After Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron announced that a grand jury declined to file charges against the police officers involved in the shooting of Breonna Taylor, civil unrest broke out in the streets. Two police officers were shot and miraculously survived.
Many felt that the single indictment of Detective Brett Hankison — which was based on charges related to endangering Taylor’s neighbors, not charges linked to Taylor’s death — fell short of justice.
“NOTHING for the murder of Breonna Taylor,” Ben Crump, attorney for the Taylor family, said shortly after Cameron’s announcement. “This is outrageous and offensive! If Brett Hankison’s behavior was wanton endangerment to people in neighboring apartments, then it should have been wanton endangerment in Breonna Taylor’s apartment too. In fact, it should have been ruled wanton murder!”
The emotional outrage surrounding Taylor’s death is understandable. The 26-year-old emergency room technician should not have died at the hands of police, an incident that possibly could have been avoided if the police had more clearly identified themselves. The blame shouldn’t fall on the grand jury’s decision not to charge the three officers with Taylor’s death, however. The two officers were justified in firing their weapons because Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, fired one shot at them first. Because of that fact, the officers were acting in self-defense.
“When we all got up in line, I knocked on the door,” Sgt. Jon Mattingly told investigators, according to the New York Times. “Our intent was to give her plenty of time to come to the door because we said she was probably there alone,” he said. “Banged. No response. Banged on it again. No response. At that point we started announcing ourself, ‘Police, please come to the door!’”
Prior to yesterday, it was widely reported that the police officers didn’t announce themselves before barging into Taylor’s home. Cameron said yesterday, however, that police did knock and announce themselves before coming in, which a civilian witness corroborated. It’s worth noting, however, that it wasn’t until 12:35 a.m. on March 13 when officers began their raid.
Nevertheless, Taylor’s boyfriend, Walker, maintains neither of them could hear who was at the door. When it’s past midnight, and a person wakes up frazzled with someone banging at his or her door, it’s reasonable to grab a legally-owned gun.
Walker told police he assumed the person at the door was Taylor’s ex-boyfriend, who was at the center of the criminal drug case. When police entered, Walker said he fired to protect his girlfriend, and the police fatally shot back.
Much of the blame and justification for civil unrest is falling on the police officers and the life-and-death decisions they made in that moment. The assumption, it seems, is that unless the officers are charged with murdering Taylor, there is no justice.
However, instead of blaming the police officers for acting in self-defense, a better question surrounds law enforcement’s decision to raid her home in the first place — especially with a no-knock warrant so late at night. Yes, the investigation found the police did knock and announce themselves, but when people are half-asleep inside, the margin for error or a fatal misunderstanding is high.
Another important question to ask is why the police weren’t wearing body cameras that night. In 2020, that is inexcusable.
In June, two months after her death, the Louisville City Council voted unanimously to enact Breonna’s Law, which bans no-knock warrants, requires police to wear body cameras when serving warrants, and mandates that they activate the cameras five minutes before starting an operation. On the same day, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced similar legislation at the federal level.
Last week, Louisville city officials agreed to pay Taylor’s family $12 million and committed to instituting police reforms to prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again. Among the changes is a requirement that commanding officers review and give written approval for all search warrants, and an agreement to “overhaul how simultaneous search warrants are conducted.”
This is all good. No-knock warrants can be a life-saving tactic for cops in the fight against drug traffickers, kidnappers, and other criminal offenders, but they’re not a more valuable tool than Taylor’s life.
The fact that Taylor’s family received $12 million and a commitment to institute reforms to prevent future botched police raids is, sadly, as much justice as Louisville city officials can offer her grieving family. Despite what some protesters and rioters maintain, justice is not indicting officers for defending themselves.
If protesters aren’t satisfied with the legal outcome, where do we go from here? If instituting change in Breonna Taylor’s name isn’t enough to quell unrest in Louisville, what will?
As Cameron said yesterday, “Criminal justice isn’t the quest for revenge. It’s the quest for truth.”