Breonna Taylor's killing has changed Louisville – but justice has not yet come

By Josh Wood

Three hundred and sixty-five days. Four police chiefs. Two fatal shootings tied to protests. Hundreds of protesters arrested. Zero charges for the three police officers who fired 32 bullets in the early morning raid that killed Breonna Taylor, hitting her six times.

It has been a long, painful year for Taylor’s family, and for Louisville, a city straddling the American midwest and south once known for its college basketball prowess and the annual Kentucky Derby.

It is now more readily identifiable as the city where Taylor was shot and killed by police a year ago Saturday.

At first, Taylor’s death drew little notice. The 26-year-old Black ER tech was described as a suspect who was killed as police returned fire. Her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, was arrested for firing a single shot from his pistol, hitting an officer in the leg as they breached the door. He later said he believed he was witnessing a home invasion and that the police did not identify themselves.

Taylor’s family and friends tried to raise awareness about her killing, but as Kentucky and the nation braced for the pandemic shutdown, they struggled to get the public’s attention.

Back then it would have seemed unlikely that her name would become one of the most recognizable in America. That the jerseys NBA and WNBA players wore on court would exhort fans to say her name. That her face would be on billboards put up by Oprah Winfrey. That those vying for the presidency would mention her when they were addressing the country.

People gather in Jefferson Square in Louisville to await word on charges against police officers in the death of Breonna Taylor.
People gather in Jefferson Square in Louisville to await word on charges against police officers in the death of Breonna Taylor. Photograph: Darron Cummings/AP

When videos of the killings of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd surfaced, Taylor’s death started to garner wider attention. Then, on 28 May – two days after protests began in Minneapolis over George Floyd’s killing – a 911 call by Taylor’s boyfriend was made public. In it, a sobbing Walker appeared to not know it was the police who had shot into the apartment. The phone call was seen as a contradiction of the police’s cut and dry version of events and people were outraged. Mass protests erupted immediately.

It was a watershed moment for Louisville, dividing its history into a before and an after.

“For so long, across the country but specifically honing in on Louisville, you had people who were trying to pretend to be oblivious to the obvious,” said Timothy Findley Jr, a protest leader and pastor at the Kingdom Fellowship Christian Life Center in Louisville. “The inequities have always been there … But 2020, it pulled the cover off and it wouldn’t allow people to pretend as if they didn’t know.”

These days in Louisville, Black Lives Matter signs are ubiquitous on lawns in predominantly white neighborhoods. The mayor declared racism a public health crisis. Debates over inequity, inequality, segregation, white privilege and reforming the city’s controversy-ridden police force are abound.

So far, three officers have been fired from the police force for actions relating to Taylor’s death. In June, it was announced that Det Brett Hankison would be fired for “wantonly and blindly” firing 10 shots into Taylor’s apartment while showing “an extreme indifference to the value of human life”. In January, two more firings: Det Myles Cosgrove, who then police chief Yvette Gentry said fired 16 rounds without acquiring a target and failed to turn on his body camera, and Det Joshua Jaynes, who Gentry wrote displayed “untruthfulness” in applying for a warrant for Taylor’s apartment.

In September, the city agreed to pay Taylor’s family $12m to settle a civil suit. As part of the settlement, the city promised a slew of police reforms, including measures that would screen potentially problematic officers, build relationships with local communities and put more controls on how warrants are obtained and served.

But justice – which, to most protesters, means charges against the officers involved in the killing of Taylor – has not yet come.

Breonna Taylor in an undated photo.
Breonna Taylor in an undated photo. Photograph: AP

After months of investigation, on 23 September Kentucky’s Republican attorney general, Daniel Cameron, announced that no charges would be filed by the state against police officers for the killing of Taylor. One officer, Hankison, received three charges of wanton endangerment for shots he fired that went into a neighboring apartment. To many, it felt like punishment was only being dealt for shots that missed.

Later, jurors would come forward to say that the wanton endangerment charges were the only charges they were presented to consider.

“It was incredibly frustrating because you watch so many people for so long fight so hard to make sure that Breonna Taylor got a fair shake just to see that it was basically predetermined,” said Sam Aguiar, an attorney for Taylor’s family. “It made me wonder how much has actually changed since the 1960s.”

While the state has not charged the officers involved in the raid, an FBI investigation into potential civil rights violations surrounding Taylor’s death remains ongoing.

Aguiar said he is “cautiously optimistic” about federal charges as those investigators do not have a “political agenda” like Kentucky’s attorney general.

Large protests are expected on Saturday to mark the first anniversary of Taylor’s killing and continue calls for justice.

In a press conference Thursday, Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, called on the Jefferson county commonwealth’s attorney, Tom Wine, to bring charges against the officers.

“It really ain’t that hard,” she said. “Tom Wine, you got a job to do. That’s all we asking you to do.”

Tamika Palmer, Breonna Taylor’s mother, addresses the media in Louisville on 13 August 2020.
Tamika Palmer, Breonna Taylor’s mother, addresses the media in Louisville on 13 August 2020. Photograph: Dylan Lovan/AP

Ahead of the anniversary, which the Louisville mayor, Greg Fischer, said he believed would be “a solemn remembrance”, the city announced street closures surrounding the downtown square protesters have rallied at since late May.

The city appears to be trying to turn the page on the protests, announcing that a marker commemorating the “2020 racial justice protests” would be erected in the square and that any future events there would now require permits - a move that could stoke more tensions with the protesters who have maintained a presence for more than nine months now.

While the arrests and charges activists on the street are calling for may not come, change might.

“I think policy change is justice,” said Cherie Dawson-Edwards, associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Louisville who previously headed the school’s criminal justice programme. “As far as the actual justice system, I don’t think our justice process is designed to charge police officers. It’s not. If that’s the kind of justice we’re seeking, then I don’t know if I believe that will happen.”

Demonstrators march as they protest the lack of criminal charges in the police killign of Breonna Taylor in Louisville on 24 September 2020.
Demonstrators march as they protest the lack of criminal charges in the police killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville on 24 September 2020. Photograph: Jeff Dean/AFP/Getty Images

Louisville banned no-knock raids with Breonna’s Law in June and its backers have sought to ban such warrants across the state with a bill put forward by Kentucky’s sole Black female legislator, Democrat Attica Scott. While that bill has been tabled, a bill from Kentucky’s Republican senate president that limits, but does not outright ban, no-knock raids was passed by the state’s senate on Wednesday and now heads to the house of representatives.

But events of the past year have also inspired bills that would punish protesters and prevent their goals from being enacted. One bill would make insulting or taunting a police officer a criminal offense and ensure that law enforcement budgets cannot be lowered. Another would give the office of Kentucky’s attorney general – whose home was repeatedly picketed by demonstrators last year - the ability to level charges at protesters.

The direction Louisville goes from here in a large part depends on the Louisville metro police department (LMPD).

In the aftermath of the Taylor’s death, the department has introduced a series of reforms, among them: mandating that body cameras be worn while executing warrants, limiting the use of teargas and encouraging officers to actually live in the community where they work.

In this image from video, a Louisville Metro Police Department office stands guard outside the home of Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron as protestors sit in his front yard in Louisville, Kentucky Tuesday, July 14, 2020. About two dozen protestors were arrested. Protesters were chanting Breonna Taylor’s name as well as calling for justice after the 26-year-old emergency room technician was fatally shot by LMPD in her South End Apartment while police were serving a search warrant. Cameron said he still has no timeline for when his office will conclude its investigation of the case. (Mary Ann Gerth/Courier Journal via AP)
A Louisville metro police officer stands guard outside the home of Kentucky’s attorney general, Daniel Cameron, as protesters sit on his front yard on 14 July 2020. Photograph: Mary Ann Gerth/AP

The city named Erika Shields its permanent chief of police in January. The appointment of Shields, who stepped down from her role as Atlanta’s police chief following the June police killing of Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy’s parking lot, resulted in anger from some Louisville protesters.

To those working for social justice though, the changes to LMPD need to go beyond just policy reforms.

For 2X, a longtime Louisville anti-violence activist who heads the organization Game Changers, a top priority would be to get more Black officers onboard to make a more “diverse force and help engage communities that some of the white officers might not be totally familiar with or maybe feel awkward with, especially in a time of no trust”.

While Louisville is roughly a quarter Black, the police force is just 13% Black, according to Louisville police statistics from February.

Hired to do a top-to-bottom review of the police force by the city, the Chicago firm Hillard Heintze listed diversification as a top suggestion. They found that many LMPD personnel believed that Black officers had “a distinct disadvantage” assimilating into the “white-dominated organizational culture” and had been not been treated fairly with regards to promotions and special assignments.

Dawson-Edwards, who has experience working with many Louisville police officers, said the organisation’s culture needs to be transformed.

“I worry that none of these reforms change the culture,” she said.

A police line approaches demonstrators protesting the lack of charges in the killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville on 25 September 2020.
A police line approaches demonstrators protesting the lack of charges in the killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville on 25 September 2020. Photograph: Jeff Dean/AFP/Getty Images

Deepening Louisville’s wounds and the challenges facing its troubled police force is the continuing plague of gun violence in the city, which saw a record-shattering 173 homicides in 2020 – nearly all the result of gunshot wounds and most of the victims Black.

Not counted in that number are Taylor and David McAtee, a Black barbecue chef who was shot dead in his kitchen doorway on 1 June by a national guard soldier after troops and police were dispatched to the area – far from the protests – to disperse a crowd that was violating curfew.

Counted are McAtee’s cousin Marvin, who spoke to the Guardian about his uncle in June and was gunned down on the same block months later in one of Louisville’s many open homicide cases. Also counted are Tyler Gerth, a 27-year-old photographer shot when a man opened fire in the protest square; Protest leader Travis Nagdy, 21, who was killed in a botched carjacking; and protest leader Kris Smith, 42, who was shot and killed in his vehicle in an unsolved murder in December.

To 2X, who has often acted as a bridge between the Black community and police in the city and who has been working on police shootings for two decades now, the progress made on reforms is encouraging.

“It’s a drip, drip process,” he said. “However, there’s been more activity from the summer of 2020 until now than any previous year that I’ve witnessed.”

Findley Jr, the pastor and protest leader, is optimistic about what has come from the protest movement.

“I’m 100% a believer that the city has completely changed,” he said. “The change is sweeping – and its something that’s going to happen for years to come.”

He also believes the events of 2020 will “galvanize” a corps of candidates for office from Black and brown communities in Kentucky.

But there is also an acknowledgement that fixing Louisville’s problems is a large task bigger than reforms, memorials and platitudes: it involves addressing the disparities caused by race in this deeply segregated city.

“All of the root causes that led to Breonna Taylor getting shot and killed have not been addressed,” said Jecorey Arthur, a newly-seated member of Louisville’s metro council who was a frequent participant in last year’s protests. “The best form of justice for her situation is to take care of the community that she came from, to take care of the community that will without a doubt have the next Breonna Taylor if we don’t address lack of wealth, if we don’t address the housing crisis, if we don’t address the education gaps.

“If we don’t address any of that, there will be another Breonna Taylor. There will be countless Breonna Taylors.”