Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron announced Wednesday that a grand jury decided against murder charges for three Louisville Metro Police Department officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, in her home.
After more than 100 days of protests since the March killing in Kentucky’s largest city, and calls from demonstrators, lawmakers and even celebrities for the arrest of Taylor’s killers, Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly and Detective Myles Cosgrove will remain free. Ex-Detective Brett Hankison, who was fired in June, will face three counts of first-degree felony wanton endangerment for firing from outside Taylor’s apartment into neighboring units.
It was a predictable end to the grand jury process. Legal experts in Kentucky broadly expected Cameron and the grand jury to avoid charges against Cosgrove and Mattingly, and saw wanton endangerment charges against Hankison as the only possible indictment.
That the officers are not criminally liable for Taylor’s death, however, does not mean that Louisville’s police, Louisville itself, and the nation of which it is a part do not have major questions to answer. Chief among them: Why were police officers at Taylor’s home, executing a warrant in the middle of the night? Why is this how police approach a minor drug case? Why are Black communities policed this way?
Whether Louisville, and the nation, get justice will depend on where the city goes from here, because even if these officers did everything by the book ― at least to the extent that they’re not prosecutable on homicide charges ― that Breonna Taylor is dead is only the latest major indictment of the way that book is written.
“The decision before my office as the special prosecutor in this case was not to decide if the loss of Ms. Taylor’s life was a tragedy. The answer to that question is unequivocally, yes,” Cameron said during a Wednesday news conference. “My job as the special prosecutor in this case was to put emotions aside and investigate the facts to determine if criminal violations of state law resulted in the loss of Ms. Taylor’s life.”
The three officers, dressed in plainclothes, shot Taylor six times on the night of March 13 as they served a warrant with a “no-knock” provision as part of a drug investigation. They fired at least 20 shots after Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, fired what he has described as a warning shot at what he believed were home intruders, and apparently hit Mattingly in the leg, according to Cameron. Taylor, a former emergency room technician, died in her home.
Along with the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Taylor’s death helped spark mass racial justice protests across the nation. Despite the outcry, the state of Kentucky had no apparent criminal case against the officers, aside from the wanton endangerment charges against Hankison, several legal experts told HuffPost. A judge signed the search warrant ― the police were merely executing it, with probable cause ― which made it unlikely that criminal charges would result, said Russell L. Weaver, a University of Louisville law professor. (They did not execute it as a no-knock warrant, Cameron said, although eyewitnesses have disputed claims that police announced their presence, and Walker’s attorney tweeted that Cameron’s account featured multiple inaccuracies.)
And the officers likely had the right under Kentucky law to return fire when threatened, said Aubrey Williams, an attorney and the former head of Louisville’s NAACP chapter.
“What are they to do?” Williams said, adding that despite his legal opinion in this case, he still believes the United States needs deep reforms to its criminal justice system in order to end systemic abuses of Black people. “It’s what they’re trained to do. It’s what a human being would do. They began to defend themselves.”
That opinion was not unanimous. Laura McNeal, a University of Louisville law professor, called the grand jury decision a “miscarriage of justice” that represents “the profound bias and systemic racism permeating throughout our legal system.” She said the officers’ conduct warranted second-degree manslaughter charges “at the very minimum.”
But Cameron took the view that “according to Kentucky law, the use of force by Mattingly and Cosgrove was justified in order to protect themselves,” he said. “This justification bars us from pursuing criminal charges in Ms. Breonna Taylor’s death.”
Attorneys for Taylor’s family and Walker disputed key aspects of Cameron’s explanation during an appearance on CNN later Wednesday night.
Lonita Baker, who represents Taylor’s family, questioned how the grand jury could indict Hankison for wanton endangerment for shooting into other apartments but not into Taylor’s, saying that “the attorney general’s logic does not make legal sense.” Steven Romines, who represents Walker, said that ballistics reports were inconclusive on whether Walker’s shot struck Mattingly, and said that Kentucky law did not allow self-defense claims when a third-party was shot and killed. Cameron and Kentucky, Romines said, were attempting to apply an “artificial heightened level of self-defense” to police that ordinary citizens cannot claim.
Both lawyers called on Cameron to release the full grand jury report.
For many, Taylor’s killing underscores that the law offers systematic protection for police.
“There’s an argument in the activist abolition community that ‘arrest killer cops’ is the wrong framework, because it makes it seem these are individual bad decisions as opposed to an entire bad system that makes these things inevitable,” said Tahir Duckett, a Washington-based civil rights attorney. “You’re [trying] to hold a single cop accountable for doing what a system asks them to do. They did everything they were ‘supposed’ to do, and it came to its logical result: They killed an innocent person.”
“You can plug and play 1,000 cops into this situation, and you’ll get the same outcome,” Duckett said.
The protests erupting in Louisville are not rooted solely in anger over this particular killing, but in the city’s deep history of racial segregation and oppression. That has often exhibited itself most clearly in instances of police brutality of the sort that killed Taylor and David McAtee, whom law enforcement officers shot while cracking down on protests in late May. But it extends far beyond the criminal justice system, to the city’s persistent racism and poverty and a “system of law enforcement that is essentially criminalizing all of that,” said Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker.
“Justice failed us today, but the reality is, it’s been failing us for generations, because it hasn’t accounted for the humanity of all of us,” said Booker, a Democrat who represents parts of Louisville. “Breonna Taylor’s killing, and her life and this case, was never just about what happened to these officers.”
Even if these officers did everything by the book ― at least to the extent that they’re not prosecutable on homicide charges ― that Breonna Taylor is dead is only the latest major indictment of the way that book is written.
Although the loudest demand in the wake of Taylor’s killing was for accountability ― to the extent that “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” became, at times, a meme ― there were also cries for an overhaul of the city’s police force, and an insistence that Louisville doesn’t miss this opportunity to deliver justice the way it has in the past.
“What’s different about the Breonna Taylor situation is that awareness has gone up 10 times from any other police-involved shooting I’ve seen here in 20 years,” said Christopher 2X, a local activist who has worked alongside Taylor’s mother.
There have already been efforts at reform. The Louisville Metro Council banned no-knock warrants, and Booker and other lawmakers introduced a similar measure in the state legislature.
Mayor Greg Fischer, a Democrat who has drawn the ire of both police and protesters, fired the city’s police chief after officers failed to activate their body cameras during the McAtee shooting. The city is forming a civilian review board to oversee police. And as part of a $12 million settlement with Taylor’s family, Louisville in September agreed to a slate of police reforms that includes changes to the process of obtaining search warrants, alters the police department’s internal investigations procedure, mandates that social workers respond alongside police to certain calls, and seeks to encourage officers to live in the communities where they work.
Cameron announced Wednesday that he would form a task force to determine if changes are needed to the process of obtaining warrants statewide.
But those will take time to implement. And absent any acknowledgment from the police that something went wrong here, the reforms are unlikely to quell the protests that have broken out in the wake of the grand jury’s decision on Taylor’s killing.
“There are changes coming, but I don’t think they will be quick enough,” said Keisha Hudson, a former public defender in Pennsylvania who has followed the Taylor case and Louisville’s reform efforts closely in her current job as the associate managing director of the Justice Collaborative, which advocates for criminal justice reforms nationwide. “And I don’t think that they will be substantive enough to appease the public at this point.”
While some of the reforms are notable, the city maintained funding levels for police, which accounts for nearly half of its total budget. And the changes it has made fail to alter Louisville’s fundamental approach to how it polices its Black communities, said Cicely Cottrell, the director of the criminal justice studies program at Spalding University in Louisville.
“It’s basically more police instead of reinvesting that money to improve economic and social problems,” Cottrell said. “And so we are basically saying, more police are going to be in your community, which means they’re going to start really observing and surveilling everyday life of Black people. So those economic and social problems are going to turn into police problems. There needs to be a change in mindset on that.”
None of the reforms are addressing the structural racism that causes the problems from the start. If we’re looking at the tree of racism, we’re just cutting a branch off of it. Deonte Hollowell, Spalding University professor of history and African American studies
Issues have already emerged in some of Louisville’s reform efforts. As part of the settlement with Taylor’s family, the city agreed to set up an early warning system to monitor and identify officers who may be particular risks for misconduct. But the announcement of those plans generated confusion and outrage among some activists and lawmakers, including Metro Council President David James, given that Louisville police have been saying that they have had such a system in place for at least five years, as the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting noted.
Louisville’s police union is still, like its brethren nationwide, a significant barrier to change, and there aren’t enough measures to promote accountability and discipline in some of the proposed reforms, said Deonte Hollowell, an assistant professor of history and African American studies at Spalding University who studies police relationships with Black communities. The city’s efforts so far don’t go deep enough to address its persistent racial segregation, which ranks among the worst in the nation.
“None of the reforms are addressing the structural racism that causes the problems from the start,” said Hollowell, who also serves on Louisville Metro Criminal Justice Commission, a 29-member public safety planning committee. “If we’re looking at the tree of racism, we’re just cutting a branch off of it.”
Louisville protesters, Hollowell said, will continue to demand accountability for the three officers who killed Taylor, and the police department.
There’s still a chance they may get it in some form. The FBI is conducting its own investigation into the case, and is looking into whether the warrant to enter Taylor’s home was obtained properly. Fischer, Louisville’s mayor, said that he could fire Mattingly and Cosgrove once an internal investigation ends.
Taylor’s killing had already put Louisville and the country at a crossroads, where people have to decide whether to continue to tolerate these abuses, as they have after so many similar killings, or to enact the sort of overhaul of the way Black communities are policed that will break the cycle of killings followed by protests and demands for accountability from a system working exactly as it was intended.
The outcome of Kentucky’s investigation has only heightened the stakes. And to achieve the sort of justice for Taylor that remained elusive on Wednesday, Louisville and the United States need to be much more ambitious and urgent than they have been so far.
“Regardless of what happened in this case, we had a whole lot of work to do,” Booker said. “So, as much as it hurts now, my hope is that it lights the fire for us to keep pushing.”