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Why the Justice Department made a move in the police killing of Breonna Taylor

It’s been more than two years since police shot the 26-year-old in her home.

A framed snapshot of Breonna Taylor, lying beside a red rose.
A photo of Breonna Taylor at the Defend Black Women March in Black Lives Matter Plaza on July 30, 2022, in Washington, DC.
Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Frontline Action Hub
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.

More than two years after Breonna Taylor’s death, the police officers involved in seeking the warrant that led to her killing have finally been charged — by the federal Justice Department.

In an unexpected announcement on Thursday, the department charged four current and former Louisville Metro Police Department officers with federal crimes in connection with the police shooting of Breonna Taylor.

Police officers shot and killed the 26-year-old Black woman in her home on March 13, 2020, in Louisville, Kentucky, while executing a search warrant connected to a drug investigation. Taylor was asleep when the officers barged into her apartment that night with a “no-knock warrant” and fired 32 shots.

The police killing incited national protests that have continued for more than two years. Kentucky prosecutors did not charge any of the police officers with Taylor’s death. One officer was indicted for wanton endangerment for firing into a neighboring apartment, but in March a jury found him not guilty. The city settled a $12 million lawsuit with Taylor’s family in 2020, and in 2021, the Justice Department launched an investigation into allegations of systemic misconduct on the part of the Louisville Police Department.

Now the Justice Department alleges that members of the Louisville Metro Police Department Place-Based Investigations Unit, which police say was formed to reduce violence in a high-crime area but has faced scrutiny for being an alleged “rogue police unit,” falsified the affidavit that was used to obtain the search warrant of Taylor’s home. To get the search warrant, the officers made false statements, omitted facts, and relied on stale information, the department argues. Then, prosecutors say, after Taylor was killed, they conspired to cover up their actions.

At a press conference, Attorney General Merrick Garland said that this act violated federal civil rights laws. “Breonna Taylor should be alive today,” Garland said.

The first indictment charges former detective Joshua Jaynes and current sergeant Kyle Meany with federal civil rights and obstruction offenses for preparing and approving a false search warrant affidavit.

The second indictment charges former detective Brett Hankison with civil rights offenses for firing his service weapon into Taylor’s home through a covered window and covered glass door. The department is also charging current detective Kelly Goodlett with conspiring with Jaynes to falsify the search warrant and cover up their actions afterward.

Social justice activists called the announcement a victory, though many acknowledged the criminal charges would never be able to undo the harm done. Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, wrote, “They said it couldn’t and wouldn’t be done but they didn’t know I could and would stand for 874 days,” noting the number of days that have passed since Taylor’s death.

Since police are rarely prosecuted for shooting civilians while on the job, the Justice Department’s decision to charge the officers is uncommon. Here’s what the decision could mean for the fight for justice for Breonna Taylor, and for the four current and former officers.

What the charges mean

On March 13, Louisville police had a warrant to enter and search Taylor’s home because they believed a suspect in their drug investigation was receiving packages at Taylor’s home. However, the man they were searching for, Jamarcus Glover — a man Taylor dated years ago but did not maintain a friendship with — did not reside in Taylor’s apartment and was detained elsewhere.

The Justice Department alleges that the search warrant was invalid. Jaynes and Meany willfully deprived Taylor of her constitutional rights when they drafted and approved a false affidavit to obtain a search warrant for Taylor’s home, according to the department.

The indictment alleges that both men knew the affidavit “contained false and misleading statements, omitted material facts, relied on stale information and was not supported by probable cause,” according to the DOJ’s statement. It also alleges that because Jaynes and Meany knew the search warrant would be carried out by armed officers, they also knew that it could create a deadly situation for the officers and anyone inside Taylor’s home.

On March 12, 2020, officers from the Place-Based Investigations Unit sought five search warrants that they claimed were related to suspected drug trafficking in the West End area of Louisville. Four of the search warrants were for that neighborhood, but the fifth was for Taylor’s home, located 10 miles away from the West End, according to the Justice Department.

The indictment goes on to allege that the affidavit falsely claimed the officers had verified their target in the alleged drug trafficking operation, Glover, had received a package at Taylor’s apartment.

The first indictment also charges Jaynes with conspiracy to cover up the false warrant affidavit after Taylor’s death and making false statements to investigators. Jaynes allegedly worked with Goodlett to do so, whom the Justice Department has also charged with conspiracy. The department alleges that the two officers met in a garage in May 2020 and agreed to tell investigators a false story.

And when the warrant was served, the situation turned deadly.

The officers who conducted the search were unaware of the false and misleading statements used to obtain the warrant, according to the Justice Department. When they arrived at Taylor’s apartment that night, they broke down the door. Taylor was at home with her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, who owned a handgun. Believing an intruder was entering the apartment, he fired one shot and struck the first officer at the door. Two officers — Jonathan Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove then immediately fired a total of 22 shots into the apartments, one of which struck Taylor in the chest and killed her.

The Justice Department has brought charges against just one of the officers — Hankison — who fired that night. The two civil rights charges against Hankison contained in the second indictment allege that he used “unconstitutionally excessive force” when he fired his weapon into Taylor’s apartment.

He fired 10 more shots after Taylor had already been shot. His bullets traveled through Taylor’s apartment and through the wall to her neighbor’s apartment. Hankison’s actions “involved an attempt to kill,” the department alleges.

Why all of the officers previously walked free

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, the special prosecutor who led the state’s investigation of the police shooting, only recommended charges of wanton endangerment to the grand jury for Hankison, one of three officers who fired shots into Taylor’s apartment.

As I wrote in 2020, “that single charge was the only one jurors were allowed to consider” and it was about endangering the neighbors, not Taylor or her boyfriend. Jurors weren’t asked to consider whether any of the officers committed murder or manslaughter in regard to Taylor. While the grand jury indicted Hankison on the wanton endangerment charges in September 2020, a jury found him not guilty of all three counts.

The Justice Department’s new charges against Hankison alleged excessive use of force with respect to Taylor and her boyfriend, which was not included in Kentucky’s case. The Justice Department has already been leading a civil investigation into the Louisville Metro Government and the Louisville Metro Police Department, which Garland announced in April 2021, to examine allegations of systemic police misconduct.

Taylor’s name became, and remains, a rallying cry for racial justice efforts across the world. The killing also renewed focus on the #SayHerName movement, which seeks to draw attention to the many Black women who are killed at the hands of police but are typically ignored in the fight for justice.

The $12 million settlement between Louisville and Taylor’s family included a set of policing reforms, such as sending social workers to assist police and incentivizing police officers to live in the communities that they patrol. In the wake of the killing, the Louisville Metro Council also unanimously voted to pass “Breonna’s Law,” which bans the use of no-knock warrants.

The civil rights charges carry a maximum sentence of life in prison if the violation involves an attempt to kill or results in death. The obstruction counts carry a maximum sentence of 20 years, and the conspiracy counts and false-statements charge carry a maximum sentence of five years.