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The policing reforms in the Breonna Taylor settlement, explained

From revised search warrant protocols to contracting social workers, the policy changes are a start but could go much further.

Attorney Ben Crump and Tamika Palmer, mother of Breonna Taylor, after a news conference on September 15, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

A $12 million payout certainly won’t bring Breonna Taylor back. But the city of Louisville’s historic settlement with her family also includes a set of police reforms that may — depending on how and if they are implemented — help prevent police killings like the one that ended Taylor’s life in March.

The set of reforms, announced as part of the family’s civil suit on Tuesday, addresses three areas of policing in Louisville: community connections between police and the people they serve; search warrant protocol; and police accountability. For example, the reforms encourage officers to increase their casual presence in certain communities and include social workers in their dispatch runs. Altogether, the reforms represent an opportunity to move the city forward but remain far from activist calls to defund or abolish the police.

“As we have those broader conversations about what policing should look like in the future, we also need to continue thinking about what limits should apply to the police that we have now and the public safety arm that we will have in the future,” UCLA School of Law professor and police accountability expert Joanna Schwartz told Vox. “That requires both thinking about the policies that guide their behavior and the mechanisms for accountability when they violate those policies.”

While Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer presented the reforms as a way for the city to take immediate action, many of the reforms aren’t set in stone, nor can they take place overnight. Some still have to be negotiated with the Fraternal Order of Police, a police membership organization that engages in collective bargaining and has historically worked against police accountability.

Community relations measures are encouraged but not mandatory

Some lawmakers, including presidential candidate Joe Biden, have suggested that the way forward on police reform is to help improve relations between the community and police by increasing the number of positive interactions between the two groups.

The settlement borrows from this line of thinking.

To improve the relationship between police and the people of Louisville, Fischer announced a plan to create a housing credit program to incentivize officers to live within “Qualified Census Tracts,” areas identified by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as having a poverty rate of 25 percent or more or where 50 percent of households have incomes below 60 percent of the area median gross income. The city plans to build on models already underway in cities like Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington, DC.

Relatedly, Fischer said that officers would also be “encouraged” to volunteer at least two hours during the workday per pay period in the community they serve.

According to Schwartz, the proposals are interesting and innovative and are trying to address the criticisms and concerns that police are too separated, physically and culturally, from the communities they serve. One recent study found that community policing does help improve people’s perception of law enforcement, but there’s no way to guarantee that officers have positive interactions when they go out into the community. Moreover, the report’s authors said that positive interactions with the police are “no panacea for long-standing issues in policing that include police brutality, corruption, and racial bias.”

“It’s easier to diagnose the problems of policing than it is to come up with concrete ways of moving forward. But these are two very concrete means of encouraging more connections,” Schwartz said.

Since the programs are not mandatory, though, it’s unclear how popular they will become and the extent to which officers will participate.

Social workers will assist police — but won’t replace them

In a proposal that meets activists in the middle, Fischer announced that the department will retain social workers to support and assist officers on dispatch runs. The developing program will be funded through forfeiture funds and will contract social workers.

The proposal addresses some of the conversation coming out of the defund movement, which is forcing leaders to think deeply about when to dispatch police — and when not to.

“There are a lot of instances in which getting mental health professionals or social workers could be a far better approach,” Schwartz said, pointing to the police killing of Daniel Prude, who was experiencing a mental health crisis when Rochester police were called to the scene and restrained him. In that situation, had there been a number to call to get the help of social workers, the result might have been different, according to Schwartz.

But activists aren’t just calling for social workers to work alongside police officers — they’re demanding that social workers supplant them in situations where people need a deescalation response. And specifically, they say funding for police departments should be redirected to these emergency response workers and social services. As Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren put it, “Mr. Daniel Prude was failed by our police, our mental health care system, our society, and by me.”

In announcing reforms in Rochester, Warren went a step further than Louisville’s Fischer, separating out some social programs from policing and promising to double the availability of mental health professionals. “We will take our family crisis intervention team out of the police department and move it and its funding to the department of youth and recreation services,” Warren said.

Changes made to the search warrant protocol that could have saved Breonna Taylor’s life

Taylor’s killing has raised public attention about no-knock warrants and about search warrants in general. Taylor was shot eight times in her home after three officers used a battering ram to enter it under the authority of a no-knock warrant. Since then, the Louisville Metro Council unanimously voted to pass “Breonna’s Law,” an ordinance that bans the use of no-knock warrants.

The settlement’s stated reforms make three additional changes to standard operating procedure around warrants. First, a commanding officer must review and approve all search warrants before an officer seeks judicial approval for the warrant, in an attempt to calculate and assess risk. Second, the department plans to overhaul the process and chain of command for simultaneous search warrants.

These may work to address the problematic search warrant procedures that took place in Taylor’s case. The family’s lawsuit alleged that police were looking for a drug dealer and had the wrong information about his address. Police also reportedly mistook Taylor’s car, which was parked outside her apartment that night, as the drug dealer’s car, according to the lawsuit. An extra review of the warrant by a commanding officer could have assessed the risk associated with acting on information that was reportedly wrong and outdated. Fischer stressed that these updates, together with Breonna’s Law, are “substantial” and create a new level of scrutiny for obtaining search warrants.

Third, the department now requires that EMS and/or paramedics be at the scene where forced entry warrants are used.

In the lawsuit against the city, Taylor’s family alleged that the 26-year-old was not given any medical attention and was left to die in the apartment. Officials countered the claim, saying they tended to Taylor as soon as they could, though they didn’t initially know she was injured since everything happened in the dark. The coroner told the New York Times that the injuries were so severe that Taylor likely died in less than a minute. Still, the family maintains that immediate medical attention should have been provided. The police department even confirmed that “it is common practice” for officers to request medical help before executing high-risk warrants.

Still, the very presence of paramedics at sites where forced entry warrants are to be used could suggest the expectation that someone will be harmed. Perhaps the presence of EMS workers could have saved Taylor’s life, as her attorneys say, but this would not have changed the fact that she was already the victim of excessive force the moment officers stormed in and started shooting.

Louisville is behind on police accountability measures

To foster accountability, LMPD will implement the police integrity software IAPro, which will track use of force incidents, citizen complaints, and investigations, among other events. According to the department’s standard operating procedures document, the department had previously used the system to identify “work-related problematic behavioral patterns among members.” And now, according to Mayor Fischer, LMPD will take steps to reactivate it. Vox contacted Fischer’s office about why and when the system was deactivated but has not received a response.

“Early intervention systems have been viewed as a key cornerstone of police supervision and accountability for quite some time,” said Schwartz. “The Department of Justice, in its investigations and consent decrees with police departments, has recommended this for well over probably two decades.”

Schwartz notes that as the department plans to reimplement this tracking system, it’s also important to consider exactly what the department is tracking, who is doing the tracking, and how well. According to Fischer, the warning system will be monitored through the Office of the Inspector General.

Brett Hankison, the only officer to be terminated during the Taylor investigation, had a record of sexual assault allegations against him that were all dismissed. Meanwhile, Hankison is also being sued by a man who says Hankison harasses suspects with unnecessary arrests and by planting drugs on them. While the system will formally track such complaints, the allegations against Hankison were already known — and didn’t bar him from staying on the job.

Drug testing could identify others forms of police misconduct

The department plans to negotiate in 2021 with the Fraternal Order of Police that they expand random drug testing to make sure every officer is tested at least once a year. The department also plans to negotiate with the FOP that they expand the kinds of records that live in an officer’s file.

According to Schwartz, there have been instances in which police officers on prescription medications like Xanax have been impaired on the job. Regular testing can help the department identify officers with substance abuse issues as well.

But drug testing just once a year is a low bar, according to Schwartz. And it remains to be seen how much the FOP will push back on these and other issues.

The reforms are a start and the monetary settlement is significant

The settlement was announced as Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron and the FBI continue criminal investigations of the three officers who fired their weapons into Taylor’s apartment. While the results of the criminal investigation are important, the significance of the settlement should not be downplayed, said Schwartz, especially as the current movement for Black lives has left many questioning the effectiveness of America’s criminal justice system.

“Criminal prosecution and civil litigation accomplish different goals. Criminal prosecutions are intended to punish officers, to deter future criminal behavior. I don’t view criminal prosecution as the only answer for a lot of questions,” said Schwartz. “We must be careful about relying on prosecution and the criminal justice system for deterrence.”

Civil litigation, and the statues under which these officers and departments were sued, were created in the years after the Civil War to remedy racism and police and Ku Klux Klan killings of Black people in the South, according to Schwartz.

“There’s no way that Breonna Taylor’s family can be made whole, but we shouldn’t overlook the importance of compensating the families of people who have been harmed or killed, and civil suits do that in a way that criminal prosecutions don’t,” Schwartz said.

To create lasting community change, meaningful reforms should also be a component of civil settlements. But the reforms presented in Louisville are so far only scratching the surface of problems that run deep through policing’s core.

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