The death of Breonna Taylor was tragic. She was clearly an innocent person whose home was violated by the police. The police officers who killed Taylor escaped punishment, which has understandably generated outrage from her supporters. But I think the outrage is misplaced. While it might be superficially satisfying to hold someone accountable, and the person who pulled the trigger is the obvious choice, justice would not be served by holding an individual responsible for systemic racism.
The problem begins with the war on drugs. People of all races use drugs at very similar rates (based on both surveys and drug deaths), but minorities, especially African Americans, are arrested and imprisoned at much higher rates and for much longer sentences than whites.
Taylor was killed when police working on a drug case against Jamarcus Glover, her ex-boyfriend, executed a “no-knock” warrant on her apartment after midnight in March. No-knock warrants have proven to be very problematic: They intensify police actions by escalating tensions and giving people little time to think. While a raid at such an hour is more likely to catch people at home, it seems particularly unnecessary in this case because the police were only looking to search the house because her ex-boyfriend used to get packages there; they were not trying to catch him at the house.
The police claim they announced themselves prior to breaking down the door, but Taylor’s boyfriend (Kenneth Walker) clearly did not hear them, since after Taylor was shot, he called 911 and said “someone kicked in my door and shot my girlfriend.” Walker was aware of Taylor’s ex-boyfriend and had reason to believe that he was unhappy with Walker’s being with Taylor, so he reasonably assumed that the plainclothes officers breaking down the door might pose a threat to him. He fired a shot (hitting one of the officers), and the police responded with a hail of bullets, five of which hit Taylor. After the exchange of gunfire, the police attended to their downed officer, and did not try to render aid to Taylor for 20 minutes (though according to the coroner, she probably died within five minutes).
When someone shoots a police officer, the justice system tends to come down hard on them, and in this case, the district attorney charged Walker with the attempted murder of a police officer. But under Kentucky law, Walker had done nothing wrong. He had a properly licensed gun and used it to defend himself from what he reasonably saw as a deadly threat. The grand jury rightfully refused to indict Walker.
A different grand jury refused to indict the police officers who shot Taylor. The only person held accountable in this scenario was a third police officer, who was outside the apartment, and when he heard shots, fired 10 times through a glass door (with blinds) into a neighboring apartment, violating department policy prohibiting firing without a clear line of sight to the target. He was fired and charged with wanton endangerment. Ironically, ballistics proved that he could not have killed Taylor.
The judge who signed the no-knock warrant did not consider the need for this case specifically, as required by the Supreme Court; she accepted a warrant that had been cut and pasted from other warrants against the same person but for very different locations. The officers sent away an ambulance that had been stationed nearby ironically because they did not anticipate violence. They did not render aid to Taylor, though it is not clear when they realized she had been shot and it probably would not have made a difference. Their police incident report contained egregious errors (such as saying Taylor had not been injured and no force had been used to enter). The Kentucky attorney general gave very misleading pronouncements about the case, implying Taylor and Walker had been involved in criminal activities. People should be held accountable for these errors, but none justify someone going to jail for murder.
Taylor’s family did win a $12 million settlement from Louisville; such compensation does not bring Taylor back, but it is one way for the city to compensate for the errors of its employees. Such settlements don’t work punitively because they are paid by the taxpayers of the city, not the police officers (or department). One good outcome was that the city has banned the use of no-knock warrants.
Taylor died because of errors made by police aggressively pursuing the goals of a misguided war on drugs. Convicting the officers who shot Taylor for murder would be unjust, and allow us to blame a “few bad apples” and ignore the system that put them in that untenable position in the first place. Those involved (police, the judge, the AG) should be held accountable for their errors; more importantly, justice demands that we work to change the system to reduce the chances of errors leading to future tragedies.
Kent James is an East Washington resident and has degrees in history and policy management from Carnegie Mellon University. He is an adjunct professor of history at Washington & Jefferson College.