The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With Breonna Taylor decision, summer’s anguished protests get fresh impetus for the fall

Protesters took to the streets of Louisville on Sep. 23 after learning that no police officer would be charged in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor. (Video: Nate Spicer/The Washington Post, Photo: Leandro Lozada for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)
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Inside the Kentucky History Center, the state’s top law enforcement official was explaining why Breonna Taylor’s death was a tragedy, but not a crime.

Attorney General Daniel Cameron had reviewed the evidence. He had studied the law. He had come to a conclusion about how justice could best be served, and it didn’t involve prosecuting police officers for shooting to death the 26-year-old emergency room technician in her apartment after midnight on March 13.

The two officers at her door that night, Cameron said, were “justified” in using force to defend themselves after Taylor’s boyfriend — fearing an intruder, not the police, was breaking into the apartment — fired on them.

But even as he spoke, a very different judgment was already coming in on the streets of Louisville. Hundreds of people were marching through an otherwise deserted downtown. Some shouted obscenities at police. Others lit a trash can on fire.

Louisville turned violent Wednesday night, when police said two officers were shot. Both are in stable condition with non-life-threatening injuries, police said, and a suspect is in custody.

Demonstrations were held around the country, including in Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Washington and Philadelphia, where protesters shouted, “Say her name, Breonna Taylor.”

For some, Taylor’s case was no mere tragedy. It was a grave wrong that officials weren’t even trying to make right.

“Justice,” said Candace Henderson, 46, a Black resident who burst into tears when she heard the news, “has not been served.”

On a crisp, early fall day in Kentucky’s largest city, the reaction reflected a broader truth about America’s racial reckoning: After a summer of nationwide protests, outrage at the injustice of the country’s law enforcement system has in no way ebbed. If anything, the anger has continued to build with each new case of a Black man or woman who dies at the hands of police — and each officer who is allowed to go free without facing punishment for the killing.

Ever since George Floyd’s Memorial Day death at the hands of Minneapolis police brought Americans to the streets as never before, there has been a reliable flow of reminders that the problems of police violence and systemic racism in law enforcement have not gone away.

Rayshard Brooks was shot dead by an officer in a Wendy’s parking lot in Atlanta only weeks later. Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by police in Kenosha, Wis., paralyzing him from the waist down. After Daniel Prude’s death in police custody in Rochester, N.Y., authorities spent months withholding documents and videos revealing what had happened.

The officers who knelt on Floyd and shot Brooks were both charged with murder. The Blake and Prude cases remain under investigation.

From New York City to Louisville, protests sparked across the nation following the grand jury decision in the Breonna Taylor case. (Video: The Washington Post)

All the while, demonstrators demanded justice for Taylor, whose case initially received little notice — but whose name became a national rallying cry after Floyd’s video-recorded killing galvanized millions.

The killings and injustice have long been a feature of American life.

“None of this is new,” said civil rights lawyer and Cornell law professor Joe Margulies.

What is new, he said, is that people are paying attention — and have been motivated enough to take to the streets to demand change. Mass demonstrations have endured in American cities since May. Although most have been peaceful, some have included violence, including Wednesday night in Louisville.

The drive for change has yielded results in cities nationwide, including in Louisville, where what is known as no-knock warrants — the kind a judge authorized to be served the night Taylor was killed — were banned. The change was dubbed “Breonna’s Law.” Cameron said Wednesday that police did knock and announce themselves at Taylor’s apartment, citing a “citizen” witness.

Yet the problems run so deep, Margulies said, that such simple fixes are unlikely to solve the problem — or eliminate the reasons people take to the streets in the first place. America has 18,000 different police forces, and to varying degrees, they all need to do things differently than they have.

“Unless you change the culture, you’re not going to change the way police behave or, most importantly, their relationship to the people they serve,” he said. “You’re not going to fix the problem.”

While protests have addressed those broader questions, much of their energy has been devoted to demanding prosecution when officers injure or kill civilians. That sort of outcome, however, has proved elusive.

In Taylor’s case, an officer who fired into an adjacent apartment was charged with three counts of wanton endangerment — one for each of the three people inside. But he was not charged with shooting into Taylor’s apartment. Nor were the other two officers who opened fire.

The outcome in Louisville echoed what has happened in communities across the country rocked by high-profile police shootings and uses of force: a flood of attention and protests featuring calls for criminal charges. But when the officers involved face lesser or no charges — as they did in Louisville — it triggers even more protests and anguished reactions.

Even as protests swept from coast to coast this year, officers remain unlikely to face criminal charges in most cases.

Charges against police who fatally shoot people in the line of duty are rare, and convictions of officers charged with murder or manslaughter for fatally shooting people are even less common. The reasons, experts say, are that police have considerable latitude to use deadly force under the law. And juries trust them, though experts wonder if this summer’s wave of protests and videos of officers using brute force on demonstrators could chip away at that.

Police shoot and kill about 1,000 people a year in the United States, according to a Washington Post database that has tracked such shootings since 2015. Most of those who are fatally shot are armed. The majority of shootings by police get little to no public attention, but a handful provoke wider public outrage.

Prosecutors have typically shied away from charging many police officers for shooting and killing people while on duty. But after a deadly police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 set off a protest movement, things began to change — up to a point.

A Washington Post analysis found that there was an uptick in cases brought against officers after Ferguson — but there was no corresponding increase in the percentage that resulted in convictions. Instead, the share of convictions remained about the same in the five years before and after Ferguson.

In 2015, the first full year after Ferguson, 18 officers were charged with murder or manslaughter — more than in previous years, but still only a fraction of the nearly 1,000 officers who shot and killed people that year.

The outcome in Taylor’s case “certainly fits the pattern” seen across the country with officers avoiding charges, said Samuel A. Marcosson, a law professor at the University of Louisville.

“Any prosecutor, even one who is very strongly dedicated to protecting people from excessive use of police force, has to be cognizant of the fact that it is very difficult to get a conviction,” he said.

Marcosson said he was not surprised by the lack of any homicide or manslaughter charges in Taylor’s case. The two officers’ actions in firing into Taylor’s apartment were deemed justified, he said, because police “get a lot of leeway under Kentucky law in responding to force, especially deadly force.”

Kentucky is among the states with a “castle doctrine” that says you can use deadly force in defending your home, Marcosson said. But that, he said, is exceeded by the legal authority police have in using their own deadly force.

“With police, the castle doctrine is trumped, at least in terms of the culpability of the police officer, so they can act in a way you or I couldn’t,” he said.

Cameron cited that principle in explaining his rationale Wednesday, saying he was bound to follow the law and the facts. The outcome might not be satisfying, he noted, but it was the only one available to him.

“If we simply act on outrage, there is no justice,” he said. “Mob justice is not justice.”

Those words were of no apparent comfort to Taylor’s family, whose attorney, Ben Crump, called the decision not to charge anyone in connection with her death “outrageous and offensive.”

“It is unacceptable that, once again, culpability has eluded those guilty of state-sanctioned murder,” the NACCP said in a statement. “In this case, and countless others, we must ask ourselves and those elected to serve, ‘Who is responsible for this system and its outcomes?’ We must demand that our system of justice holds people working within it accountable.”

Tracie Keesee, co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity, said she was not surprised by the lack of charges. But it still hit her hard.

“As a woman of color, I am just devastated,” said Keesee, a 25-year veteran of the Denver Police Department who also held top policing jobs in New York. “And I’m sure I’m not alone.”

Evidence for that was all over the streets in American cities Wednesday night, with protests underway from New York City to Los Angeles and many places in between. Four months after Floyd gasped for his last breath, the movement for racial justice had a traumatic new reason for being.

“It’s activated folks in ways in which we have not seen before,” Keesee said. But how would the trauma that Black Americans have had to “pass down to their children and grandchildren” ultimately be addressed?

That, she said, “is too early to tell.”

Kevin Williams in Louisville contributed to this report.