The shooting of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police in March could easily have slipped into obscurity — one more deadly encounter between law enforcement and a Black American.
Instead, her name and image became nationally known during a summer of protests against racial injustice and excessive use of force, triggered by the May 25 killing of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody. In the streets and on social media, demonstrators, celebrities and politicians demanded that the officers who shot Taylor in her apartment while executing a search warrant face criminal charges.
On Wednesday, the decision by a Kentucky grand jury not to hold the officers legally responsible for Taylor’s killing generated protests in cities across the country and raised the specter of more explosive demonstrations that could further inflame the nation’s cultural wars ahead of the November presidential election.
“The rallying cries that have been echoing throughout the nation have once again been ignored,” said a statement from Benjamin Crump, one of the attorneys who represents Taylor’s family.
Crump called the grand jury decision to only bring three charges of wanton endangerment against an officer who shot into Taylor’s neighbors’ homes “outrageous and offensive” to her memory.
After the decision was announced, protests erupted in cities including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. In Louisville, demonstrators wept and chanted Taylor’s name.
Authorities announced a curfew of 9 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. and Gov. Andy Beshear sent 500 National Guard troops to the city.
Tensions escalated when two police officers were shot near the protest site. Interim Louisville Police Chief Robert Schroeder said both officers were in stable condition and a suspect was in custody, but did not give more details.
The officer who was charged by the grand jury, Brett Hankison, was fired from the Police Department on June 23. A termination letter from Schroeder accused Hankison of violating procedures by showing “extreme indifference to the value of human life” when he “wantonly and blindly” fired 10 shots.
Kentucky Atty. Gen. Daniel Cameron said during a news conference Wednesday that the state found that the officers who entered Taylor’s apartment —Hankison, Jonathan Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove — were justified in their actions March 13 because Taylor’s boyfriend fired a gun at them first.
“This justification bars us from pursuing criminal charges,” said Cameron, a Republican who is Kentucky’s first Black attorney general. He acknowledged that the ruling may be disappointing to some.
“The decision before my office as the special prosecutor in this case was not to decide if the loss of Ms. Taylor’s life was a tragedy,” he said. “The answer to that is unequivocally yes.”
Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician, had finished a long shift at a local hospital and had just nodded off while watching a movie when officers banged on her door.
“Who is it?” her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, said he yelled multiple times. When nobody answered, he reached for his licensed handgun.
The door burst open, and three men rushed in, weapons drawn, Walker said. He fired a shot, striking one of them in the thigh. The men responded by firing multiple shots. Several shots hit Taylor, who was killed.
Walker and Taylor were both initially described as “suspects,” and Walker was jailed and charged with attempted murder of a police officer. Prosecutors later dismissed the charge, citing a lack of evidence.
The officers were serving a warrant at the apartment while in search of a suspected drug dealer, a former boyfriend of Taylor’s. At the time of the raid on Taylor’s home, the man had already been arrested by other officers at his house 10 miles away.
Journalists have reported numerous inconsistencies in the government’s version of events, including what appears to be a false statement on a search warrant used to justify the search of Taylor’s home.
On the warrant, police said a postal inspector said that the target of the drug investigation had received packages at Taylor’s address. The city’s postal inspector denied that claim in an interview with a local television station, saying there was no history of Taylor receiving suspicious packages.
There are also conflicting accounts about whether officers identified themselves before they broke down Taylor’s door with a battering ram.
Police had obtained a controversial “no-knock” warrant, meaning they were not required to announce themselves. Still, they said they did identify themselves as police, which Cameron repeated Wednesday.
Three neighbors who said they were present the night of the Taylor killing told The Times that while they heard loud pounding on Taylor’s door, they did not hear the officers announce themselves.
Taylor’s family struggled as they sought to bring media attention to the case, which occurred as the coronavirus outbreak was generating concern nationwide. In addition, there was no video of the shooting, unlike in other police-involved killings that have sparked immediate anger in recent years.
Things began to change when audio of a 911 call from the night of the shooting was released by police May 28. In it, Walker, weeping, tells a dispatcher that he and Taylor were attacked by unknown intruders.
“I don’t know what is happening,” Walker said. “Somebody kicked in the door and shot my girlfriend.”
Protesters and lawyers said the call proved that Walker did not know it was police at the door.
The audio was released as fury was growing across the country in response to a graphic video filmed three days earlier, on May 25, that showed a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes until his body went limp.
As protests mounted over the Floyd killing, demonstrators began to shout Taylor’s name as well.
The case became a touchstone for nationwide protests against racism, with Taylor’s image painted on streets, emblazoned on protest signs and silk-screened on shirts.
The pressure was successful in one realm. On Sept. 15, Louisville settled a lawsuit against the three officers brought by Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, agreeing to pay her $12 million and enact police reforms.
But what the family and protesters wanted most, they said again and again, were charges against the officers for Taylor’s killing.
The grand jury decision not to bring them was “the ultimate slap in the face,” said national civil rights leader Maurice Mitchell. He said the charge of Hankison with wanton endangerment was “a crumb for a community that has been denied justice for too long.”
“It comes as no surprise that a legal system that has almost uniformly propped up and protected cops who kill continued to do so today,” he said.
Others said the grand jury decision proved the necessity of the Black Lives Matter movement, which demands that authorities value Blacks as they do other Americans.
“It is a grave injustice,” said Shaun King, co-founder of a political action committee that advocates for policing and criminal justice reforms. “The have treated Breonna Taylor’s life like it doesn’t matter one bit.”