Reporter Jenn Abelson ’00 Exposes Dangers of No-Knock Warrants

In her latest investigative project, the Washington Post staffer and Daily Sun alum delves into a controversial tool of modern policing

By Beth Saulnier

A portrait of Jenn Abelson
The Broken Doors podcast is the first audio project for the veteran reporter. (Photo by Katty Huertas/Washington Post)

When Breonna Taylor was killed by police during a botched raid on her Louisville, Kentucky, home in March 2020, it shone a spotlight on one of the most controversial tools in law enforcement: no-knock warrants.

The warrants—which allow officers to enter a premises without first knocking and identifying themselves—are supposed to be used sparingly and under narrow circumstances. But as reporter Jenn Abelson ’00 and colleagues at the Washington Post reveal in a new investigative project and podcast series, they have sometimes been abused.

When issued on shoddy or even false pretenses, the warrants—which disproportionally impact people of color and the economically disadvantaged—can drive unjust arrests, prosecutions, and seizures of property, the Post series reports.

And as Taylor’s death underscores, the stakes can be even higher: officers may enter with terrifying force in the middle of the night, prompting scared and disoriented residents to reach for their own weapons in self-defense—and the police to respond with gunfire. Taylor, they report, is hardly the only innocent person who has become collateral damage.

“Before the death of Breonna Taylor, I don’t think many people were familiar with the term ‘no-knock warrant,’” Abelson observes. “After hearing about her story, we really wanted to understand: how often are no-knock warrants involved in fatalities, and what are the consequences?”

Abelson interviewing a woman during a reporting trip
Abelson (left) sharing documents with a Mississippi woman whose boyfriend was killed in a no-knock raid. (Photo by Reena Flores)

The project, titled Broken Doors, is the latest investigative effort for Abelson, a veteran journalist who has tackled such complex, hot-button subjects as sexual harassment in the modeling industry and lax oversight of private planes by the Federal Aviation Administration.

A communication major in CALS, Abelson covered several beats for the Daily Sun (and freelanced for the Ithaca Journal) as an undergrad; she spent a decade at the Boston Globe before joining its legendary Spotlight team in 2013.

(The team became a household name thanks to the eponymous 2015 movie that dramatized its coverage of the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandal.)

We really wanted to understand: how often are no-knock warrants involved in fatalities, and what are the consequences?

Abelson’s investigative work at the Globe included a series on dangerously shoddy housing for college students that was a Pulitzer finalist for public service reporting; a piece on surgeons “double-booking” patients in the OR was a finalist for a Scripps Howard Award.

In 2018, she co-authored I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope, a memoir narrated in the first-person by Chessy Prout, a young woman who had recently gone public as the victim in a high-profile assault case at a New England boarding school.

At the Post since 2019, Abelson has worked on a series on the U.S. opioid epidemic that was a Pulitzer public service finalist; other projects have included an exploration of substandard care at college health centers and an up-close look at the experiences of essential workers on the front lines of the pandemic.

A reckoning on law enforcement

Since 2020, Abelson has been part of “Unaccountable,” the Post’s ongoing investigation of policing in the U.S. (Its resources include a never-before-assembled database of every fatal shooting by an on-duty officer that the paper began compiling in 2015.)

Jenn Abelson in the recording studio
Abelson in the studio. (Photo by Dave Jorgenson)

With Broken Doors—launched in early April, the six-episode podcast is Abelson’s first foray into audio reporting—she and colleague Nicole Dungca take a deep dive into no-knock warrants.

Devoting more than a year to the effort, they made numerous requests for public records, pored over thousands of documents, and interviewed 100-plus sources around the country—including law enforcement officers, judges, community members, the targets of warrants, and friends and family of people killed by police.

Says Abelson: “It was a very, very intensive project.”

Much of their reporting took place in rural Monroe County, Mississippi—where, they reveal, thinly sourced no-knock warrants have long been the tool of choice for drug raids. (And where, during an interview, the former sheriff accused Abelson of “interrogating” him and made a grab for her notes.)

The tales that Abelson and Dungca tell are often harrowing and infuriating—such as that of a Black man whose home was entered (and life upended) under a no-knock warrant that the reporters ultimately traced to an “informant” who proved to be a white man upset that his girlfriend had gone there after an argument.

Episode art showing a damaged door
The podcast cover art. (Image courtesy of Washington Post)

In an even more disturbing case, a 57-year-old Monroe County man was killed by police after similarly thin evidence drove a late-night raid on his trailer in search of a large cache of money and drugs he allegedly had, but which was never found.

“These no-knock warrants have become a very common tactic, particularly in the war on drugs; they’re a part of that war that has led to some devastating consequences,” Abelson says. “I hope that people will listen and start to ask questions about what happens in their own community—and try to understand what policing in America should look like.”

Published May 6, 2022


Comments

  1. Denise Meridith, Class of 1973

    This story got to me. I had a “close encounter” last year when I was awakened by police (I did not know who it was at the time) started pounding on my door at 2 AM one morning. I was deciding whether to retrieve my revolver or shotgun when the commotion stopped. In checking my Ring system the next day, I saw it was the police. I tried contacting PPD the next few days. They said they had no record of anything in my neighborhood. A couple of weeks later there was a big police action at a house (with my same house number, different street) that had the whole HOA under lockdown for hours. I shudder to think what would have happened if I had gone to the door with my gun. This no-warrant approach combined with common human error is a serious issue!

  2. C. David Burak, Class of 1967

    Excellent article & project. At its worst, “No knock” seems to function like a domestic version of “Search & Destroy,” wherein the “invaded” residents are, too often, subject to police use of lethal force w/out legal restraint. We need to develop more human-rights-friendly training & methods designed to reduce the possibilities of unjust death & wounding of individuals suspected of problematic activities.

  3. Donald Bandman, Class of 1954

    There is a great need for this kind of investigative journalism now, a need that was filled in the past by newspaper reporters like Murray Kempton of The New York Post.
    Unfortunately, not many papers (and not many broadcasters) have either the budget or inclination for this. Jenn Abelson deserves our thanks and appreciation for what she is taking on and publicizing. The Sun should also be proud of its alum who no doubt was helped in her time there.

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