On March 13, Breonna Taylor was shot to death in her own home by Louisville, Ky., police officers. She was sleeping when they broke down her door and invaded her home. She was 26 and an EMT.
Police claim they announced themselves before using some type of battering ram to force their way in, but witnesses say the police did not identify themselves as police officers. Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, says he believed they were being robbed and fired a gun at police, striking one officer in the leg. Police responded with a hail of gunfire. The police shot Taylor, who was unarmed, at least eight times, killing her. They then arrested and charged Walker with attempted murder of a police officer.
The police say they were looking for evidence against a suspect in an ongoing narcotics investigation. That suspect lives 10 miles from Taylor’s home. No drugs were found in her apartment.
The Taylor case is garnering national attention because she was an EMT, a person helping to fight the coronavirus pandemic on the front lines, whose only crime was sleeping while black. Her family has retained noted civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump and launched a civil lawsuit against Louisville police. Crump also represents the family of Ahmaud Arbery, last seen being lynched by two white guys in a truck. Taylor’s case is making news because of the unique confluence of her profession, the national mood, and the fact there is a surviving witness to her death who is able to contradict the police’s version of events.
But I do not believe Taylor’s case is unique. Police break into black and brown people’s residences, unannounced, all around the country. I believe that some of those residents attempt to defend themselves from what they think is a home invasion. Police then use that attempted defense as justification for gunning them down. And only when everybody is dead do the police go back and concoct a version of events that makes their actions seem justified. That justification is then fed to reporters who reflexively repeat whatever the police want them to, and white people blithely go about their day thinking that most black people the police shoot to death had it coming for one reason or another.
I believe Taylor’s story happens all the time, and people don’t know that because the news usually reports Taylor’s story this way: “A police officer was shot at while attempting to arrest a suspected drug dealer. One suspect was pronounced dead at the scene, and another was taken into custody. The officer is recovering well from his injuries.”
Here is the original news report in the Louisville Courier-Journal about Taylor’s death. It was published March 13, before national civil rights advocates brought attention to the case, and it was headlined, “LMPD officer shot, woman killed during drug investigation off St. Andrews Church Road.”
A Louisville Metro Police sergeant was shot and wounded and a woman was killed early Friday during a narcotics investigation near St. Andrews Church Road and Doss High School, according to authorities.
Officers were at an apartment on Springfield Drive about 1 a.m. Friday serving a search warrant as part of the narcotics investigation, according to Assistant Police Chief Josh Judah.
As officers arrived at and entered the residence, suspects shot at the officers, Judah said.
Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly was shot in the leg and taken to University of Louisville Hospital, where he underwent surgery and is expected to survive, LMPD officials said at a Friday afternoon press conference.
A female was shot and killed during the encounter after three LMPD officers returned fire, and a suspect was arrested at the scene, Chief Steve Conrad said. She was identified Sunday by the Jefferson County Coroner as Breonna Taylor, 26.
How many people read that and thought the cop was the victim in this encounter? How many people read that and thought that Taylor was either a criminal or mixed up with criminals in some way? Notice the report says “suspects” were shot, implying that Taylor was not only armed but fired at police officers. How many people read “arrived at and entered the residence” and imagined a cop knocking and saying, “Open up, it’s the police,” like on a television show, as opposed to a door being bashed open by unidentified assailants like in an action movie?
How many people read that and thought Taylor’s death, while possibly tragic, was entirely justified?
The Louisville Courier-Journal is singing a different tune now. Here’s its story from May 11.
The family of a decorated Louisville EMT who was fatally shot by police has hired a prominent civil rights attorney with the Black Lives Matter movement in their lawsuit against three officers.
Breonna Taylor, 26, was shot eight times by Louisville Metro Police officers who entered her apartment around 1 a.m. March 13. Police have said the officers were serving a search warrant as part of a narcotics investigation, but no drugs were found at the home.
What a difference two months and national civil rights scrutiny make.
Taylor’s story keeps happening because the cops keep getting away with it. In fact, the reason the Taylor family’s civil lawsuit against these police officers is unlikely to succeed is that recent Supreme Court precedent makes it clear that you cannot sue the cops when they break into your house and shoot you.
That recent case is called County of Los Angeles v. Mendez. I wrote about it in 2017. In that case, members of the Los Angeles Police Department entered a shack that was occupied by a homeless couple; the cops didn’t have a warrant to enter, and they did not announce themselves as police before breaking in. The cops were looking for an armed parolee, but they picked the wrong shack. Inside the shack, Angel Mendez believed he was being robbed and reached for a BB gun. Cops fired 15 shots at Mendez and his pregnant wife, Jennifer Mendez, who was shot in the back.
At a civil trial against the cops, a jury awarded the Mendezes $4 million under California’s provocation rule. The rule said that if a cop’s reckless or unlawful actions resulted in a violent confrontation, victims may recover damages against the police.
But the Supreme Court threw out the verdict, the damage award, and the provocation law itself. The court said the provocation rule was an unconstitutional interpretation of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against illegal searches and seizures.
The decision was unanimous, by the way. The conservatives and liberals got together to deny the Mendezes justice or hold the cops accountable for shooting an unarmed pregnant homeless woman in the back. They then sent the case back down to the Ninth Circuit for reconsideration.
In 2019 the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, on rehearing, was able to reinstate the damage award on different Fourth Amendment grounds, and the Supreme Court declined to reverse the lower court again. But the provocation rule is still out, and the bar to hold police departments accountable for the murders they commit is still nearly impossible to reach.
The Mendezes are unique individuals, just as Taylor was a unique person, but their stories are common. Taylor’s death is a routine way for black people to die in this country, because the country long ago decided that murdering black people is a legal thing for cops to do. Taylor’s death wasn’t a tragic accident; it was the predictable result of a system that does not value black lives.
Almost every major institutional actor in this country chooses to let the cops get away with murder. The media makes this choice every time it decides to reprint a police report, uncritically, as if the cops can be trusted to represent the truth. Judges make this choice when they sign open-ended search warrants or retroactively admit evidence obtained without a warrant. Mayors and governors make this choice when they seek the endorsement of police unions and bend over backward to keep those unions happy. And prosecutors, juries, and justices make this choice when they refuse to hold cops criminally or financially accountable for their crimes.
The next time you read about a person killed by cops who were “executing a search warrant,” or a person killed by cops while “resisting arrest,” remember Breonna Taylor. Remember that police reports are the version of events most pleasing to the police. Remember that cops will continue to kill people of color until we choose to hold them accountable.