Oct 2, 2020 | By Reed Schaefer | Illustration by Patil Khakhamian
Last Wednesday, a Kentucky grand jury indicted one of the three Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD) officers involved in the March 2020 fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor. Detective Brett Hankison, who was already terminated in June, is charged with three counts of wanton endangerment for the several shots he fired that went into neighboring apartments. The grand jury did not charge Jonathan Mattingly or Myles Cosgrave, the other two officers who discharged their weapons that night, and none of the three face charges for Breonna Taylor’s death or for any of the shots fired in her apartment.
In response to the grand jury’s findings, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron said, “Sometimes the law, the criminal law, is not adequate to respond to a tragedy. According to Kentucky law, the use of force by Mattingly and Cosgrave was justified to protect themselves.”
Many, myself included, feel cheated by last Wednesday’s decision. Breonna Taylor should not have died six months ago, and it does not feel like justice is served if no one is responsible for her death.
By now, the story of that night is well known. Shortly before 1 a.m. on March 13, a group of officers in LMPD’s Place-Based Investigations (PBI) Unit went to search Breonna Taylor’s apartment with a no-knock warrant. Officers said they announced themselves before entering, but Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, said he did not hear them, and of all the neighbors in the apartment building, only one has reported hearing the officers announce themselves.
After no one came to the door, the officers broke it down and entered the apartment. Walker said he thought someone was breaking in, so he ran to protect himself with his licensed gun. Although Walker said he purposely aimed a warning shot at the floor, he shot Mattingly’s leg.
The officers then proceeded to open fire on the apartment, unloading 32 bullets into the apartment. There is no body cam footage from any of the officers from that night, even though the city requires them to be worn when serving a warrant. Breonna Taylor was hit six times and was killed. Officers did not find any drugs or other suspicious items in the apartment.
The fact that no officer is being held accountable is extremely frustrating, but the sad truth is that in many ways, it is not surprising. This case is not an isolated incident and can even be seen as the system “working as it should.” By system here, I mean the set of institutional and legal setup/arrangements of local government and law enforcement. This leads us to the conclusion that it is the system itself that needs to be reworked.
Targeting Breonna Taylor’s house was part of a larger narcotics investigation led by the newly formed PBI group. The PBI Unit was looking for drugs and cash they suspected Breonna Taylor was holding in her house for her ex-boyfriend, Jamarcus Glover.
Glover, a convicted felon, had been a regular visitor at four houses that were other targets of the PBI investigations. While Breonna Taylor and Glover had broken up weeks earlier, the police believed that Taylor was holding cash for Glover in her house.
PBI’s investigation targeted people and homes on Elliott Avenue specifically as part of a community policing strategy linked to drug and arms trafficking. The Louisville mayor has also instituted a housing reform plan that replaces the low-income housing with mixed-income housing that could not be afforded by many in the community. One result will be the displacement of people in the predominantly Black neighborhoods.
Peter Kraska, professor of Criminology at Eastern Kentucky University, says that despite only 23% of Louisville’s population being Black, at least 80% of the raids were conducted against Black homes and private residences. Kraska also said that these raids rarely result in large busts — and about 40% of the time, nothing is found.
Dr. Kraska described two main factors that incentivize local police to conduct raids of private residences. The first is cultural — that officers like the thrill of being militarized and deployed on the largest busts. The second is monetary. Raids are the easiest way to conduct civil asset forfeiture, which is one of the fastest ways for the police department to profit, beside the set funding from the federal defense budget. Police are given “unprecedented” access to any cash and property that they confiscate. Between 2017 and 2019, the LMPD sized $2.3 million in cash and kept $1.8 million of that total.
In the aftermath of her death, ‘Breonna’s Law’ passed, which eliminated no-knock warrants in Louisville. But the problem here does not stem from tactics alone. Accountability and transparency are other problem areas highlighted by this case.
David James, President of Louisville Metro Council, has been investigating the LMPD due to reports of lack of accountability and transparency within the police force. James does not think the police force is capable of holding itself accountable, especially at the top of command, where it matters the most.
He even suggested that time and time again, the LMPD tries to cover up its officers’ behavior. James cited molestation incidents in 2017 and 2019, which the department denied, even though two officers are now serving time in the federal penitentiary for the crimes.
He also cited an example from January of this year when LMPD officers were caught stealing overtime pay. The department again had denied allegations, but now the officers involved are in the federal penitentiary as well.
Further, all three officers who were involved with the Breonna Taylor case have been subject to previous LMPD investigations. Hankison, who was charged with wanton endangerment, has previous citations for violating rules and regulation, harassment, and sexual assault.
The department almost always ruled in his favor, and in 2012, he was even elected to serve on the Police Merit Board, which is in charge of deciding on issues of police misconduct.
At least two of Hankison’s violations occurred while he served this post. Hankison was on the Police Merit Board until June 23, 2020, when he was fired. This is a clear example of a system designed to shy away from accountability.
Richard Gibbs, a former LMPD officer who retired in 2015 after speaking out about unchecked misconduct he witnessed in LMPD, said that, “I don’t even feel good, as I used to feel, about being a police officer.” He also said that officers regularly abused their power, primarily in their use of force, but also through jokes about abuses of power, and suggested that sometimes they even plant drugs during their arrests.
Gibbs said that he never felt comfortable going to the Chief and reporting racism or unfairness. When he did provide an incriminating testimony during an internal affairs investigation on a fellow officer for excessive use of force, the Colonel kept suggesting that he change his testimony. After the investigation, the other officer was promoted and Officer Gibbs was blackballed and barred from opportunities after that.
We cannot leave Breonna Taylor’s death feeling cheated; we must embrace the passion we feel and use it to fight for change in our policing system. Through our fight, we can make changes to hold the police more accountable for their actions, reform the tactics that are employed by police, and uproot the power structures that provide unchecked power to police officers.