The brutal March 13, 2020, murder of 26-year-old ER tech Breonna Taylor in her home in Louisville, Kentucky, by local police has become another tragic entry in the history of brutality and systemic racism in American policing. The delay in justice for Ms. Taylor’s family, like so many other families who have survived institutional murder, remains a shameful embarrassment to the social decency this nation professes to represent. Although the Taylor family has settled a civil suit arising from Breonna’s killing, to date, no officers involved in the incident have been prosecuted.
The details leading up to Breonna’s killing are disturbing, but not unusual. In the hours preceding Taylor’s death, Louisville police detective Joshua Jaynes sought and secured search warrants for five suspected drug houses. One of those warrants was for the Taylor residence.
The warrants, based on Jaynes’s affidavits, were issued by Jefferson County Circuit Judge Mary Shaw. Judge Shaw’s deliberative process before signing the warrants that permitted a “no-knock” entry into the designated residences is unclear and may never be known. Detective Jones presented five affidavits for warrants, and Judge Shaw approved all five in 12 minutes. These warrants are done perfunctorily, heard in short order, and without a court reporter in courts throughout the country. It is not uncommon for law enforcement officials to lie and commit perjury in search warrant affidavits.
Investigator’s Affidavit Called Into Question
Breonna Taylor and Jamarcus Glover were named in Jaynes’ affidavits, which allowed the police to search the premises, automobiles and persons of both. In a sworn affidavit, the detective stated that he witnessed Glover, the police search operation’s main target that night, received a “suspicious package” at the Taylor residence. US postal inspectors have denied this fact, supporting Ms. Taylor’s lawyers’ contention that the warrant was obtained with false information.
Neither Taylor nor her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, who was at the apartment when police executed the warrant, had any criminal history involving drugs. The target of Jaynes’ investigation, Jamarcus Glover, was found at another location and was already in custody when the police conducted the raid at the Taylor residence.
Based on publicly available reports, we now know the events surrounding the killing of Breonna Taylor.
In the early morning hours of March 13, Taylor and Walker were asleep in a bedroom in the Taylor residence when Walker heard pounding at the front door. He did not hear anyone announce “police” or give any other indication that the individuals responsible for the pounding were law enforcement.
Assuming intruders were trying to stage a home invasion, Walker immediately, and well within his legal right to do, grabbed his lawfully licensed personal firearm and fired one shot. The bullet struck police Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly in the leg. Mattingly and his two fellow search team officers—Brett Hankinson and Myles Gosgrove—returned fire with their weapons. Altogether, the officers fired more than 20 indiscriminate rounds into the residence, eight of which struck Taylor. Hankinson was fired after it was determined he “wantonly and blindly” shot ten rounds through the patio door with an obstructed view. An act that was described by the chief of police as conduct that was a “shock to the conscience.” Ms. Taylor received no medical attention for over 20 minutes. She would die lying in the hallway of her home while Walker unsuccessfully begged for assistance from 911.
Based on the evidence accumulated in the public record, Breonna Taylor did not either sell or purchase any drugs at any time from Jamarcus Glover or anyone else. Kenneth Walker had no history with Glover, nor was he involved in the drug trade in Louisville.
Justified Self Defense, Castle Doctrine
Kenneth Walker was within his rights at the time he shot at police. IN 2006, Kentucky became a “Castle Doctrine” state (allowing a homeowner to assume anyone trying to break in their home is intent on causing harm). In effect, so long as a person is not involved in criminal activity, they have a legal right to use lethal force to protect themselves against an intruder in their home. There is no duty to retreat. As is the case in Kentucky, Castle Doctrine laws provide both criminal and civil immunity from liability if the home dweller either harms or kills someone in defense of their home or person.
True Castle Doctrine laws have set up an inevitable conflict between the police’s authority to search and the homeowner’s right to protect themselves and their property.
“Knock and Announce” vs. “No-Knock”
The Fourth Amendment generally requires the police to knock and announce their presence before entering a residence to execute a search warrant. However, there are exceptions to the “knock and announce” requirement. To justify a “no-knock” entry, “the police must have a reasonable suspicion that knocking and announcing their presence, under the particular circumstances, would be dangerous or futile, or that it would inhibit the effective investigation of the crime by, for example, allowing the destruction of evidence.”
Sgt. Mattingly has said that his team knocked and announced they were the “police” before attempting entry into the Taylor residence. However, Detective Jaynes had specifically secured a “no-knock” warrant for that residence. In fact, the warrant specifically had a no-knock clause approved by Judge Shaw. Thus, it can be reasonably assumed that the search/invasion team followed the no-knock protocols; that is, forced entry before announcing themselves as police.
The bottom line is this:
It is common for home dwellers not to hear the police when they undertake a “knock and announce” search. It is even more common for home dwellers to be too frightened to hear anything when the police use a battering ram to knock down a residence door in the middle of the night before announcing their presence.
Three takeaways in this tragic case are evident from the public record:
The Jaynes affidavit(s) contained false information; the search/raid team did not make its law enforcement presence completely known; and the search team used indiscriminate, excessive force when they fired more than 20 rounds into the Taylor residence in response to the single-shot fired at their no-knock entry.
What is particularly shameful about the Breonna Taylor case is that a grand jury was not impaneled to hear the case until earlier this month—some five months after the fatal botched raid on Ms. Taylor’s home and after cries from millions across the country for justice.
It also took Republican Kentucky Attorney General Dale Cameron, whose office his handling the Taylor raid investigation, more than 150 days to meet with and express condolences to the Taylor family for their loss. This despite the fact that there have been massive national and international protests surrounding the police homicide of Breonna Taylor.
In the wake of the public outcry in response to the killing of Breonna Taylor, The Louisville Metro Council passed Breonna’s Law, which banned the use of no-knock warrants and set new guidelines for the execution of search warrants. The killing of Breonna Taylor has also forced a bipartisan effort in the Kentucky legislature to curb the use of “no-knock” warrants except in the most extreme circumstances.
Settlement In Wrongful Death Case
On September 15, 2020, without acknowledging any wrongdoing, the City of Louisville finally announced that it had agreed to a $12 million civil settlement with the Breonna Taylor family—one of the largest settlements ever reached in a police killing case. The settlement also included the following changes to police procedures in applying for and executing search warrants:
- Police must conduct an extensive risk assessment before applying for a warrant;
- The police must have body cameras turned on when there is a seizure, counting, and confiscation of money during a search;
- The police will be given two hours of paid time each week for community service; and
- The City will hire more mental health experts to ride with the police when responding to certain domestic calls.
The Taylor family accepted the civil settlement as a final judgment for monetary relief but insisted that justice will be not be served until the officers involved in the fatal shooting are indicted and held criminally liable.
We agree. It is a vital component of real criminal justice reform that police officers involved in illegal activity be held accountable both civilly and criminally. We must abolish qualified immunity for police misconduct that shields them from money damages and seek prosecution and incarceration of police officers who perpetrate violence against the communities they serve.