Editor’s note: On September 23, a Jefferson County grand jury announced that it would indict former Louisville police officer Brett Hankison on three counts of first-degree wanton endangerment in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor. The two other officers who fired shots that night — Jonathan Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove — were not indicted. The piece below was last updated on July 13.
It has been more than 100 days since Breonna Taylor was killed by police in her own home in Louisville, Kentucky. Thousands of protesters have chanted her name across the country, demanding justice for the EMT, who would have turned 27 on June 5.
As the country is reckoning with its history of racist police violence, many advocates want to know why charges still haven’t been filed against the officers who shot her dead. Meanwhile, those who want to abolish the carceral state are rethinking what justice in the Taylor case should actually look like.
Most advocates agree that another Black woman is dead because of a lack of police accountability — and something needs to change.
On March 13, three officers with a no-knock warrant entered Taylor’s apartment looking for two people suspected of selling drugs, neither of whom was Taylor. The officers fired more than 20 rounds into the apartment, hitting Taylor at least eight times.
After months of investigation, the Louisville Police Department (LMPD) fired officer Brett Hankison on June 23; the other two officers remain on administrative assignment. A special Kentucky prosecutor is leading an investigation into both the shooting and the department’s handling of the shooting to determine whether to charge the three officers who fired their weapons; the FBI is leading its own investigation. On June 29, the Louisville Metro Council also announced a resolution to investigate the actions of Mayor Greg Fischer and his administration surrounding Taylor’s death. The council hopes to create greater transparency around who made what decisions in the Taylor case, according to a news release.
Taylor’s death took place amid a slate of high-profile killings of unarmed Black people — it was just three weeks after Ahmaud Arbery was killed by white vigilantes while jogging and about 10 weeks before the fatal arrest of George Floyd. The suspects involved in Arbery’s case were arrested and charged two weeks after video of the incident went viral. The four officers involved in the killing of George Floyd were fired four days after Floyd’s death, with the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck charged with murder.
By contrast, not much has happened in Taylor’s case.
In the meantime, Taylor’s family, alleging excessive force and gross negligence in her death, filed a lawsuit on April 27 against the officers involved in the shooting. In a court filing submitted on July 5, the family alleges that Taylor received no emergency medical aid as she lay dying. The document also claims that the raid on Taylor’s apartment was part of the mayor’s scheme to clear out a block in the neighborhood for redevelopment.
“I want justice for her,” Tamika Palmer, Taylor’s mother, told the 19th in May. “I want them to say her name. There’s no reason Breonna should be dead at all.”
Police came looking for a drug suspect. Breonna Taylor ended up dead instead.
On the night of March 13, Louisville police had a warrant to enter Taylor’s apartment because they believed that a suspect in a narcotics investigation was storing drugs or money or receiving packages at her home, according to USA Today.
However, according to the suit filed by Taylor’s family, the man police were searching for, Jamarcus Glover, did not live in her apartment complex and had already been detained by the time officers showed up. Taylor had dated Glover two years ago, according to a family attorney, and did not maintain an active friendship with him.
Police said that the three officers knocked on the door to announce themselves. But multiple neighbors say the officers neither knocked nor identified themselves, according to the family’s lawsuit. It was later uncovered that the police had been granted a no-knock warrant by a judge, which allowed them to enter Taylor’s apartment without announcing themselves. They also weren’t wearing body cams.
When police arrived, Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, 27, says he woke up and believed someone was trying to break into the apartment. There was banging on the door, he says, but police never announced themselves. He reached for his licensed handgun after he and Taylor asked who it was and got no response, NBC reported. He fired one shot, hitting an officer in the leg.
Police then fired more than 20 rounds into the apartment. Taylor died at the scene. Walker was arrested and charged with attempted murder of a police officer and aggravated assault.
Police found no drugs in the apartment, and both Taylor and Walker have no criminal history.
On May 22, Kentucky prosecutors announced that they had dismissed all charges against Walker, who said he fired a shot in self-defense when he believed he and Taylor were under attack.
On June 11, police released an incident report for the night Taylor was killed, but it was largely blank. Though Taylor was fatally shot, the four-page report listed her injuries as “none.” The report also stated there was no forced entry, though witnesses say the police used a battering ram to enter the apartment, according to CBS News.
The Taylor family’s 31-page July 5 court filing adds two new (and since contested) allegations to the narrative: that Taylor received no medical aid as she lay dying and that the nighttime raid was part of Mayor Fischer’s plan to redevelop a city block in western Louisville.
Taylor’s family said there is no evidence that suggests that Taylor was given medical attention in the six minutes between when she was shot and when she died. However, the coroner who performed Taylor’s autopsy said that her injuries from the shooting were so extreme that she would’ve died in “less than a minute” and that the recorded time of death on the report is “an estimate.”
The family’s filing also alleges that police went after Glover because of political pressure from the mayor’s office due to a redevelopment project valued at more than $30 million, according to the New York Times. Glover was reportedly using a row of abandoned houses to sell drugs in the area that needed to be cleared for development.
“People needed to be removed and homes needed to be vacated so that a high-dollar, legacy-creating real estate development could move forward,” attorneys for the family wrote in the court filing. The city has called the allegations “outrageous.”
Meanwhile, it came to light that the officer who shot Taylor, Hankison, had a history of misconduct allegations. He was already facing an ongoing federal lawsuit at the time of Taylor’s death in which Kendrick Wilson accused Hankison of “harassing suspects with unnecessary arrests and planting drugs on them,” according to USA Today. Wilson alleges that Hankison targeted him and arrested him three times in a two-year period.
After Taylor’s death, claims of sexual assault surfaced, too, with at least two women coming forward in early June to allege that Hankison assaulted them. In both allegations, which are similar to one another, Hankison offered the women rides home after they had been drinking at local bars. In one case, Hankison allegedly followed the woman into her home and assaulted her while she was unconscious. In the other case, Hankison reportedly made sexual advances toward the woman while she sat in his unmarked car, including rubbing her thighs and kissing her face.
On June 23, he was fired. LMPD posted Hankison’s termination letter on Twitter, which stated Hankison “displayed an extreme indifference to the value of human life when you wantonly and blindly fired ten (10) rounds into the apartment of Breonna Taylor…” The letter also stated Hankison violated the department’s protocol on use of deadly force when he shot through a patio door and window that was covered. This prevented him from determining whether there was an immediate threat or innocent people present; some of the bullets even traveled to a neighbor’s apartment where three people were endangered, according to the letter. Hankison has appealed his termination.
The other two officers who fired rounds that night, John Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove, remain on the force and have been placed on administrative reassignment. The case is still under independent investigation with Kentucky’s Attorney General, Daniel Cameron, who has said he will not provide additional details or a timeline for the investigation.
Protests are ongoing, and calls for justice in the investigation continue
In May, Benjamin Crump, the Taylor family’s attorney, argued that the killings of Black women have tended to receive less media attention than the deaths of Black men.
“They’re killing our sisters just like they’re killing our brothers, but for whatever reason, we have not given our sisters the same attention that we have given to Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Stephon Clark, Terence Crutcher, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald,” he told the 19th. “Breonna’s name should be known by everybody in America who said those other names, because she was in her own home, doing absolutely nothing wrong.”
Protests where the crowds chant, “Say her name, Breonna Taylor,” have attempted to reverse the lack of attention. In 2015, activists around the country demonstrated and used the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to women who had lost their lives, including Gabriella Nevarez, Michelle Cusseaux, and Alexia Christian, as Jenée Desmond-Harris reported for Vox at the time. The death of Sandra Bland in jail after she was arrested during a traffic stop also drew national attention to the impact of police brutality and racism on Black women’s lives.
Around the country, activists organized marches and signed petitions on Taylor’s June 5 birthday, saying she should’ve been alive to see the day. In Louisville, protesters have gathered in Breonna Taylor’s name to protest police brutality in a number of demonstrations since May. After a protest-imposed curfew on May 31, law enforcement shot and killed David McAtee, 53, a local restaurant owner. Following his death, Louisville Police Chief Steve Conrad was fired, though it is still unclear exactly who shot McAtee, Vox’s Anna North reported.
While there have been other changes in the police department since Taylor’s death — on June 11 the Louisville Metro Council voted unanimously to ban no-knock warrants — advocates, activists, and celebrities are asking why the three officers involved in Taylor’s killing haven’t been arrested. On June 14, Beyoncé wrote an open letter to Kentucky’s attorney general, demanding that criminal charges be brought against the three officers to “show the value of a Black woman’s life.” She also asked that the office bring greater transparency to the investigation.
At a June 18 press conference, Cameron — the first Black attorney general in Kentucky and a former legal counsel for Sen. Mitch McConnell — emphasized that the investigation is ongoing, without giving any specific details.
“To all those involved in this case, you have my commitment that our office is undertaking a thorough and fair investigation,” he said. “This is also a commitment that I’m making to the Louisville community, which has suffered tremendously in the days since March 13.”
Cameron was also the first Republican attorney general elected in the state, according to the New York Times, on a platform that backed Trump and some of the president’s signature efforts, like building a border wall. He has criticized some of protesters’ demands, including the call to defund the police.
“Radical rhetoric and calls to ‘defund the police’ threaten public safety and only serve to divide us further, rather than bringing us together,” he said in a press release on June 24.
Wake Forest Law professor Ronald Wright, who specializes in the work of criminal prosecutors, told Vox that Cameron’s comments regarding defunding the police are worth watching because they are relevant to how Cameron handles the case. “If he starts to sound like an advocate for law enforcement, voicing broad support for police officers and defending them in general terms, that would make me wonder if he can evaluate charges fairly in this case,” Wright said. “It is tough to convince the public that you will hold the police accountable for their wrongdoing if you never find anything to criticize in their work.”
Why there haven’t been arrests in the case so far
Wright told Vox in May that in officer-involved shooting cases like Taylor’s, the length of time the prosecutor takes to bring forth charges should not necessarily be the issue. Rather, people should question and examine what the prosecutor does during their investigation.
“I don’t really fault prosecutors for taking their time, gathering the facts, being thorough. The timing doesn’t really bother me as much as the amount of effort. If what you’re doing is you’re not doing anything and you’re stalling, and you don’t really intend to press the case as hard as you would press any shooting in your district, then that’s a problem,” Wright told Vox.
Since these cases are especially difficult to win at trial, Wright pointed out, prosecutors must take the time to build a really strong case. “The delay could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on whether they are putting in the effort into building a great case,” he said.
In the high-profile Baltimore police custody death of Freddie Gray, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby arrested the three officers involved just days after Gray’s death and charged them with offenses including second-degree “depraved heart” murder and manslaughter. All three officers in the case were acquitted. “It may have been that it would have been better to go a little slower and get more evidence for charges after some delay,” Wright told Vox.
Many advocates, however, point to the speed at which arrests came in the Arbery and Floyd cases — and the fact that years-long delays in Eric Garner’s case still didn’t lead to justice. Garner died in July 2014 after NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo placed him in a banned chokehold. One day before the five-year anniversary of Garner’s death in July 2019, federal prosecutors announced they would not bring charges against Pantaleo. The NYPD fired Pantaleo in August 2019, more than five years after Garner’s death.
And in the three cases above there were videos of the incidents. Wright said that even with footage, cases against police officers are difficult to prosecute. Videos do represent extra proof — a form of evidence Taylor’s case lacks.
The influence of police unions, which have come under criticism from activists and protesters during the unrest, may also contribute to delays. As Vox’s Dylan Matthews reported, police unions have become engrossed in preventing the discipline of officers who kill unarmed Black people:
In local cases, this attitude has translated to a defense of officers who kill or wound innocent civilians. The Louisville Metro Police Department [had first] been limited to just announcing its “intention” to fire Brett Hankison, a detective who shot his gun 10 times during the raid that killed Breonna Taylor, rather than actually firing him outright. This limitation is largely because of the city’s contract with the police union, which gives Hankison multiple opportunities to appeal. He is first allowed a “pretermination hearing” with counsel, and then, once terminated, an appeal to the police merit board, of which Hankison himself is a member.
In May, the Louisville police union also demanded an apology from Louisville council member Jessica Green, who called Taylor’s boyfriend a hero after he was charged with shooting Mattingly the night Taylor was killed. “Calling someone that shot an on-duty police officer, in the performance of official duties, a hero is a slap in the face,” said Ryan Nichols, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 614. Green said she would not apologize.
But Wright said that Hankison’s firing does offer a clue to how a criminal case could swing. That the LMPD found that he showed “extreme indifference to the value of human life” when he “wantonly and blindly” fired 10 rounds into the apartment means there’s a chance for a conviction if a jury were to find the same conclusion. “If a jury in a criminal trial were to reach the same conclusions after hearing the facts, they could properly convict him of a lesser version of homicide,” Wright told Vox.
At the recent press conference, Cameron refused to discuss any potential roadblocks, stating that “an investigation of this magnitude, when done correctly, requires time and patience.” He added, “To those across the country we have heard from with cards, emails, and letters, and calls, who are asking us to complete the investigation as soon as possible — we hear you and we are working around the clock to follow the law to the truth.”
Defunding the Louisville police and its ties to justice for Taylor
Amid a growing call to “defund” or “abolish the police,” there are others advocating for justice who view the calls to arrest officers as taking away from the larger goal of dismantling the system.
According to anti-criminalization organizer Mariame Kaba, director of the anti youth incarceration grassroots organization Project NIA, celebrating charges for officers signals our dependence on a criminal justice system that was created to uphold white supremacy. “To transform a death-making system, our expectations have to be much higher,” she wrote last month in the New York Times. “Celebrating charges is like celebrating bread crumbs. ... I understand why people do it, but I think according great significance to charges misses the point and it also freezes people in place. It has the effect of demobilizing collective action.”
Kaba explained that justice is not just closing down police departments but making them obsolete. “The surest way of reducing police violence is to reduce the power of the police, by cutting budgets and the number of officers,” she wrote.
But on June 25, the Louisville Metro Council approved a budget that wouldn’t even begin to defund LMPD. The new spending plan will merely “require police to put the money toward recruiting a more diverse force, additional training and exploring co-responder models that could send behavioral health professionals on calls with officers,” according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. Funding will also be directed to a civilian review board that will oversee LMPD, following the 24-1 vote. Black Lives Matter demanded that more money be shifted to community services.
Today Metro Council votes on the 20-21 Budget. 49% is allocated to @lmpd and corrections. Demand better for our communities! When we say #defundpolice there is a clear vision of what is possible. give money directly to community https://t.co/WXPhjFxHYU #DefendBlackLife pic.twitter.com/RlWwVb2b4W— BLM Louisville (@BLMLouisville) June 25, 2020
On the same day the budget was approved, a crowd of more than 500 demonstrators, including activists, community members, and celebrities, gathered on the steps of the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort for a #JusticeForBreonnaTaylor rally, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. Activist Tamika Mallory emphasized the need to keep calling for justice and accountability in Taylor’s case. “I’m sure we all understand that Breonna Taylor is everywhere,” she said. “The issue of Black women being killed and our voices being too low is a problem.”