Confusion Clouds Roanoke City Council's Removal of No-Knock Warrant Request As It Endorses Other Police Reform Rollbacks

Mayor Sherman Lea said he would have kept the provision to revive no-knock warrants had he known state law forbade a judge from authorizing them.

Police Chief Sam Roman prepares to give a report on gun violence incidents at Roanoke City Council's meeting on Monday, Dec. 5. PHOTO BY HENRI GENDREAU FOR THE ROANOKE RAMBLER

Roanoke City Council is no longer urging its state lawmakers to revive the use of no-knock search warrants after facing backlash from residents.

Council voted Monday to remove that provision from a list of legislative priorities for the 2023 General Assembly session that the body adopted unanimously last month. Still, there remained confusion over whether some members of Council voted to withdraw the request because of a change of heart or because they believed it unnecessary.

Several people at Council’s meeting, including Mayor Sherman Lea, mistakenly expressed the belief that a judge could still authorize a no-knock warrant, which would make the city’s original request moot. A judge cannot grant police a no-knock warrant in Virginia, according to a 2020 state law passed after the murder of George Floyd.

A change Virginia lawmakers made in 2021 does allow a judge to grant a warrant for a nighttime search, but not a no-knock warrant, a conflation that led to the confusion.

Lea later told The Rambler in a text message that Council should not have voted 5-0 to remove the no-knock warrant request. Council members Bill Bestpitch and Anita Price were absent.

The rest of Council’s proposals to reverse some recently enacted criminal justice reforms remain. Members asked state lawmakers Monday to restore police’s ability to pull over drivers for offenses such as broken tail lights or dark window tints; return the powers of sentencing from judges back to juries; and reinstate a policy that suspects be held without bail for a variety of mostly violent crimes.

Virginia should also require that school principals report misdemeanor sexual assaults to police and that hospital police take over when a person in a mental health crisis needs treatment, Council said.

Republican legislators praised the majority-Democratic City Council for the about-face.

“I really, seriously do applaud your taking this action,” said Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt, whose district encompasses parts of southeast Roanoke. “I find it interesting that this City Council, comprised now entirely of people of the opposing party of mine, as well as other city councils around, are saying we were right, ‘These are bad policies and they need to be rolled back.’”

Concern over gun violence led Council to solicit advice from the Roanoke Police Department on how state laws could address crime.

“I can assure you on these crime aspects we’re making, you’re going to see more of that,” Lea told Head.

Vice Mayor Trish White-Boyd told Head she disagreed with his characterization that all of the General Assembly’s criminal justice reforms were bad policies. She described Council’s recommendations as “some ways and means to get violent criminals and crime under control.”

Senior leaders at Roanoke’s police department could not recall the agency ever conducting a no-knock search warrant.

As for the department’s other requests, police say the ability to stop drivers for infractions such as dark window tints or broken taillights can lead to the seizure of drugs and guns.

Police Chief Sam Roman has said more lenient policies around bail have also fueled a “narrative of no accountability” when suspects are released on a low bond.

The department does not keep track of bail decisions and has not provided The Rambler data on how the reforms have impacted traffic stops. Police did not provide Council with any data on how the reforms have influenced police work, White-Boyd told The Rambler last week.

But there has also been little public data available to indicate the reforms — designed to reduce racial profiling, as well as number of people held in jails — are working as intended. Many of the laws went into effect last year.

Some residents criticized city leaders over the criminal justice proposals — particularly around no-knock warrants — soon after The Rambler’s report last week on the requests.

Members of the city’s Equity and Empowerment Advisory Board, which White-Boyd chairs, met Thursday at the Melrose Branch Library for a public hearing on trust in city government.

“I wanted to express my concern and disappointment that the City Council asked state representatives to roll back bans on no-knock warrants and other measures that involve the police,” Michael Lawson told the panel. “I think these things could negatively impact our equity in our city.”

Jennie Waering, a retired federal prosecutor involved in local racial justice work, agreed.

“I am all for curbing gun violence in Roanoke City,” she said. But as a member of the advisory board’s subcommittee on trust, “asking the legislature to roll back criminal reforms is a step in the wrong direction,” Waering said.

While the request for no-knock warrants received outsized attention, residents are far more likely to be affected by an expansion of police powers to conduct traffic stops.

“The proposals should be evidence based. It does not appear that they are,” David Harrison, a retired attorney who also serves on the EEAB’s trust subcommittee, emailed members of City Council on Sunday. “Making a broken tail light a primary offense only feeds into the widespread criticism of law enforcement that it wants to make ‘driving while Black’ an offense. Again, if having a broken tail light is somehow an indicator of a violent criminal, I would have hoped Council would ask for data to support such an unlikely conclusion.”

Over the last two years, 42 percent of drivers stopped by Roanoke police were Black, according to state data. About half of vehicles searched had Black drivers.

The department has said disparity is not discrimination. A department criminologist said police look at “the racial distribution of bad drivers on the road,” when analyzing data, but has not provided The Rambler those data.

Resident Dotsy Clifton on Monday urged Council to pause all its criminal justice requests to state lawmakers and to seek data before proceeding. Clifton spoke as a member of the Equitable Policing Coalition, which she described as a multiracial group that formed a few years ago.

Clifton said members agree that “something needs to change” to reduce gun violence, but that Council’s requests were a “simplistic” and “knee-jerk” reaction. Lowering standards to stop and search drivers, she said, are “guaranteed to damage the already fragile relationship between the police department and the African-American community.”

“The unanimous decision to ask the Virginia General Assembly to roll back criminal justice reform,” Clifton added, “is not the kind of well considered action citizens concerned with racial justice have come to expect from this largely respected and trusted City Council.”

The city’s Democratic lawmakers — Sen. John Edwards and Del. Sam Rasoul — sent representatives to Council’s meeting. They have indicated opposition to reversing the reforms.

Before Council struck the no-knock warrant provision, Sen. David Suetterlein, a Republican representing Roanoke County, told Council he voted for “Breonna’s Law,” which banned them after the Kentucky police killing of Breonna Taylor. But he opposed several other police reform measures the General Assembly adopted.

“The prohibition on No Knock Warrants is an important civil liberties protection for Virginians and the judiciary's ability to authorize after-hours searches is important for public safety,” Suetterlein said later in a statement. “The ban on police being able to make a primary stop when cars are driving without functioning headlights or brake lights at night was dangerous. I appreciate Roanoke City Council recognizing that several of the changes passed on party-lines by the unified Democratic government in 2020 should be reversed in the interest of public safety.”

While local lawmakers may not carry some of Roanoke’s requests, there is already an appetite in the General Assembly to roll back some recent reforms. A bill proposed by Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick, would reverse bail reforms while Del. Ronnie Campbell, R-Rockbridge, pre-filed a bill last month giving greater leeway for police to stop drivers.