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Why the Breonna Taylor case became a cultural flashpoint

Underlying facts remain unclear, despite months of investigations

Why the Breonna Taylor case became a cultural flashpoint

A demonstration in Brooklyn protesting the death of Breonna Taylor. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A grand jury’s decision on Sept. 23 not to charge three officers with killing Breonna Taylor kicked over an already simmering cauldron of anger, grief, and frustration into the streets of Louisville, Ky. Protesters demanded that all three Louisville Metro Police Department officers who shot at Taylor in her apartment in March be charged with murder.

The grand jury did indict one of the officers with three counts of wanton endangerment for firing his weapon without a clear target and endangering the lives of Taylor’s neighbors. But her family and protesters say the legal results are another reason the black community continues to distrust the country’s legal and justice system. After outcry and a grand juror’s petition, on Oct. 2 Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron released about 20 hours of recordings from the grand jury proceedings.

Since then, Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris have debated the case, and the city of Louisville has released its investigative file to the public.

What happened the early morning of March 13 when Taylor died? Some facts are still unclear. The case grew so controversial in part because of conflicting recollections between police and witnesses, a lack of transparency in the investigation into the case, and inaccurate information shared widely on social media. Unlike the cases of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, no video footage shows what happened in Taylor’s death.

Here’s a summary of who Taylor was, why the police decided to forcibly search her apartment, and what information we have about her death.

Taylor was a 26-year-old emergency room technician whom friends and family described as “easy to love,” a “go-getter,” and “the responsible one.” Her mother was 16 when she was born, and her father was convicted of murder when she was 6. Despite the odds, Taylor was the first in her family to graduate high school on time and attend college, and those who knew her remember her constantly scribbling life goals on Post-it notes and scrapbooks.

Facebook

Breonna Taylor and Kenneth Walker (Facebook)

Taylor had two love interests in her life: Kenneth Walker and Jamarcus Glover. She met Walker on Twitter in 2012 when they were both college students. Then in 2016, she met Glover, a convicted drug dealer whose first arrest occurred in 2008. She went back and forth dating both men at different times throughout the years, until she finally ended her relationship with Glover in February and decided to marry Walker. But between these two complicated relationships, Taylor had several interactions with Glover that caught the attention of police who had been targeting Glover in a narcotics investigation:

  • From January 2016 through January 2020, Glover and his associates called Taylor’s cell phone from jail 48 times, according to an internal police report. She paid at least $7,500 in bail for Glover and one associate between 2017 and 2019.
  • In January 2020, police installed a pole camera overlooking a neighborhood where they suspected heavy drug trafficking. Dozens of cars stopped in front of a house where Glover and his associates allegedly stashed cocaine, fentanyl, marijuana, and prescription pills. One of those cars was registered to Taylor.
  • That same month, police reported seeing Glover walking out of Taylor’s apartment with a “suspected USPS package in his right hand” and then driving to a “known drug house.” Glover had begun listing Taylor’s address as his own around that time.
  • Police placed a GPS tracker on Glover’s car and photographed him making six trips to Taylor’s apartment in January.
  • In February, the camera captured Taylor standing in front of Glover’s house during one of her occasional visits there.
  • Based on these observations, police suspected Taylor was helping Glover hold drugs and money in her apartment.

The investigation that led to Taylor’s death began as an attempt at police reform after local black residents complained about decades of aggressive policing against blacks. In April 2019, the community erupted when Louisville officers pulled over an 18-year-old high-school homecoming king for making a wide turn onto another street. The video of the officers frisking and handcuffing the black boy on the streets captured more than 1 million views.

Since then, the Louisville department has shifted from conducting frequent traffic stops, which tend to disproportionately burden black males, to focusing instead on high-crime locations under a new unit called Place-Based Investigations. That unit chose to investigate the 2400 block on Elliott Avenue, which has a high concentration of violent crime and vacant properties—and is also where Glover allegedly operated.

The investigation culminated in the early afternoon of March 12, when police obtained five no-knock search warrants, including one for Taylor’s apartment. Police typically seek no-knock warrants when they believe alerting suspects of their presence would allow them to escape, assault officers, or get rid of evidence.

Police planned multiple raids that night. While some officers raided Taylor’s apartment, other teams conducted three no-knock raids on Elliott Avenue and found large amounts of illegal drugs, cash, digital scales, and weapons. Police arrested Glover and four others.

But before raiding Taylor’s apartment, officers on scene said they were told to knock and announce themselves because Taylor was a “soft target.” She had no criminal record except for a 2012 shoplifting charge that was later dismissed. Her only connection to the narcotics ring was her intimate relationship with Glover and photographs of them visiting each other.

The raid early on March 13 is when facts get murky.

Around 12:40 a.m., undercover officers pounded on Taylor’s door. The officers wore plain clothes and tactical vests. According to grand jury recordings, one officer told investigators he was wearing a body camera, but he didn’t realize it did not activate.

Undercover officers watching Taylor’s residence say they did not see Walker and Taylor return to her apartment together that night after a steak dinner date. They expected Taylor to be alone, unarmed, so they turned away an ambulance on standby an hour before the raid, breaching standard practice.

But Walker was in bed with Taylor when they heard loud banging on the door. Officers say after they knocked, they repeatedly announced themselves, yelling, “Police, please come to the door!” But Walker told investigators that neither he nor Taylor heard anyone identify themselves. Walker told investigators that Taylor twice called out loudly, “Who is it?” but heard no response except the ruckus on the door.

According to lawyers and The New York Times, about a dozen witnesses corroborate Walker’s account, saying they heard the knocking and gunshots but not the police identifying themselves. Only one witness said he heard the officers yell out “police” only once. But according to Walker’s attorney and the grand jury recordings, that witness had changed his story two months after he first attested he did not hear the police announce themselves.

As the banging continued, Walker said, he and Taylor jumped out of bed, got dressed, and crept down the hallway toward the door. Walker, a licensed gun owner with no criminal record, grabbed his 9 mm Glock. He later told police he was worried it was Glover trying to break in. The police then burst into the apartment with a battering ram.

That was when Walker fired a single shot. Walker told investigators he didn’t know it was the police. He faced criminal charges of attempted murder and assault, but those charges were dismissed on May 22 due to a lack of evidence. Under Kentucky law, he had a legal right to defend himself.

The officers—who also had a right to defend themselves—fired back a barrage of bullets. Five struck Taylor. At some point, a bullet hit one officer, Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly, in the leg and severed his femoral artery.

Another officer, former detective Brett Hankison, ran to the parking lot and fired 10 rounds into Taylor’s ground-level apartment through her patio sliding-glass door and window. Blinds covered the door and window, which meant Hankison was shooting blindly. Bullets ripped through apartment walls and into the unit behind Taylor’s, where a pregnant woman and her 5-year-old son were sleeping. According to a Kentucky State Police ballistics analysis, there is no conclusive evidence that any of Hankison’s bullets hit Taylor.

Louisville Police Department via AP

Brett Hankison (Louisville Police Department via AP)

The department fired Hankison in June for shooting blindly when he most likely had no self-defense claim. The grand jury indicted him on three counts of wanton endangerment. If found guilty, he could serve up to five years in prison for each count.

During the chaos, Walker frantically called 911. “I don’t know what is happening,” he told a dispatcher: “Somebody kicked in the door and shot my girlfriend.” Meanwhile, officers scrambled to get Sgt. Mattingly medical help. (He’s now making a full recovery.)

Taylor died at 12:48 a.m., according to the coroner’s time of death.

Police never found drugs or cash in Taylor’s apartment.

Since then, Taylor’s name has become a rallying cry for people protesting police brutality and racial injustice. Both former first lady Michelle Obama and Democratic vice president candidate Kamala Harris mentioned her name in speeches, and high-profile celebrities from Oprah Winfrey to Beyoncé brought attention to Taylor’s story. Her young face smiles from billboards and murals and the covers of magazines.

Since the end of May, protesters have swarmed Louisville streets chanting “Say Her Name!” They demand nothing less than murder or manslaughter charges for the three officers involved in the shooting.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP

Protesters in Chicago over the decision by a grand jury not to indict police officers for the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

Some significant changes have followed: Louisville’s police chief retired. The FBI launched its own independent investigation. The city banned the use of no-knock warrants. In a settlement with Taylor’s family, the city agreed to make several reforms and pay $12 million to Taylor’s family, an unprecedented monetary amount for such a case.

But to protesters, the momentum ended with the grand jury’s decision on Sept. 23. Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron acknowledged the tragedy of a life lost, but he said his job was to “put emotions aside and investigate the facts to determine if criminal violations of state law resulted in the loss of Miss Taylor’s life.” Those facts back the grand jury’s decision not to charge the officers with murder, he said: “According to Kentucky law, the use of force by [the officers] was justified to protect themselves. This justification bars us from pursuing criminal charges in Miss Breonna Taylor’s death.” He added: “Justice is not often easy. It does not fit the mold of public opinion. And it does not conform to shifting standards. It answers only to the facts and to the law.”

Most legal experts agree with Cameron that it was legally correct not to charge officers for Taylor’s death and to charge Hankison only with wanton endangerment. But critics ask: If Taylor was not a violent threat, why didn’t police call her out of the apartment with a megaphone instead of ramming her door open at midnight? They wonder why the judge signed off on a possibly illegal no-knock warrant for Taylor’s home. The officer who filed the warrant made false statements in it about Glover picking up packages at Taylor’s apartment. With no audio or video proof, critics doubt law enforcement’s side of the story.

Whose bullet wounded Mattingly is still under contention: Cameron said it was Walker’s gun that injured Mattingly, but the ballistics report says the bullet is neither “identified nor eliminated as having been fired” from Walker’s gun.

Many protesters, already convinced the system is unjust, wonder if the attorney general misled the grand jury. Two days after the grand jury verdict, Taylor’s mother Tamika Palmer wrote a letter expressing a sentiment shared by many in the black community: “I was reassured Wednesday of why I have no faith in the legal system, in the police, in the law—that are not made to protect us black and brown people. When I speak on it, I’m considered an angry black woman. But know this: I am an angry black woman. I am not angry for the reasons that you would like me to be. But angry because our black women keep dying at the hands of police officers.”

Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Attorney Ben Crump and Tamika Palmer, mother of Breonna Taylor, after a news conference in Louisville, Kentucky. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Cameron at first refused to release details of the grand jury proceedings. He later acknowledged that prosecutors hadn’t asked the grand jury to consider murder charges against Hankison, only the wanton endangerment charges.

After releasing the grand jury recordings, Cameron defended his case once again in a statement: “I’m confident that once the public listens to the recordings, they will see that our team presented a thorough case to the Jefferson County Grand Jury. … While it is unusual for a court to require the release of recordings from Grand Jury proceedings, we complied with the order, rather than challenging it, so that the full truth can be heard.”

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband. Follow her on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

Comments

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  • NBrooks
    Posted: Fri, 10/09/2020 08:10 pm

    Well, that did nothing to clear the mud. 

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Wed, 10/21/2020 12:38 pm

    Good job Sophia! You did a very thorough and careful job in reporting which I thank you for doing.

    Were the police there to harass black people? No, they were there trying to eliminate a drug dealer who was preying on the weak and vulnerable of the community. The police had the unpleasant task of going into the home risking their lives to catch this drug dealer. From other reports that I heard, the woman was handling the money of the drug dealing so she wasn't as innocent as reported. The money was actually going into her account. 
     

    We pay the police to handle these difficult situations and the reality is that they don't always go well so we shouldn't look at prosecuting police unless they do something totally aggregious.  Firing at a drug dealer who is firing at you is not aggregious. Having lived in a community where the youth are taught to hate the police, I would not expect them to necessarily tell the truth about the police. I find it peculiar that many would take the word of a drug dealer over the word of the police. 
     

    It is time that we got back to the job of respecting police, and not focus on isolated cases which don't represent the norm. Police are not racist where many are black and Hispanic. What angers me the most is the injustice committed against young black men who are fed lies about police trying to kill black men. In anger, some young black men will shoot and kill police, where they will go to prison for life in many cases. Essentially, these young men are fed a lie about police and they ruin their lives getting revenge! If we care about black lives, we should be angry anytime the press fans the flames by representing the rare incidences where a black person is killed as the norm!  

    10/21 I got one point wrong. The guy staying with her was not the guy wanted by police. He was not the drug dealer but she had recent contact with the drug dealer based on reports.

  • FC
    Posted: Mon, 10/12/2020 05:59 pm

    I was always of the opinion that none of the officers would be indicted (did not know about the officer who fired back at everybody and anybody including a neighbor).  What I am about to say does not go to the systemic racism that resulted in this raid.  What I read was they had a warrant (not a "no-knock" warrant).  And according to a neighbor they did hear the police announce who they were.  Whether Breonna or her live-in boyfriend heard it is debatable – they said, he said.  The fact that the boyfriend admitted firing the first shot at what he thought were intruders (he had a legal permit to own the gun) but were police officers serving a legal warrant trumped all potential criminal recourse.  Sadly, the response by the police was so violent it took Breonna’s life, but that is what police will do when you shoot at them first, and courts have said (right or wrong) constitutes a justifiable response.  Going to initial statement that it does not address the systemic racism that allowed for the warrant in the first place since the perp they were looking for had not lived there for months, and was already in custody.  It is regrettable Breonna lost her life.  But the moral of the story is - depending on who you believe - do not shoot a gun at a police officer.  It may not end well.  And do not expect an indictment if the facts are in question.

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Tue, 10/13/2020 06:17 pm

    Please explain what is the systemic racism that went into this raid?

  • Big Jim
    Posted: Thu, 10/22/2020 02:04 am

    "But angry because our black women keep dying at the hands of police officers.”

    Is there any factual evidence to support this statement? How many black women have been dying at the hands of police officers? I can understand and sympathize with this woman who just lost her daughter in horrific circumstances. But that sounds like a wild and unsubstantiated statement.

  • BLW
    Posted: Sun, 10/25/2020 03:55 pm

    According to the Washington Post Police Shootings Database from 1/1/2015 - 10/202020 a total of 7 unarmed Black women were killed by police in the United States.  You can set filters by sex, race, and weapon of the person killed.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-...

    We pray for all lost, but the focus is incorrect and harmful to the country and the people in it.