 11 investigation uncovered evidence that the correct address was easily available in public records and with the target suspect’s probation officer. But Minneapolis police apparently failed to do basic due diligence before the raid.
At the time, Frey said it was an “obvious breakdown in process and horrible mistake.”
However, Frey’s statement doubled down on his claim to have ended most no-knock warrants in Minneapolis – and he seemed to criticize neighboring cities for not adopting the same standards. The mayor wrote:
“Our new policy requires MPD officers to announce their presence and purpose prior to entry, effectively ending ‘no-knock’ warrants, outside of exigent circumstances in the City of Minneapolis. That policy does not govern how the Anoka SWAT team conducts itself.”
“Minneapolis’ more restrictive policy ends at our borders and other jurisdictions do not have to comply with our standards.”
KARE 11 asked Frey's office for comment about the no-knock raid involving the puppy. In a short written statement the mayor said, "Even if the officers announced their presence prior to entry, in accordance with the Nov. 2020 policy, this kind of conduct underscores why we are revising the no-knock warrant policy, with a full moratorium in place in the meantime."
Also in response to KARE 11's investigation into the no-knock puppy raid, Alberder Gillespie, interim director of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department, offered this statement:
“I understand and share concerns many in the community have about the warrant process. Our Civil Rights Office of Police Conduct Review staff are actively working on a special review of no-knock and high-risk warrants. As a part of this review, we have been working in collaboration with national experts to ensure any potential changes to our current policies are data driven and will ultimately lead to the best outcomes for community.”
‘Y’all could have knocked’
No one was hurt in the puppy raid. A dog and handgun were seized.
Marvin Johnson has been charged with aggravated robbery and possession of a firearm by a prohibited person. He’s plead not guilty.
Princess Fort, who has no criminal record, told police she’d been given the puppy as a gift by her now ex-boyfriend. She told KARE 11 she and her four-year-old son ended up evicted and homeless because of all the damage the SWAT team did to their home.
Fort says she still wants to know what she repeatedly asked the officers the morning her home was raided under the authority of a no-knock warrant: Was all this necessary?
“Y’all could have knocked or did something a little different,” she can be seen saying to officers in the body-camera footage.
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