The 2020 election is ushering in local, state and federal policy makers who must make critical decisions about the future of social justice in our country. Their actions, and continuing pressure from activists, offer a chance to save lives in communities impacted by police violence.
In 2020, police in the United States killed 839 people. 28% of those killed by police have been Black people despite being 13% of the US population. One of those people was Breonna Taylor, a 27-year-old front line healthcare worker living in Louisville, Kentucky. Officers from the Louisville Metro Police Department broke down Taylor’s door in what would later be described as a botched drug raid. After Taylor’s boyfriend Kenneth Walker fired a single shot to defend against what he thought was a home invasion, police fired 32 rounds into Taylor’s home, ultimately killing her.
The police officers who carried out the raid on Taylor’s home in March used a no-knock warrant to justify entry into her apartment in the middle of the night. The act of raiding someone’s home while they sleep is cruel and invasive. According to a PBS story, Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association for Police Organizations, argues that no-knock warrants help “maintain officer safety or protect pertinent evidence.”
Had it not been for the war on drugs which sustains the increasing use of no-knock warrants, Taylor would be alive today. A summary of the investigative report on the incident by the Louisville Courier Journal indicates that a judge signed the search warrant because Taylor’s former boyfriend, Jamarcus Glover was suspected of storing drugs and suspicious packages at her apartment.
This raid should have never occurred. Not only did it turn deadly, but it was a waste of resources and overall a bad policing practice that puts the lives of those involved at risk.
According to Cornell Legal Information Institute, a no-knock warrant is a “search warrant authorizing police officers to enter certain premises without first knocking and announcing their presence or purpose prior to entering the premises.” As reported by Vox.com, police carry out 20,000 no-knock raids a year and “a series of court decisions and state laws have carved out a set of circumstances that make it legal for police to raid a house without announcing their presence beforehand.”
The incident involving Breonna Taylor isn’t the first case of police shooting a Black woman in the privacy of her home. Fort Worth officer Aaron Dean shot Atatiana Jefferson as she played video games with her 8 year old nephew. Dean was dispatched to Jefferson’s house after a neighbor called the police to do a wellness check. The neighbor reported that the front door was open. Dean did not identify himself upon entry. In a recording, Officer Dean is heard yelling “hands up” and firing his weapon immediately thereafter.
Consider the case of Aiyana Stanley Jones, a seven year-old girl in Detroit who Officer Joseph Weekly shot as the The First 48 film crew stood by. Police justified entry into the Jones family home where she slept by noting that they had a no-knock warrant. The ACLU estimates that “nearly 80% of the SWAT raids [the ACLU] studied were conducted to serve search warrants, usually in drug cases.” Lonita Baker, the attorney for Breonna Taylor’s family, said that there were multiple discrepancies in the search warrants requested by Louisville Police Detective Joshua Jaynes, one of them citing a phone number that supposedly belonged to Glover, but was actually in Taylor’s name.
Drug sellers are some of the most demonized players in the war on drugs. They’re often blamed for increase in drug addiction and generally seen as spreading “poison” in communities. But drug sellers are not the problem, failed drug laws and policies are. The drug war has resulted in policies that treat people who use or sell drugs, including psychedelic substances, as deserving of punishment and criminalization.
In the eyes of police, drug sellers are the reason for crime and violence in communities throughout the country. Yet, there’s mounting research and evidence showing that criminalizing drugs doesn’t make communities safer or decrease drug use. Policing drug use and sales also gives some communities a false sense of safety because it draws law enforcement resources away from addressing other needs.
The case of Breonna Taylor should be an impetus for ending the war on drugs. Why was her life taken away from her so tragically? And why has there not been any accountability for the police officers involved? These mistakes are not only costly in terms of lives lost, but in resulting lawsuits filed by impacted families against cities where these incidents take place.
After Taylor’s family received a $12 million settlement from the City of Louisville for her wrongful death, the police officer who was shot during the raid, Sergeant Jonathan Mattingly, claimed that he was “doing the legal, moral, ethical thing that night.” So, to him, murdering someone who is suspected of a crime is the right thing to do.
As of now, a grand jury has indicted Detective Brett Hankinson on three counts of wanton endangerment in connection with the impact of the raid on Taylor’s neighbor. But no one has been held responsible for Taylor’s death. Numerous questions have also been raised about improprieties in the investigation and one of the jurors has asked that the information presented to them be made public.
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron said during a press conference that the officers were “justified in the return of deadly fire after having been fired upon by Kenneth Walker.” Walker’s shot hit officer Mattingly in the thigh. Cameron said that “According to Kentucky law, the use of force by Mattingly and Cosgrove [another officer involved in the incident] was justified to protect themselves. This justification bars us from pursuing criminal charges in Miss Breonna Taylor’s death.”
Another officer involved in the incident, Brett Hankinson, fired into the sliding glass patio door despite him not having a clear line of sight. How is that justified? What kind of professional – sworn to protect public safety – would do this? This is an example of how police officers are not trained to de escalate situations and save lives. This should be the priority. The right to protection did not apply to Walker who fired his weapon in self defense after police failed to announce themselves.
This botched raid in the name of the war on drugs left Breonna Taylor to die. After shooting her, police failed to give her medical attention, allowing the EMS on standby to leave early which isn’t typical protocol. Interestingly, the police incident report only listed Taylor’s name, age and race, but no details on the injuries that she sustained even though these injuries caused her death.
We Must End The War on Drugs
Even if Taylor was involved in selling drugs, why is a no-knock raid our society’s solution? According to the search warrant requested by Detective Jaynes, officers sought to seize “marijuana, cocaine, heroin, meth and all illegal narcotics or paraphernalia described in violation of KRS 218A. Any monies that are proceeds from drug trafficking. Any safes that are used to store illegal narcotics or money. Any paperwork that may be a record of narcotics sales or that may indicate the transport, concealment or sales of narcotics.”
Officers did not find any of the things they originally sought in the search warrant. But the war on drugs fuels racist police practices because it is profitable. Funding for police departments and corrections have significantly increased since the 1970’s. According to Dr. Peter Kraska, Professor of Justice at Eastern Kentucky State University, the number of SWAT raids have increased “from approximately 3,000 annually in the 1980s to around 50,000 in 2014.”
Even if there were drugs present in her apartment, Taylor’s life mattered more. In June, the Louisville City Council passed Breonna’s Law, which bans no-knock search warrants. Taylor’s case has already prompted other states and jurisdictions such as the Cincinnati City Council, the Buffalo Common Council, and the State of Illinois to propose a ban or limitation on no-knock warrants. Bans on no-knock warrants are a step in the right direction. There have been other efforts to hold police liable for extrajudicial killings, but many of these efforts fall short as policing as an institution is fundamentally flawed.
The use of body cameras as a way of holding police accountable often comes up in conversations around police brutality. On the surface, body cameras provide video evidence of all police interactions. Both Eric Garner and George Floyd’s deaths were video recorded, but their killers weren’t brought to justice. Trusting police with body cameras gives them access to the recording which could mean more time to manipulate their story and potentially remove parts of the recording that may incriminate them. In some cases, police have turned off their body cameras.
Civilian review boards are a stopgap step for civilians to report harm done by police, but as Professor Beth Richie notes, they do nothing to change the power dynamics that make policing as it’s presently carried out inherently harmful. “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” became a catchphrase seen all over social media, on clothing and event flyers.
Accountability for police also shouldn’t solely rely on the criminal justice or prison system. For cops who kill Black people, a conviction doesn’t equal accountability. Police involved in the killing of Black people, such as Amber Guyger of the Dallas Police Department and Michael Slager of the North Charleston Police Department have already appealed their convictions. In 2019, Amber Guyger was sentenced to 10 years in prison after she burst into the apartment of Botham Jean and shot him leaving him dead. Officer Guyger had no warrant and to this day, there has been no reasonable explanation as to why she entered his apartment in the first place.
Michael Slager was sentenced to 20 years after fatally shooting Walter Scott in the back. Accountability should mean a loss of resources because an officer has misused them. If police use city resources and tax payer dollars to execute a botched raid and kill a young woman in her home, the cops involved deserve at the very least to lose their jobs, pension, and retirement fund with a dash of social ostracism.
The present lack of accountability is a common thread in cases of extrajudicial police killings. It speaks to how committed U.S. policy makers are to an ineffective, counterproductive war on drugs, and how little our culture values Black lives.
While “protect and serve” is the motto of police, the lineage of U.S. policing is rooted in slave catching patrols that evolved into today’s militarized police departments. Research shows connections between slave patrols and the development of policing in southern states and the infiltration of white supremists in police departments. The public memory of lynching reminds Black southerners like myself that “protect and serve” historically only applied to white communities. According to Vice News, the police involved in the Taylor case were said to have a plan for gentrification tied to a series of raids including the one on her home.
As long as people use drugs, there will be people who sell drugs. Drug sellers have been arrested and prosecuted for decades and this strategy of criminalization has proven to be ineffective. The war on drugs began more than 40 years ago and drug use has not stopped or significantly decreased.
Removing criminalization all together for drug sales and addressing the economic conditions that drive people to sell drugs must happen. As Marketing Coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance, I can say with confidence that decriminalizing use, possession, and sales has a correlation to a decrease in drug overdose deaths. Drug decriminalization would result in fewer people arrested or incarcerated, eliminate racial disparities, and help those who need treatment the most find it. If all drugs were legalized and decriminalized, Breonna Taylor would be alive today.
Image: Adapted from Ted Eytan