The fight for justice in the Breonna Taylor case, explained

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Breonna Taylor in an undated family photo. She was fatally shot in her apartment by Louisville police on March 13. | Justice for Breonna

Taylor was fatally shot in March. The police officers involved in her killing have not been arrested.

It has been 104 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, advocates want to know why charges still haven’t been filed against the officers who shot her dead.

On March 13, officers with a no-knock warrant entered Taylor’s apartment looking for two people suspected of selling drugs, neither of whom was Taylor. Three officers fired more than 20 rounds into the apartment, hitting Taylor at least eight times.

After months of investigation, the Louisville Police Department fired officer Brett Hankison, one of three officers who fired a gun that night, on June 23. But advocates still want to know why Hankison and the two other officers have not been arrested in Taylor’s shooting death.

Taylor’s death took place just three weeks after Ahmaud Arbery’s killing 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, who are alleging excessive force and gross negligence in her death, filed a lawsuit on April 27 against the three officers involved in the shooting.

“I want justice for her,” 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, says he woke up and believed someone was trying to break into the apartment. He fired a shot, hitting an officer in the leg.

Police then fired more than 20 rounds into the apartment. Taylor was hit eight times and died at the scene, USA Today reported. Walker was arrested and charged with attempted murder of a police officer.

Police found no drugs in the apartment, and both Taylor and Walker have no criminal history.

Officer Hankison, meanwhile, has a history of misconduct allegations. He was already facing an ongoing federal lawsuit at the time of Taylor’s death by Kendrick Wilson, who 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. The Louisville Metro Police Department 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 ten days to appeal 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 remains 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 5th 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. After curfew on the evening of May 31, which was imposed because of the protests, 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.

Why there haven’t been arrests in the case so far

Criminal law expert Ronald 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.

However, others 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.

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 has 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 demanded an apology from Louisville council member Jessica Green after she called Taylor’s boyfriend a hero after he was charged with shooting officer 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 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.”

On June 25, a crowd of more than 500 demonstrators, including activists, community members, and celebrities, gathered on the steps of the Kentucky State Capitol in Louisville for a #JusticeForBreonnaTaylor rally, according to the Louisville Courier-Post. 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.”

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