Everyone acknowledges that the Breonna Taylor case is a tragedy. What makes it even more tragic is that her killing, which did not have to happen, is now sparking more violence and has led to the shootings of two more police officers in Louisville. At its core, the killing of Ms. Taylor is an indictment of the current system and underscores the need for change.
For those who aren’t familiar with the facts of the case, the Louisville Courier-Journal cuts through the myths and misinformation. At about 12:40 am on the night of March 13, 2020, three Louisville Metro Police Department officers in plainclothes served a no-knock warrant on the home of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician at University of Louisville Health. The case was centered on two men who were accused of selling drugs, one of whom, Jamarcus Glover, Taylor had dated two years earlier and with whom she had maintained a “passive friendship.” Glover did not live with Taylor and Kenneth Walker, her boyfriend who was present on the night of the shooting, was not named on the warrant and had no drug-related criminal history or felonies prior to that night.
What happened next is the subject of debate. The officers say that they knocked on the door, announced themselves, and then burst in. Walker says that he and Taylor were watching television in bed when they pounding on the door. He says that they asked who was there but heard no reply before the door came “off its hinges.”
Walker, thinking that intruders were breaking into the apartment, fired one shot, hitting one of the officers in the leg. The three officers returned fire with 32 rounds. The police completely missed Walker but hit the unarmed Taylor six times. She died in the hallway of her apartment within minutes.
Much of the case centers on the dispute between whether officers announced themselves. The family and neighbors say that there was no such announcement while the officers say that there was. There was no body-camera footage of the raid, but Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron said in a press conference that another witness, whose story has not been publicly heard, supported the officers’ claims.
Cameron’s statement has also been misreported as saying that the warrant was not a no-knock warrant. In Cameron’s words, the officers were “advised by superiors to knock and announce their presence in serving this specific search warrant” and that “the warrant was not served as a no-knock warrant.” The full story is apparently that a judge signed off on the no-knock warrant, but the officers were advised to knock.
It seems that both Walker and the police had reason to fire. Assuming that the officers did announce themselves, it is entirely possible that Walker and Taylor did not hear them. Imagine the scene as a police raid from television in which officers knock, yell “police,” and break the door down within the span of a few seconds. It can be reasonably assumed that Walker and Taylor, who were half-asleep and watching tv, did not process the fact that police officers were coming through their door in the middle of the night.
Compounding the problem was the fact that the police were in plain clothes. It isn’t certain whether Walker got a good look at the cops before firing, but there could be reasonable doubt as to whether someone yelling “police” but who is not wearing a uniform is really a police officer.
Nevertheless, once Walker fired, the police had a legitimate reason to shoot back. The problem here is that much of the return fire seems not to have been aimed. Interim police Chief Robert Schroeder accused Officer Brett Hankison of firing “blindly” into the apartment with 10 rounds. Hankison has been fired and was indicted for “wanton endangerment.” Hankison’s shots apparently did not strike Taylor but went through the wall to an apartment next door, which occupied by a small child and a pregnant woman. I have to wonder how well the other officers aimed since they completely missed the man with the gun and killed his unarmed girlfriend.
According to Cameron’s statement, the investigation determined that the officers were justified in the use of force but did not examine the circumstances leading up to the warrant in the first place. The reports about problems with the warrant are disturbing, but the three officers serving the warrant were not involved with obtaining the warrant and only knew what they had been briefed.
The back story is that Taylor’s apartment was raided because she police believed that she had received a package for Glover. The affidavit for the search warrant said that the requesting detective had “verified through a US postal inspector that Jamarcus Glover has been receiving packages” at Taylor’s apartment. However, Louisville’s U.S. postal inspector, Tony Gooden, told reporters that the Post Office had determined that no suspicious mail was being sent to the apartment. After the raid, no drugs or contraband was found in the apartment.
There are problems with the circumstances of the raid as well. Taylor’s apartment was known to be a “soft target.” Conducting a breaching raid in the middle of the night dramatically escalated the situation and endangered both the officers and civilians. A better strategy might have been to have uniformed officers meet Taylor outside when she got home from work.
Although many people will try to rationalize away the killing of Breonna Taylor because Walker fired first, the reality is that this could have happened to anyone. If the truth were known, many people reading this article would have behaved the way Walker did if police unexpectedly stormed through their door under similar circumstances.
And it possible that police could come through your door even if you are completely innocent. Noise complaints, bad assumptions, tips from neighbors, domestic disturbances, or “swatting” pranks could all set up a deadly confrontation.
Taylor was an innocent woman who was killed in her own home because of a very tenuous connection to a suspected drug dealer. She did nothing wrong and is dead because of police errors, both in obtaining the warrant and in their judgment in orchestrating the raid, and Walker’s reasonable defensive reaction when officers breached their door in the middle of the night.
It is not being anti-police to acknowledge that police kill innocent people far too often. The problem is not merely racial but is due to our societal decision to give police the benefit of the doubt. We rightly want to protect the lives of police so we authorize tactics that put innocent civilians at risk. In the aftermath of bad police behavior, qualified immunity often means that police departments are not held accountable. The legal standard for the use of deadly force is so low that any “reasonable” fear for their life by police officers is grounds to kill. This is true even if the officers have behaved badly up to that point and makes it extremely hard to convict officers for bad shootings.
At this point, we are left with a long string of incidents in which police have killed innocent people and got off scot-free. That has to change. It is high time for police reform.
One of the most obvious changes that needs to be made is to bring rules for raids into harmony with the fact that many law-abiding civilians are executing their Second Amendment rights to defend themselves in their homes. Officers should be required to plan raids on a level commensurate with the perceived threat. No-knock or no-announce raids might be justified in the case of a heavily armed convicted felon’s residence, a crack house, or gang hangout, but they unnecessarily make things more dangerous for both officers and citizens in cases like the raid on Taylor’s apartment.
Police should be required to take into consideration that law-abiding citizens may grab their guns if they breach their homes in the middle of the night. It is not a crime for homeowners to own a gun and rules of engagement should take lawful gun ownership into account.
The police should also be better trained in de-escalating situations. In many of the recent deaths, the first reaction of the officers has been to use force. This includes pulling a gun and opening fire as well as chokeholds and spit hoods. Citizens have a responsibility to not raise the temperature of a confrontation with police but so should the cops.
Arguably, we also need to do a better job of vetting police officer candidates and weeding out bad officers. Brett Hankison, the indicted Louisville officer, had a string of reprimands before he showed up at Breonna Taylor’s door. Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck, had 18 complaints, two of which led to reprimands. Phillip Brailsford had inappropriate etched the words “You’re F***ed” onto the gun he used to kill a sobbing Daniel Shaver after issuing confusing and conflicting commands to the drunken man. That likely indicates an attitude that is inconsistent with protecting the public.
Police reform would benefit both police departments and communities by holding cops to a higher standard. Fewer innocent civilians would be killed (or convicted of defending themselves against police who raid their homes). Citizens would find it easier to trust police because they would not feel as fearful.
Many reading this will disagree. There is a disturbing tendency on the right to bend over backward to dismiss bad police killings on the grounds that they “had it coming” or because of some prior criminal history that doesn’t have any direct bearing on the events at hand. In any case, these arguments don’t apply to Breonna Taylor, an innocent woman who died in her own home through no fault of her own. If you have an acquaintance that is being investigated by police or if someone makes allegations about you to police, you could easily end up in the same position as Breonna Taylor and Kenneth Walker. Or Daniel Shaver. Or Botham Jean. Or Ryan Whitaker. Or Linden Cameron. Or any number of innocent people who have died at the hands of police.
To me, it is not a conservative position to excuse police who kill innocent people in their own homes. This is true if for no other reason than that random killings of innocent people make it harder for everyone else to trust police, which makes it harder for good cops to do their jobs. Police are morally, if not legally, responsible when they kill the people they are supposed to protect and serve.
Police reform to protect the innocent should be a bipartisan issue. Until we see change, we will continue to see bad killings. We will also continue to see the riots and violence that stem from the frustration of seeing police officers get away with murder.
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