[Ed. This piece was written and posted in Oct. 8, 2020. The subject is top of mind again on account the Department of Justice decision, issued on Aug. 4, 2022, to charge the four officers involved.]
Breonna Taylor’s March 2020 killing, the result of a no-knock warrant gone calamitously awry, took place in a Louisville apartment building full of witnesses. Who, if anyone, was responsible and who, if anyone, should be charged in her death boils down to this nugget from the grand jury testimony made public by the District Attorney on Oct. 2, 2020: “Eleven of 12 witnesses on the scene that night said they never heard the police identify themselves. One of them said he heard the group say ‘police’ just once.”
The three police who broke down the door and traded fire with Taylor’s boyfriend claim they did announce and identify themselves as police. They have not been charged and according to the District Attorney, will not be charged. In not bringing any charge connected to her killing, the D.A. has chosen to believe these three officers who, had they failed to identify themselves (as 11 of 12 witnesses have attested), would likely be facing manslaughter charges today, at the very least. So, even if they aren’t lying about having completed this simple and mandatory identification procedure, we can agree the cops continue to have a very strong incentive to lie — unlike those 11 witnesses, who have no such incentive.
We Americans talk a lot about bad apples, how many there really are, and what percentage of the bunch they might reasonably despoil. But we can agree that lying — in police reports, in sworn testimony to grand juries — is something police officers do quite routinely. I know this from working with police departments as a reporter and city editor. We all know this from simply following the news today, in an age when smart phones and body cams make plain these lies after the fact. [If the body cam footage has been misplaced, you can be sure it will likely contradict a falsified police report.] Cops lie individually, to cover their own wrongdoing. They do it in strategic concert with prosecutors to “solve” criminal cases and get them off the books, or to make prosecutions stick where available evidence cannot. They like to secure warrants, apparently. And they lie on behalf of each other, largely refusing to call each other out for this lying, which is a clear and conscious subversion of law and order.
This awkward, troubling relationship U.S. cops can have with the truth is something the African-American community has been talking loudly about — but white America has largely dismissed — for centuries.
It’s not clear to me whether Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Williams, is counted among the 12 witnesses cited above. But he too claims not to have heard the police announce themselves. Is he lying? He certainly reacted like someone who had genuinely NOT heard anyone at his door identified as police — because when they broke down his door and entered the apartment, Williams immediately shot one of them. Shooting anyone is a risky enterprise. If you know they’re cops (because they’ve effectively announced themselves as such) it’s almost ludicrously risky.
And here the grand jury report reveals still more curious behavior from the District Attorney Daniel Cameron: Williams clearly shot a cop, who clearly claims to have announced himself before entering the apartment, despite so much witness testimony to the contrary. And yet Williams has not been charged with a crime either. In this respect, it seems the D.A. is inclined to believe Williams and his right to defend himself, in his home, against an intruder, with lethal force. Indeed, if the D.A. were convinced that Louisville police had effectively announced themselves, it seems fair to ask why Williams wasn’t charged with shooting one of those cops.
Finally, what is anyone who has studied this case and the grand jury report to make of the overall conduct, capability and character of these particular cops? The grand jury report is damning in multiple respects. The three officers at the door are sticking to their story: They announced themselves. They broke down the door. They were immediately fired upon. In returning fire, they killed Taylor. Once inside the apartment, two officers fired a total of 32 rounds, at least six of which struck Taylor.
Walker, Taylor’s boyfriend, told the grand jury that immediately following the shooting, an officer told Walker he was going to jail for the rest of his life. Then the officer asked Walker a question: “Were you hit by any bullets?” Walker said no. The officer responded by saying, “That’s unfortunate.” Grand jurors, increasingly aware of just how shoddy this police work had been, asked whether officers executing the warrant were aware that police had already found Jamarcus Glover, an ex-boyfriend of Taylor’s who was the target of the overarching drug investigation. The report includes no answer from police. Glover was in fact in custody by the time the police raided Taylor’s apartment.
According to the New York Times report from Oct. 2, members of the Grand Jury “asked if the police had recovered drugs or money from the apartment; the detective said no, and that the police had not searched the apartment for drugs or paraphernalia after shooting Ms. Taylor. [Italics mine] They asked whether he had diagrams of the scene (no) and why the officers’ body cameras were not activated (the detective said he did not know).” To call this a botched operation from underperforming police personnel is to spruce it up quite a bit.
There was a fourth cop who, once the shooting started, went outside and proceeded to “discharge his service weapon” randomly into Taylor’s apartment (and other units) from outside the apartment building, on the street. This additional example of substandard policing could not be explained away apparently. That officer has been charged with wonton endangerment and dismissed from the force, though none of the bullets from his weapon appear to have harmed Taylor or anyone else.
This is the brand of policing and grand jury investigation we are told to support, without question.