After a months-long investigation into the police shooting of Breonna Taylor, a Jefferson County grand jury announced on September 23 that it would indict a former officer in the shooting that killed the 26-year-old EMT. No one was directly charged in her death.
Former Louisville Metro police officer Brett Hankison was indicted on three counts of first-degree wanton endangerment for threatening the lives of Taylor’s neighbors when he fired bullets that went through Taylor’s apartment into theirs. The two other officers who fired shots into the apartment that night — Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly and detective Myles Cosgrove — were not indicted.
“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. The answer to that question is, unequivocally, yes,” Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron said at a press conference after the announcement in Louisville, where protesters gathered in the streets after the grand jury decision many deemed inadequate.
“My job as a special prosecutor in this case was to put emotions aside and investigate the facts to determine if criminal violations of state law resulted in the loss of Ms. Taylor’s life,” Cameron said.
Benjamin Crump, one of the attorneys representing Taylor’s family, called the grand jury decision “outrageous” and “offensive.” “If Brett Hankison’s behavior was wanton endangerment to people in neighboring apartments, then it should have been wanton endangerment in Breonna Taylor’s apartment too. In fact, it should have been ruled wanton murder!” he tweeted.
The nation has been awaiting the decision in the criminal investigation all summer. Cameron said he presented to the grand jury on Monday, and the jury made its decision by noon on Wednesday. The announcement came nearly 200 days after Taylor was shot dead by police while she was asleep in her apartment on March 13. As news of the incident drew attention in early May and picked up steam after the police killing of George Floyd later that month, protests broke out across the country.
Over time, the phrase “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” became a rallying cry for activists — as well as the focal point of countless memes. The phrase was plastered on T-shirts worn by athletes at sporting events and big-name actors at the Emmys. Many pointed out that Black women killed by police don’t often receive as much attention, or justice, in matters of police violence, and now was the time to correct that.
Ahead of the announcement, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer instituted a 72-hour curfew beginning Wednesday at 9 pm, while Louisville Metro Police Department Chief Robert J. Schroeder announced a state of emergency for the police force on Tuesday in anticipation of protests and riots.
The police also restricted access to downtown Louisville beginning on Tuesday, according to the Courier-Journal, and the Kentucky National Guard was activated on Wednesday afternoon. Two police officers were shot and injured during the protests and a suspect was taken into custody, according to Robert J. Schroeder, the Louisville police chief.
Organizers and activists, including Until Freedom’s Tamika Mallory, gathered in the street alongside protesters Wednesday afternoon. Mallory urged the crowd to be both nonviolent and non-peaceful. Some protesters cried in one another’s arms as others shouted, “No justice! No peace! Say her name! Breonna Taylor!” and waved Black Lives Matter flags.
In the days leading up to Cameron’s announcement, Taylor’s mother, Tamika L. Palmer, called on the attorney general to charge all of the officers involved in the shooting. “It’s crunch time, and we’re putting our faith and trust in you,” Palmer wrote in an Instagram post directed at Cameron. “Do you have the power and courage to call my child yours, the power to see that my cry and my community’s cry is heard, and the power as part of a village who raises our children to do right by one of our daughters?!”
What is wanton endangerment?
Wanton endangerment in the first degree is a class-D felony in the state of Kentucky. If convicted, Hankison could face up to five years in prison for each count. Hankison could, conversely, also be required to pay fines and complete probation and community service.
Kentucky law defines wanton endangerment in the first degree as:
A person is guilty of wanton endangerment in the first degree when, under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life, he wantonly engages in conduct which creates a substantial danger of death or serious physical injury to another person.
While there are six charges of homicide under Kentucky law, Cameron said his office did not pursue them because officers Cosgrove and Mattingly were justified in firing their weapons since Kenneth Walker, Taylor’s boyfriend, shot at them that night. “Use of force by Mattingly and Cosgrove was justified to protect themselves. This justification bars us from pursuing criminal charges,” Cameron said.
Moreover, the charges brought against Hankison are solely connected to the fact that he fired his weapon and his bullets traveled through Taylor’s apartment to the neighboring residence where three civilians were at the time, according to the special investigation.
During the course of the investigation, the Louisville Metro Police Department terminated Hankison because it found he “displayed an extreme indifference to the value of human life” when he “wantonly and blindly” fired 10 rounds into Taylor’s apartment, according to his termination letter. The reason for Hankison’s termination essentially mirrors the decision of the grand jury. Mattingly and Cosgrove were placed on administrative reassignment in May.
On Tuesday, in anticipation of the grand jury’s decision, Mattingly wrote an email to about 1,000 law enforcement colleagues stating, “Regardless of the outcome today or Wednesday, I know we did the legal, moral, and ethical thing that night.” Mattingly called protesters “thugs” and slammed police department leaders and FBI “who aren’t cops and would piss their pants if they had to hold the line” for going after him for civil rights violations.
The grand jury announcement reveals a new version of what happened during the early hours of March 13
Cameron’s version of events of the raid on March 13 both differs from and fills in the gaps of the story that has been pieced together in news reports over months.
On the night Taylor was killed, police relied on a no-knock warrant to enter her apartment in search of two people suspected of selling drugs, neither of whom was Taylor. While police say they announced themselves, Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, who was inside the apartment at the time, disputes that claim.
On Wednesday, Cameron announced developments on this particular detail. According to the attorney general, there was an independent witness (a civilian) near Taylor’s apartment who said that officers knocked and announced themselves. “The warrant was not served as a no-knock warrant,” Cameron said.
When no one answered the door, officers breached it. The first officer to enter was Mattingly, who, in a statement, said he identified two individuals standing beside one another — a male and a female — with the male holding a gun with his arms extended in a shooting stance. “Sergeant Mattingly saw the man’s gun fire, heard a boom, and immediately knew he was shot as a result of feeling heat in his upper thigh,” Cameron said. According to the ballistics report, Mattingly was shot once by a 9 mm handgun, the gun that belonged to Kenneth Walker, Taylor’s boyfriend. Mattingly fired six shots back down the hallway. Meanwhile, Detective Cosgrove shot 16 times, all in a matter of seconds.
In total, six bullets hit Taylor, Cameron revealed, with a ballistics report from the FBI concluding that Detective Cosgrove fired the fatal shot; her death certificate had noted she was shot five times. Taylor’s lawyer said she was struck a total of eight times. Determining who fired the fatal shot was integral to the investigation and extended the length of it, Cameron said. But since Cosgrove was justified in his use of force since they were fired upon by Walker, he would not be charged.
Detective Hankison, meanwhile, fired 10 shots from outside the apartment, with some bullets going through the bedroom window, through Taylor’s apartment and into the neighboring one. At the time, three residents of that apartment were at home, including a man, a pregnant woman, and a child. “There is no conclusive evidence that any bullets fired from Detective Hankison’s weapons struck Ms. Taylor,” Cameron said.
Cameron said his team of investigators reconstructed the events that took place that night by reviewing ballistics evidence, 911 calls, police radio traffic, and interviews. Video footage — Cameron did not say from where — began at the point when area patrol officers arrived at the location. They also used information from the Kentucky State Police local medical examiner’s lab and the FBI crime lab in Quantico.
What happens next in the fight for justice in Louisville
A week ago, the city of Louisville announced that it had reached a $12 million settlement with Taylor’s family and attorneys — the largest sum the city has ever paid out for a police misconduct suit. The settlement was in response to a lawsuit that Taylor’s family filed in April, alleging excessive force and gross negligence on the part of the officers. A court filing submitted by the family in July alleged that Taylor did not receive emergency medical aid after she was shot and that the drug raid on her apartment was part of a government-backed development scheme to clear out a block in Taylor’s neighborhood.
While the settlement included a list of police reforms, Mayor Fischer said it was not an acknowledgment of wrongdoing on the city’s part.
On Tuesday, Cameron acknowledged that many would not be satisfied with the grand jury’s decision but fervently urged the country to accept “the truth” and for elected officials to do whatever it takes to “maintain law and order”:
“Justice is not often easy. It does not fit the mold of public opinion, and it does not conform to shifting standards. It answers only to the facts and to the law,” Cameron said. “[...] Mob justice is not justice. Justice sought by violence is not justice. It just becomes revenge. And in our system, criminal justice isn’t a quest for revenge. It’s the quest for truth, evidence, and facts and the use of that truth as we fairly apply our laws. Our reaction to the truth today says what kind of society we want to be. Do we really want the truth, or do we want a truth that fits our narrative? Do we want the facts or are we content to blindly accept our own version of events?”
Cameron also announced that he would create a task force of citizens, law enforcement officials, and elected officials to review the state’s process for securing, reviewing, and executing search warrants. “I believe conducting a top-to-bottom review of the search warrant process is necessary to determine if changes are required and establish best practices,” Cameron said. He added that his office would vigorously prosecute the criminal charges announced on Wednesday.
Cameron was assigned the case as special prosecutor in May and in the past five months revealed few details about the independent investigation. Meanwhile, activists have pressed lawmakers to defund the local police department. While Louisville’s Metro Council did vote unanimously in June to ban no-knock warrants, it also approved a budget that wouldn’t even begin to defund LMPD. The new spending plan will merely “require police to put the money toward recruiting a more diverse force, additional training and exploring co-responder models that could send behavioral health professionals on calls with officers,” according to the Courier-Journal.
The FBI is still investigating Taylor’s killing for possible civil rights violations.
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