A Shock to the Conscience: Justice for Breonna Taylor
Last month, acting Louisville Metro Chief of Police, Robert Schroeder fired one of the three police officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor. The 26-yr old Louisville ER technician was fatally shot when a drug investigation centered on an entirely separate neighborhood, implicated her address. The implication has increasingly become controversial; not only were no drugs found at Taylor’s home but Detective Joshua Jaynes, who requested the no-knock warrant, did so with misleading information. Despite constitutional questions raised by the warrant, it was Detective Brett Hankison who was fired by Chief Schroeder, at the request of Louisville Mayor, Greg Fischer.
The news surprised me as I could previously recall Mayor Fischer releasing a statement that firing the officers before the completion of the investigation, ran against Kentucky State Law and the collective bargaining agreement with the River City Fraternal Order of Police. However, I assumed the announcement on Friday June 19 signaled the end of the investigation. I pocketed my concern, for the moment, selecting to ignore the politically ripe coincidence of the crowd-pleasing news delivered on Juneteenth.
The termination letter was released that same day but went into effect the following week. In it, Chief Schroeder huffs and puffs like an upset dragon. His indignation, as dramatic as any Shakespearean play but not as poetic. His delayed outrage feels more like an impersonation than an outcry for justice.
The crux of the termination highlights two police operating procedures violated by Detective Hankison. Schroeder writes, “your actions displayed an extreme indifference to the value of human life.” According to the completed investigation by the Police Integrity Unit (PIU), Hankison fired 10 shots, blindly into Breonna Taylor’s home via the patio door and window. Schroeder, who finds himself “alarmed and stunned” by the officer’s conduct, pleads the LMPD has never trained Hankison to use deadly force in this way. The 10 shots were fired without any supporting facts that this use of deadly force was directed at a specific person who posed an immediate threat. For this, Hankison’s misconduct is called “a shock to the conscience” and the cause for his immediate termination.
I should perhaps clarify my criticism of Schroeder is in no way a defense of Hankison. The officer, as determined by the PIU’s review, fired wildly into the dark of Taylor’s home, unsure at whom or where he was aiming. He should, no doubt, reckon with the full legal consequence of his actions. Because according to the termination, Hankison’s misconduct has discredited himself and the Louisville Metro Police Department — Damaging the image of the institution. Pretty serious stuff. Yet, in the days that followed there were no criminal charges and definitely no arrest since the announcement. This is undoubtedly because he is still being investigated by the FBI, the Attorney General’s office, The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, as well as subject to a Professional Standards Investigation which follows that of the Police Integrity Unit.
All of which Mayor Fischer and Chief Schroeder are well aware of. Fischer stated as much before, practically predicting what would happen if he fired any of the officers too soon. Nonetheless, a haste termination was attempted as it was also overdue, in the three months since the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor on March 13, no real disciplinary measure toward accountability had been taken.
The shooting itself occurred when Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker fired one shot from his legal firearm, at the unidentified, plain-clothes officers carrying out a no-knock warrant after midnight. It’s unclear whether the officers announced themselves, as they claim to have done so, despite the no-knock warrant. The claim is challenged by neighbors who say they heard no such announcement, as well as a 911-call by Walker, moments after Breonna was shot. In the call, Walker still had no idea who was trying to break into their home.
Kentucky’s Stand Your Ground Law validates Walker’s use of deadly force if his life is being threatened. He believed, with good reason, the lives of he and his girlfriend were being threatened when unidentified plain-clothes officers broke into their home, quite indistinguishable from intruders. Walker’s one shot hit Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly in the leg. The three officers then responded with 20 collective rounds. Chief Schroeder’s letter reveals 10 of these shots were sprayed by Hankison. The remaining half were distributed by Sgt. Mattingly, who claims to have fired 4, leaving the remaining 6 to Detective Myles Cosgrove.
Hearing who shot what, I can’t help but dwell on the difference, if any, between the shots fired by Hankison, and those discharged by Mattingly and Cosgrove. No such report comparing-contrasting the two is, as of yet, available to the public. But it’s clear Hankison fired the most rounds. According to the termination letter, these 10 of 20 shots have also been deemed reckless. Some went piercing through a wall and into a neighbor’s home, endangering the lives of three of the people who were next door at the time — But where did Mattingly and Cosgrove shoot? If only Hankison has produced this “shock to the conscience” of Chief Schroeder, does that then imply the shots governed by Mattingly and Cosgrove were not reckless? Also, if it can be determined whose shots went where, then which of the three officers fired the shots that ultimately killed Breonna? And through the lens of police procedure, did those shots exhibit the use of cognizant, fact-supported judgement?
By firing only Hankison, his misconduct seems isolated in a vacuum. He’s made to seem like he’s the only one who did something stunningly and alarmingly wrong. Schroeder’s letter, brimstone and fire, sucked the air of cause, right out from the consequent effect of the officer’s action. Which was in fact, the officer’s re-action to a shot fired. And justified as Kenneth Walker undoubtedly was in firing his weapon, his lone shot will likely not be overlooked by the appeal Hankison has already submitted against his termination.
Chief Schroeder’s letter also diverts attention from another factor. Bright as a neon-pink elephant, a billboard in the background of the room — Unannounced but pounding the wall for an audience — The no-knock warrant that implicated Taylor’s home in the first place.
As previously mentioned, Detective Joshua Jaynes, who requested the no-knock warrant for Breonna Taylor’s home, did so by submitting false information. As reasons for the requirement of a no-knock warrant Jaynes states in the affidavit: “These drug traffickers have a history of attempting to destroy evidence, have cameras on the location which compromise detectives once an approach to the dwelling is made, and have a history of fleeing from law enforcement.”
Breonna Taylor and Kenneth Walker have no criminal record. Neither do they have a history of fleeing from law enforcement nor destroying evidence. Kenneth Walker wasn’t even listed on the document, making one question, how much detecting was detected by these detectives?
Jaynes also claimed, a U.S. Postal Inspector “verified” the suspicion of packages going to Taylor’s home. But U.S. Postal Inspector, Tony Gooden, has since denied being contacted by the LMPD. A law agency did reach out to his office back in January, regarding the nature of USPS packages to Taylor’s mailing address but it was concluded then, no packages of interest were going there.
Despite it being known, Jaynes requested the warrant — Misled the investigation; misrepresented the home and occupants subject to the search warrant — His actions do not inspire “a shock to the conscience” of Chief Schroeder or Mayor Fischer. The unreasonable, and ultimately fatal, implication of a Louisville citizen’s involvement in a drug investigation is apparently neither alarming, nor stunning enough to attempt the termination of Detective Jaynes.
But perhaps most troubling, is the fact a no-knock warrant could be issued — In a state with a Stand Your Ground Law — By the reckless manipulation of details on a sworn oath document. Yet, this too seems to display no extreme indifference to the value of human life, given the silence from Louisville’s Mayor and Chief of Police who have shown they can be vocal and indignant when they choose to.
So there’s Politics and there’s Justice. Firing Hankison feels like Politics. Candy for the news circuits. A handout to mimic accountability. Likely temporary. The throwing of Hankison, like a handball, passionately to a solid surface, knowing he will bounce back. That isn’t Justice. But then, what is justice? It’s a very elusive word, meaning different things to different people. We’ve dedicated a whole Criminal Justice system of courts, attorneys, and judges to repeatedly interpret that very same question, case by case: what is justice? And asking for a definition from individuals would result in the kind of variety of answers one could expect from asking “what is love?” or “peace?” So how do we arrive at Justice for Breonna Taylor?
Accountability would perhaps be a good start. Openly criticizing Detective Jaynes. Acknowledging and disclosing the facts. Apologizing for the failure of the department to protect its citizens from illegitimate warrants, obtained by submitting false information. Chief Schroeder could also tell us not only where Hankison’s bullets were fired, but also those of Mattingly and Cosgrove — Which of those bullets killed Breonna Taylor? Were any of the three officers aware at who they were shooting at?
And in addition to banning no-knock warrants, a re-examination is due on all drug law enforcement warrants and procedures. Especially those from The Place-Based Investigations (PBI) squad, which apparently oversaw the drug investigation through Detective Jaynes, leading to the killing of Breonna Taylor. Because even if these officers are fired, arrested/charged, and convicted, LMPD will continue to use drug raids as means to fight drug offenders. And as long as drug raid warrants, no-knock and knock-and-announce alike, are issued liberally with substandard reasonable cause, at the expense of public safety, then we’ll be here again. Demanding justice for another innocent civilian, waiting month after month for the slow-turning wheel, that may or may not grant it.
It’s now been 4 months since the carrying out of the no-knock warrant on March 13. Above, I focused on Schroeder, Hankison and Jaynes and every mention of Breonna Taylor was in reference to her death. I feel weird about that.
She isn’t just someone who died, she was a person who lived — A daughter, a partner, a sister, niece and friend. Frequently described by loved ones as someone who was loving, helpful, and honest. “I’m going to help my friends be great,” she once told her mother, Tamika Palmer, who shares a childhood story with Teen Vogue about Breonna’s insistence to bring up others alongside her. The focus on the wellness of others likely was a major influence on Taylor’s attraction, from an early age, to pursue a career in the medical field.
While I recognize justice isn’t limited only to those with a positive attitude and loving nature — And I also understand Taylor is not by far, the only victim of police negligence or tragic drug raids — Breonna Taylor’s unjust death does however, to a far reaching degree, highlight the failure of an institution which claims to be working in the service of citizens. It presents us with an opportunity to do right for all who have been taken away by a similar disregard for life; and equally important, it’s an opportunity to protect as many people as possible from a similar disregard in the future.