Breonna Taylor died on March 13, 2020, after Louisville police officers broke the door of her apartment off its hinges and fired dozens of bullets in her direction. Police claimed that they knocked before breaking down the door. But Taylor’s boyfriend said the couple heard no knock and thought their home was being invaded. The boyfriend said he grabbed a gun and fired a warning shot to stop the invasion. Police officers then fired 32 shots into the small apartment, at least six of which hit Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician who was pronounced dead at the scene. Her killing sparked a national outcry against police violence, as Taylor’s name became closely linked with that of George Floyd Jr., who was murdered on May 25, 2020, by a Minneapolis police officer.
After these two high-profile cases involving police killings of a Black man and Black woman drew national attention in 2020, however, the pursuit of justice took starkly different routes.
In Minnesota, where progressive Democratic Attorney General Keith Ellison took charge of the prosecution, Floyd’s killer, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, was found guilty on charges of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter.
In Kentucky, conservative Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron was in control of the inquiry. Cameron concluded in the fall of 2020 that the use of force by the Louisville Metro Police Department officers that led to Taylor’s death was “justified” under Kentucky law. No charges would be brought against the officer whose shots were determined to have killed Taylor. Indeed, the only charges recommended that fall to a grand jury by Cameron were against an officer who was accused of endangering Taylor’s neighbors.
Cameron’s refusal to seek justice for Breonna Taylor sparked widespread criticism. As former state representative Charles Booker (D-Louisville) said after the 2020 grand jury announcement, “Justice failed us today. It failed us in a way that it has been failing us for generations.”
But the anger over his actions hasn’t done much political harm to the ambitious protégé of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). At least, not among Kentucky Republicans. On Tuesday, Cameron swept to victory in the state’s gubernatorial primary. Running with the endorsement of former president Donald Trump, the Republican won almost 50 percent of the vote against a crowded field of equally conservative contenders. Cameron, who, if elected, would become the state’s first Black governor, will now face off against Democratic incumbent Andy Beshear in November in what is likely to be the most hotly contested gubernatorial campaign of 2023.
In a just world, Cameron’s handling of the Taylor case would loom large in the campaign.
The attorney general’s record is appalling. After his failure to take the case seriously provoked a public outcry in the fall of 2020—including mass protests in Louisville—Cameron tried to deflect the criticism by claiming that the grand jury could have chosen on its own to take bolder action to hold the officers to account. But a statement from a juror revealed that Cameron never informed the jurors that they had the option of seeking homicide charges against the officers.
“Only because a brave member of that grand jury asked for permission to issue a statement and [Jefferson Circuit Court] Judge [Annie] O’Connell ruled on the side of transparency do we have this confirmation of AG Cameron’s dereliction of duties,” declared civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump when details regarding Cameron’s inaction were revealed in October 2020. “It is a despicable miscarriage of justice that is disrespectful to the life of Breonna Taylor that AG Cameron whitewashed what his office presented to the grand jury.”
Other jurors said there was an “uproar” when they realized that the officers would not be held to account. “Was justice done? No,” said one of the jurors. “I feel that there was quite a bit more that could have been done or should have been presented for us to deliberate on.”
In 2022, the US Department of Justice charged four current and former Louisville police officers with federal civil rights violations, including lying to obtain a search warrant for the raid on Taylor’s apartment—in stark contrast to Cameron’s hands-off attitude.
Beshear has been critical of Cameron’s secretive and confusing approach to the Taylor case since 2020. After the grand jury failed to charge any officers with the actual shooting of Taylor, the governor recognized why people were protesting. “Today, the attorney general announced a mixture of the findings of his investigation and the decisions of the grand jury,” Beshear said of Cameron. “But he talked about information, facts, evidence that neither I nor the general public have seen. I believe that the public deserves this information.”
In press conferences, interviews, and public appearances, the governor pushed for transparency. “Everyone can and should be informed,” he told an October 21, 2020, press conference at the Kentucky Capitol. “And those that are currently feeling frustration, feeling hurt—they deserve to know more.” In an interview with NPR, the governor got specific, saying, “What has happened in a very long investigation, and ultimately a grand jury proceeding here, is that people haven’t seen the basic facts. They’ve been told, for instance, about two ballistics reports. If they’ve been described to the people, let the people see them and read them.”
A defensive Cameron defended his approach as “appropriate.” But Beshear, who also served as Kentucky’s attorney general before his election as governor, expressed frustration with the secrecy surrounding the case and the mixed signals from his successor. “I believe in the specific incident that people want to see and be able to judge the facts for themselves,” he said, before explaining, “Now, obviously, the calls being made in Louisville and around the country are about more than just this individual case. For me, it’s important that I start with humility, knowing that I can never feel the frustration of 400 years of slavery, of segregation, of Jim Crow, but that my job as governor can be to listen, to try to hear and then to be committed to making sure that our future is better than our past.”
Beshear’s no firebrand. He’s a centrist who generally tends to take a cautious approach to governing. But the distinction between his attitude and that of Cameron is worth noting. In addition to pushing for transparency, the governor has acted. In 2021, for instance, he signed a bill limiting the use of no-knock warrants in Kentucky. The bill was a compromise measure that gained bipartisan support. But the governor was blunt in describing why it was necessary. At the signing, Beshear was surrounded by members of Breonna Taylor’s family, including Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer. “I am signing Senate Bill 4 to help ensure no other mother knows Tamika Palmer’s grief at the loss of her daughter Breonna Taylor,” said the governor. “This is meaningful change and it will save lives.”
There was widespread agreement at the time of that bill signing that more needs to be done in Kentucky to advance criminal justice reform and accountability in policing. The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky labeled the measure “an excellent first step in reimagining the role of police in community safety.” The question of whether more steps will be taken should be an issue in this fall’s gubernatorial race. So, too, should be the question of whether Kentuckians agree with Cameron’s claim that the shooting of Breonna Taylor was “justified” under the law, or whether they’re troubled by the fact that, as Charles Booker has suggested, an “arrogant disregard” for Taylor’s humanity resulted in a circumstance where “there’s no accounting for the shots that went into this person, this human being.”