After Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office landed convictions of police officers in the deaths of George Floyd and Daunte Wright, advocates hoped his office’s investigation into Amir Locke’s death would lead to similar results.
Instead, Ellison and the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office announced this week that Mark Hanneman, the police officer who fatally shot Locke while executing a no-knock warrant on a Minneapolis apartment, will not face charges.
The news prompted Philip Smith, founder and president of the National African American Gun Association (NAAGA), to call on Black Minnesotans to boycott the community and send a message to elected officials in the name of an innocent Black man who was a lawful gun owner.
“I’m angry. I’m very angry,” Smith said. “I don’t know what it’s gonna take for this country to start treating African Americans and people of any color fairly when you have a situation like that.”
Locke is the latest Black gun owner to suffer consequences while exercising their Second Amendment rights. In 2016, Philando Castile was killed during a traffic stop in a Minneapolis suburb after he told the officer he had a gun in the car. That officer was acquitted of second-degree manslaughter in a jury trial.
In 2020, Kenneth Walker, the boyfriend of Breonna Taylor, was charged with attempted murder after he fired a shot that struck a person forcing entry to his home at night. That person turned out to be an officer executing a search warrant. Nearly a year later, the charge against Walker was dropped.
Locke, 22, was lying on a couch when a SWAT team entered the apartment. In body camera footage, he is seen holding his gun before Hanneman fires. Locke was not a suspect in the investigation that led to the Feb. 2 no-knock raid.
In a joint statement, the Hennepin County Attorney’s and Minnesota Attorney General’s offices said, “The evidence shows that Officer Hanneman was faced with a deadly threat and he had to make a split-second decision to use deadly force to protect himself and others from death or great bodily harm.”
The decision not to charge the officers involved with Locke’s death did not surprise Bernarda Villalona, a former homicide prosecutor turned criminal defense attorney. The legal standard requires prosecutors to show that the officers involved did not have reasonable fear for their lives or others’.
Whether Locke feared for his life wouldn’t be a factor in the criminal case. When police violence turns fatal, the victim does not survive to have their day in court.
“What happened is messed up, but the problem is why it happened and that’s something that — just as Attorney General Ellison said — that has to be dealt with through different avenues,” Villalona said. “Is there going to be a civil suit? Yes. Will they prevail as a civil suit? Yes, because the burden is different.”
Locke’s family has hired civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump to handle any further legal matters. Karen Wells, Locke’s mother, called her son’s killing an “execution” and warned Hanneman that Locke’s spirit will haunt him.
“I’m not disappointed, I’m disgusted with the city of Minneapolis,” Wells said at a press conference during the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network’s convention in New York. Wells scoffed that the Second Amendment didn’t apply to Locke because “he has too much melanin,” and she questioned why the SWAT team didn’t use de-escalation tactics to give Locke the opportunity to drop his gun.
The string of encounters between police and Black gun owners made Villalona wonder if a firearm is enough to stay safe.
“Do I have to put a sign on my door, so that when the cops want to run up in my house and execute a search warrant, [the sign] would say ‘Be warned, I’m armed,’ because it’s not something that they take into account,” she said.
Villalona said she believes that no-knock warrant laws should be dismantled across the country, but added that search warrants of all types create problems for legal gun owners.
“I don’t care if it’s a no-knock, I don’t care if it’s a knock — you still have the same issues that can arise. You do not know what’s on the other side of that door, especially when you’re dealing with these counties where it’s OK to have a firearm,” Villalona said. “So you need to assume that the person inside is a lawful owner of a firearm.”
In Locke’s case, an officer used a key to enter the apartment where he was lying on the couch in the early morning. On body camera footage, members of the St. Paul Police Department SWAT team are heard shouting, “Police, search warrant!” as they enter the unit in a downtown Minneapolis apartment complex.
Locke was armed with a gun that he legally purchased for protection while working as a DoorDash delivery man, his family said. He was not named as a suspect in the homicide investigation that led to the warrant. His 17-year-old cousin was a suspect and later arrested.
“Video shows Mr. Locke under the blanket holding a firearm that was initially held parallel to the ground before being dropped to about a 45-degree angle, then being raised again in the direction of Officer Hanneman. Officer Hanneman then fired three shots, killing Mr. Locke,” according to the joint statement, which also criticized the use of no-knock warrants.
An April 6 statement from the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis said the organization was “pleased” with the prosecutors’ announcement.
“This incident was a tragedy for everyone involved and will have a lasting impact on many lives,” the statement read.
Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice campaigns at Color Of Change, a civil rights advocacy group, said that the decision to clear Hanneman of wrongdoing and to allow him to return to his job “represents a massive failure at every level of government.”
Roberts called out Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, “who campaigned on false promise to end illegal, no-knock warrants, to the Minneapolis Police Department who protected Amir’s killer while falsely accusing Amir of a crime, to the Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman who refused to hold that officer accountable.”