“We’re not going to wait forever,” said attorney Lonita Baker, appearing with Taylor’s mother Thursday after meeting with Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron (R). “We do want this resolved quickly and accurately.”
But the prospect of police prosecution is complicated by state laws that give the benefit of the doubt to officers involved in carrying out their official duties. That legal reality has animated protests against police violence nationwide since the killing of George Floyd in May — and is raising concerns for local leaders about how to navigate the public emotion.
As the weeks pass, demonstrators have resorted to hunger strikes and other extreme tactics, leaving Louisville — a city better known for horse racing than social justice movements — fearing that violence could erupt if charges never come.
“If there’s not any charges, I think there’s going to be outrage and there’s going to be some angry people, and I’m kind of scared,” said Erick Earkman, a 45-year-old Black Louisville resident who recently attended a protest. “I think there’s going to be — I don’t want to say rioting — but there’s going to be a lot of pissed-off people who are going to do some damage if that happens.”
Taylor’s case has rapidly risen from relative obscurity to become one of the main flash points in what could be the largest social movement in U.S. history. Her face has been immortalized in a 7,000-square-foot mural in Annapolis. Her death has inspired demonstrations from Houston to Fargo, N.D. She is the first person to replace Oprah Winfrey on the cover of O Magazine, which commissioned 26 billboards throughout Louisville to “demand that the police involved in killing Breonna Taylor be arrested and charged.”
The 26-year-old Black woman, who was killed when police officers released a hail of gunfire into her Louisville apartment in the middle of the night, barely made a blip in national news after her death in March. Two months passed before her name showed up in the social media feed of Brittany Packnett Cunningham, one of the leading activists in the nation’s racial-justice movement.
“Breonna was killed on March the 13th, and none of us have heard about it because there is no video,” Packnett Cunningham told her podcast audience through sobs in May, invoking the names of Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans whose deaths had received national attention. “I thought that I had finally had my release of feelings for Ahmaud, and they all came rushing back — for Breonna.”
Packnett Cunningham launched a website memorializing Taylor and started a petition demanding Louisville police be held accountable. Around the same time, prominent civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump took on the Taylor family’s case and said he called “every Black female of influence” he knows, including actress Tiffany Haddish and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.).
“I knew without someone speaking her name and telling her story, she would die in anonymity,” Packnett Cunningham said.
The Louisville Metro Police Department in late June fired Detective Brett Hankison in a public termination letter that said he “blindly fired” 10 shots into Taylor’s apartment with “an extreme indifference to the value of human life.” The two other officers involved in the shooting remain on the force.
Activists point out that Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, believed he was defending their home from intruders when he fired the opening shot at the plainclothes officers executing a no-knock warrant there after midnight. They accuse the officers of using excessive force, unleashing more than 20 bullets in response, eight of which hit Taylor, according to family attorneys.
“You had a young Black woman who was doing everything she could do for her community, living the quote-unquote right way, and she was still murdered by police who were supposed to be keeping her safe,” said Keturah Herron, a policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, who has helped devise a ban on no-knock warrants in Louisville. “If Breonna Taylor could be killed and murdered by police in her home, people are like, ‘Holy sh--, that could have been me.’ ”
Those self-defense arguments from Taylor’s advocates have run into a complex web of legal hurdles that protect police officers who believe their lives are threatened. Those protections can clash with Kentucky’s gun culture and residents’ rights to protect their property, legal experts said.
“The young man shot at them. Whether he knew who they were or not, he shot at them,” said Aubrey Williams, a Louisville lawyer, a former judge and a former head of the Louisville chapter of the NAACP. “And at that point, the officers have every reason to shoot back. They are trained to defend themselves, and that is what they did.”
Waiting for answers
For months, Taylor’s family and a small circle of Louisville activists struggled to get city leaders and news media to focus on her killing, which occurred just as the coronavirus pandemic began consuming the nation’s attention. They printed posters memorializing Taylor and made frequent trips to the courthouse seeking answers.
They gained little traction until demonstrations broke out over Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis in late May. While Floyd’s name echoed around the world, protesters in Louisville shouted “Breonna Taylor.”
The details of her death are complicated and limited. Police and her family’s attorneys say officers stormed her front door on suspicion that the address was tied to a narcotics investigation involving Taylor’s ex-boyfriend. In a warrant, police said they had seen the suspected drug trafficker pick up a mailed package from the home in January.
Taylor and Walker were rattled out of bed, prompting Walker to fire a single shot as the door was breached by a battering ram. The shot struck one officer in the leg. Walker, who was unscathed by law enforcement’s gunfire, was charged with attempted murder of an officer, a charge that was later dropped.
No drugs were found in Taylor’s home, and her ex-boyfriend, the main target of the warrants, was arrested in a separate police raid the same night about 10 miles away.
Weeks later, some of the ensuing protests would be marred by violence. On the first night of demonstrations in late May, at least seven people were wounded in Louisville by an unknown gunman. Then in June, a person opened fire at a protester encampment, killing a 27-year-old photographer who had been documenting the demonstrations.
Police have been accused of using excessive force at the Louisville protests, firing chemical irritants, pepper balls and foam rounds on peaceful crowds. The owner of a barbecue stand, David McAtee, was shot and killed as police and National Guardsmen tried to disperse a crowd at his restaurant during a citywide curfew in early June. The police chief was fired within hours of the incident.
The city and police now face a federal lawsuit from the ACLU that accuses officers of using tactics “that resemble those used by authoritarian regimes to stifle dissent.”
The demonstrations have continued for 11 weeks, with some protesters maintaining an around-the-clock presence in a small city park they have dubbed “Injustice Square.” In daily marches, they chant, “How do you spell murderers? L-M-P-D” — the initials of the Louisville Metro Police Department.
In recent weeks, fears of violence were exacerbated as militia groups on both sides of the debate marched through downtown carrying assault rifles and other guns. One day last month, an all-Black militia group marched within a block of armed far-right counterprotesters who had mobilized to challenge them. Many Louisville businesses near the protest square remain boarded up, fearing more violence.
About three miles from the protest square, hunger strikers fasted for weeks, demanding that the officers involved in Taylor’s shooting be fired and stripped of pensions.
Social worker Vincent Gonzalez, 33, ended his strike earlier this month after losing more than 30 pounds while relying on electrolyte powder to subsist on 50 calories a day. Tabin Ibershoff, 29, ended hers last weekend after nearly a month, saying that she had become so weak she had to grab the railing to slowly ascend the staircase, “like I’m 80 years old.”
“None of us are hoping to die, but Breonna Taylor died, you know what I mean?” Ibershoff said earlier this month. “And people — other Black women — have died, so why shouldn’t we be putting our bodies on the line?”
All four officers involved in Floyd’s case were arrested within 10 days of his death. The retired officer involved in the shooting death of Arbery was arrested 2 1/2 months later, along with his son, who is accused of firing the fatal bullet. But in Louisville, the state attorney general’s investigation has stretched for nearly three months, fueling protesters’ anger.
The FBI declined to discuss the investigation with The Washington Post. Louisville anti-violence activist Christopher 2X said that meetings with Cameron and FBI agents this month left him feeling that both were taking the case seriously and that the state will ultimately file charges.
The FBI “said they don’t want to be a show horse in front of anybody about this situation,” he said. Instead, they want to be “a plow horse to show the community that they are serious about civil rights being violated.”
While activists await legal action, Taylor’s death has already led to policy changes. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer (D) has signed a ban on no-knock warrants, called “Breonna’s Law,” and officers now must wear body cameras when executing search warrants.
But the third-term mayor has faced calls to resign from activists and police officers. Fischer said his ability to address residents’ questions about the case is hampered by a state law that acts as a “gag order,” preventing him from speaking about investigations of the police officers’ conduct.
“Right now, under the police officers’ bill of rights, once you go into a Public Integrity Unit investigation, it’s locked down until the whole process plays out,” he said. “And that’s just not serving the balance of a citizen’s right to know versus an officer’s due-process rights.”
The castle doctrine and self-defense
Activists and attorneys for the Taylor family say they are confident that charges will be filed against the officers involved in her death. Family attorney Sam Aguiar said both the attorney general’s office and the FBI appear to be conducting thorough investigations, including canvassing the area around Taylor’s home in search of witnesses to the officers’ behavior the night she was killed.
Aguiar said the case hinges on Kentucky’s “castle doctrine,” which allows the use of lethal force if a person fears for their life.
“The law also says that if you are the initial threat or initial aggressor, you do not get a pass for being confronted with deadly force or returning deadly force,” he added. “And here, there’s a very good argument that the initial aggressor was the police officers: They bust down the door. They don’t announce who they are until afterward. They’re basically posing a threat of deadly force at that point.”
Police have said that they knocked and identified themselves as police officers before entering Taylor’s home.
The distinction could be critical. Kentucky’s castle doctrine has an explicit exception for situations in which “a peace officer . . . enters or attempts to enter a dwelling, residence, or vehicle in the performance of his or her official duties, and the officer identified himself or herself in accordance with any applicable law.”
The self-defense argument for police could also falter if prosecutors believe any of the officers acted recklessly, said Sam Marcosson, a professor of law at the University of Louisville.
Williams, the local lawyer and former judge, noted that White residents would probably make up more than three-fourths of a jury — only 23 percent of Louisville's population is African American, a legacy of government measures that merged the denser core of the city with more-conservative suburban and rural areas nearby.
“Even if they were to take this case to trial, the chances of them winning is slim to none,” said Williams, who noted that he lost a high-profile civil rights case in 2003 after a Louisville grand jury cleared two White police detectives who had shot a handcuffed Black man. The detectives shot the man 11 times after he brandished a box cutter during his attempted arrest.
But Crump, who is representing the Taylor family in a wrongful-death lawsuit against the involved officers, said Walker’s right to protect his home supersedes the officers’ right to self-defense.
“When people come busting into their home, unannounced, in the dead of night, is it not foreseeable that an American would exercise his rights under the Second Amendment?” Crump asked, noting that Walker used a legally registered weapon. “Or is it that Black Americans don’t have a right under the Second Amendment?”
On the streets of Louisville, a city where the multigenerational legacy of segregation and discrimination can still be seen, many remain deeply skeptical that the state or federal investigations will result in charges. Charles Booker, a recent U.S. Senate candidate and a state legislator representing part of Louisville, is among the skeptics.
“History shows us not to hold our breath,” he said.
Craig reported from Washington. Travis Andrews in Washington and Donna Owens in Baltimore contributed to this report.