“She was my person,” Palmer, 20, told The Washington Post in an interview. “I was her shadow.”
And then, in a matter of minutes, Taylor was gone, and it all felt so impossible that Palmer couldn’t believe it had really happened. Taylor had been shot to death by Louisville police officers in her own apartment — their apartment.
The sisters had always been inseparable. Palmer, six years younger, grew up wanting to do everything her big sister did: When Taylor played basketball, Palmer became a water girl so she could be there at the games. When Taylor went out with friends, Palmer begged to tag along. Palmer remembers how Taylor would sometimes roll her eyes at her, a mix of irritation and affection. You’re so annoying, she’d say, but then: Come on, hurry up.
After they moved with their mother from Grand Rapids, Mich., to Louisville 12 years ago, the girls shared a room with matching dressers and slept side by side on a queen bed with a gleaming silver frame. Palmer brought that bed with her 2½ years ago when she moved in with Taylor and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker. Whenever their schedules didn’t keep them apart — Taylor worked nights as an emergency room technician, Palmer is a pharmacy technician — the sisters were together.
“She was my friend every day,” Palmer says. “There were no secrets between us at all.”
When Black men and women are killed by police, the public attention often falls first on the parents, spouses and children left behind. The “Mothers of the Movement” have become particularly prominent in the fight for racial justice on behalf of their slain children, and Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, has been a vocal advocate for her daughter. But grieving siblings like Palmer face their own distinct challenges, coping with personal anguish even as they watch their loved one be mourned and embraced as a symbol by millions of strangers.
The resounding finality of Taylor’s absence feels beyond reach even now — especially now, as Palmer tries to wrap her mind around a reality where millions of people who never knew her sister are shouting her name, signing petitions demanding justice for her killing, carrying posters printed with her photograph. Where, instead of celebrating Taylor’s 27th birthday with the customary fancy dinner and dancing at the club, massive gatherings of strangers clutched candles and sang “Happy Birthday” at solemn vigils across the country.
Reminders of her sister’s death are everywhere, but Palmer says she still feels removed from the visceral truth of it. “Mostly at night is when I can really think, and I have moments — like, I’ll cry,” Palmer says, “but I haven’t grieved it, if that makes sense. I still don’t want to face it.”
The officers had burst into the apartment shortly after midnight on March 13 while executing a “no knock” warrant as part of a narcotics investigation. (The person the police were looking for, an ex-boyfriend of Taylor’s who was a suspected drug dealer, had already been apprehended, and the warrant has since come under scrutiny.)
Palmer hadn’t been home when it happened, and she wanted to go back to the apartment as soon as she could, she says, “so I could see for myself.” But her family urged her to wait. Three weeks later, on an afternoon in early April, Palmer finally returned to pack up the last home she would share with her sister.
She and her mother sorted through Taylor’s room first. Then Palmer entered her own bullet-riddled room and sat once more on their childhood bed. From there, through the open door, she could see the place in the hallway where Taylor had fallen in the final minutes of her life. Palmer stared for a moment.
“And then I started packing again,” she says. “I didn’t want to be in there.”
Walker has said that he and Taylor were asleep when three plainclothes Louisville police officers pounded on the apartment door — then, according to attorneys representing the Palmer family, they forced their way inside without announcing themselves. Police officials say the officers, who were not wearing body cameras at the time, identified themselves as law enforcement before entering. Walker, a licensed gun owner who says he believed that intruders were breaking in, fired toward the door, striking one officer in the leg. (Walker was initially charged with attempted murder of a police officer, but the charges were dropped in May.) The police immediately returned fire, and 26-year-old Taylor, who was unarmed, was shot five times.
The coroner for Jefferson County told the Louisville Courier-Journal that Taylor probably lived for less than a minute after she was shot. But Walker told police that she lived for several minutes, coughing for breath as he frantically called 911: “I don’t know what is happening,” he told the dispatcher, according to audio released from the call. “Somebody kicked in the door and shot my girlfriend.”
Palmer was thousands of miles away, visiting a friend in California, when another friend called on FaceTime and let her know that there had been a shooting in her neighborhood back home. Palmer immediately tried to call Taylor and Walker to see if they had more information, but neither picked up their phones. She figured they’d gone to sleep and she’d hear more details in the morning.
A couple of hours later, her mother called, and Palmer could immediately tell that something was very wrong.
“She just started crying,” Palmer says. “She was like, ‘Breonna’s been shot.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean, she’s been shot?’ And she said, ‘Your sister’s dead.’ ”
Palmer refused to believe it. She hung up and called Taylor’s number again. No answer.
At first, the family thought it had been a break-in. The following afternoon, on a flight home to Louisville, Palmer scoured the news for updates. “And that’s when I found out it was a police-involved shooting,” she says. “I thought, ‘This doesn’t make sense. This story is not adding up.’ ”
Her aunts retrieved clothes, shoes and tote bags for Palmer from the apartment, and she made arrangements to take some time off from her job. “I was kind of stuck in a daze for a while,” she says. “I couldn’t go back to being normal. I moved in with my mom, but it still wasn’t normal.” She spent a couple days at a friend’s house, then a couple more days. It was obvious to the friend that Palmer was avoiding confronting her new reality. “She told me, ‘You can’t keep trying to put it off,’ ” Palmer says. “ ‘You’re never going to be able to go back home.’ ”
Home had meant Taylor — “Bre,” as she was known by her closest friends and family — for as long as Palmer could remember. The six years that separated them, combined with Taylor’s caregiving personality, meant that she often felt like both a sister and a mom; a friend who would shed empathetic tears over Ju’Niyah’s dating dramas, an adviser who would counsel her little sister about budgeting her money.
In the months before she died, Taylor had decided she was ready for actual motherhood. She had long dreamed of having a baby, and she and Walker had just started trying to conceive, Palmer says. Taylor had transitioned their apartment to a month-to-month lease in anticipation of going house-hunting in the fall. She was planning to begin nursing school in January.
“She felt like 2020 was definitely going to be her year,” Palmer says. “Everything was going the way she wanted it.”
Palmer hasn’t felt like she can fall apart — not yet, she says. She wants to be strong for her family, and she tries not to cry in front of her mother. “I’ll have that moment someday,” she says, her tone one of blunt resignation. “It’s going to come at some point.”
Processing the grief, the guilt and the reality of such sudden and traumatic loss takes time. And Palmer is only one of a growing number of siblings forced to cope with personal tragedies that have become national flash points.
“It might take another 30 years,” said Shante Needham in 2018, referring to how long she would mourn her sister, Sandra Bland, who died in police custody after she was arrested for a traffic violation in Texas in 2015.
“I couldn’t take care of George the day he was killed,” Philonise Floyd told lawmakers with the House Judiciary Committee in June, as he testified on behalf of his brother, George, who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck.
“You want to see justice,” Amber Carr told local media in October of last year, soon after her 28-year-old sister, Atatiana Jefferson, was shot to death by a police officer as she babysat Carr’s young son at her Fort Worth home. “But justice don’t bring my sister back.”
Carr reached out to Palmer after Taylor’s death, Palmer says, offering herself as someone who could listen and understand. “I talk to her from time to time,” Palmer says. “She told me when I was ready, she would be there.”
But Palmer isn’t ready to look inward yet, especially with so much still going on outside. Two or three times each week, Palmer joins the ongoing protests at Louisville’s Jefferson Square Park. She supports the Black Lives Matter movement, but she isn’t comfortable drawing attention to herself, she says. She prefers to be part of the crowd, wearing a T-shirt printed with her sister’s portrait, carrying a sign with Taylor’s name, like so many others.
“Sometimes, going to the protests makes me feel like she’s almost there. Like she’s there, and watching,” Palmer says of Taylor. “But then —” she trails off and shakes her head firmly, reversing herself: “No. She’s never going to come back.”
The vigils and protests and tributes instill a welcome sense of comfort and community, Palmer says, even if they can’t erase the inherent loneliness of loss. In the streets, Palmer is surrounded by people who know her sister’s life mattered. But they will never know the contours of her life like Palmer did.
Nearly five months on, with the outcry over Taylor’s death still gaining new, high-profile voices, Palmer wonders if justice is within reach. To date, none of the police officers involved have been charged. One — Brett Hankison — was fired from the department for “wantonly and blindly” firing 10 shots into the apartment, according to the police. Three others — Jonathan Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove, who were present at the scene, and Joshua Jaynes, who applied for the search warrant — remain on administrative reassignment while the shooting is under investigation by the Kentucky attorney general and the FBI.
“I really just hope those officers really do get charged and fired,” Palmer says. “They took somebody who didn’t deserve this. And hopefully, at some point, I hope the world can regain some peace.”
Finding peace for herself is a different journey. To mark Taylor’s June 5 birthday, Palmer posted a message on Facebook: “Today you would’ve turned 27! I am still super sad and hurt you aren’t here anymore, sometimes I want to give up because I no longer have a norm,” she wrote. “Breonna, I need you to know I love you literally with all my heart.”
This is as close as Palmer will come to addressing her sister directly. There are some mourners who find a sense of comfort or connection in speaking to their departed loved ones, but Palmer says that would never work for her. The sisters’ conversations were always so dynamic, full of spirited interruptions, a constant overlap of two voices — the sound of Palmer’s voice speaking into the stillness, she says, would not feel right at all.
Keeping the bed that the sisters shared, the silver-framed queen that Palmer brought when she moved in with Taylor and Walker — that didn’t feel right, either. Before Palmer left the apartment that afternoon in April, she turned to her mother and gestured toward the bed. “Mama, I don’t want this,” Palmer remembers saying. “I shared it with her, and I can’t take it with me anymore.”
Other things have followed her — the milestones her sister had once looked forward to, the memories of her various quirks and habits: how the two would settle in to watch a movie, and Taylor would fall asleep within minutes; how she always wanted her beloved Dodge Charger kept immaculately clean; how she would sometimes wake Palmer with a phone call at 3 a.m. during a particularly quiet night shift, imploring her to deliver board games to the hospital.
Palmer was her sister’s shadow. Now her sister is her shadow.
“It will never be the same,” she says. “It’s too quiet.”