The Justice System Protected Breonna Taylor's Killers, As it Was Designed to Do

The Justice System Protected Breonna Taylor's Killers, As it Was Designed to Do
Image: Drew Angerer (Getty Images)

Breonna Taylor’s name and likeness have been immortalized on protest signs, magazine covers, Instagram posts, cringeworthy memes, and even t-shirts worn during the Emmys. There is a law named after her in Kentucky, banning the very same “no-knock warrants” that led to Louisville police officers shooting Taylor to death in her own home in March. She has become a household name, a grim fixture following a long summer marked by protest. And on Wednesday, it felt like the call for something akin to justice was all in vain: Kentucky’s attorney general announced that one of the officers involved in the raid was indicted on “wanton endangerment” charges against Taylor’s neighbor. Little more than a slap on the wrist. There were no charges against the two officers who killed Taylor.

It’s unsurprising that those officers were not charged with Taylor’s murder or even manslaughter. As journalist Shaila Dewan noted in the New York Times, “Few police officers are ever charged with murder or manslaughter when they cause a death in the line of duty, and only about a third of those officers are convicted.” But who needs statistics when one can simply look at the deaths of countless unarmed Black people killed by police, and consider the lack of serious indictments that followed? Aiyana Jones, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile. The last decade has been haunted by high-profile examples of Black Americans whose deaths spur brief pauses of reflection and a flurry of media analyses of policing in America, only to be put on the back burner and ignored until yet another person dies.

The cycle is endless, up to the collective questions about what justice looks like. Is it a carceral option of locking up the offending officers or something more nuanced? Is mere indictment victory enough? Is it a cash payout to grieving families, like the $12 million settlement awarded to the Taylor family following a wrongful death lawsuit? Is it reform? Is it the re-allocation of police funds? Is it the abolishment of policing as we know it? Is a grieving family’s idea of what justice looks like more important than the vision of justice for protesters and activists moved to action by that death?

There will always be another death to feed the discourse, but there is one thing that many can agree on: This isn’t justice. The fact that the officers who shot Taylor were not charged with a crime is not even a pale imitation of justice.

Still, even as the streets and tweets filled with calls to arrest Taylor’s killers, I knew this was a fruitless demand: In many ways, the men who entered Taylor’s home and shot her five times technically didn’t commit a crime. The no-knock warrant the police served that night was legal. And the police themselves believed that Taylor’s death wasn’t only legal, but righteous as well.

“I know we did the legal, moral and ethical thing that night,” Jonathan Mattingly, one of the Louisville cops involved in Taylor’s death, wrote in an e-mail to his colleagues. “It’s sad how the good guys are demonized, and criminals are canonized.” (Mattingly was not charged.)

But that is a feature of policing, not a bug.

Police officers can often kill with impunity as long as they believe their lives are in danger. It’s the kind of flawed logic that allowed the Cleveland officers who shot 12-year-old Rice—who was playing with a toy gun in the park in 2014—to avoid indictment: They thought Rice’s gun was real and believed Rice was about to point it in their direction. Their fear alone was enough to let them off the hook.

Hindsight might be 20/20, but it’s irrelevant: How a cop feels can and usually does take precedent over the facts. In the case of Taylor, her boyfriend Kenneth Walker allegedly fired a single shot at officers when they attempted the raid, convinced the cops were intruders. (Whether or not the Louisville officers identified themselves is in dispute.) One cop was injured.

Officers have discharged their weapons for less: They fired 20 rounds at the couple before leaving Taylor for dead.

And so Taylor became collateral damage. The unarmed, 26-year-old ER technician was peppered with gunfire, and that’s considered acceptable in criminal court. It’s not, according to the state of Kentucky, even criminal.

But Walker and Taylor are Black. Walker didn’t have to fire a weapon to make officers feel unsafe. They could have done anything—reached for a pair of glasses, rounded a corner too quickly, stood the wrong way, anything—to be regarded as a threat. Their blackness alone may have registered as a threat before officers attempted to enter the apartment in search of drugs (which never materialized). Mattingly’s characterization of Taylor as the bad guy—the “criminal”—in this scenario, regardless of the facts in the case, suggests that she was condemned from the start.

None of this is to say that it is pointless to demand more of the criminal justice system, or that seeking something akin to justice is a useless exercise.
But Taylor’s death is a trenchant reminder of who that system—one in which the fears of law enforcement are enshrined into law, trumping Black life—is built for. It’s a system built for cops.

Cities will continue doling out multi-million dollar settlements to the victims’ families, and cops around the country will continue to shoot first and ask questions later. We don’t just need a few trigger-happy cops off the streets; we need to dismantle policing as we know it. Until then, there will be more Breonna Taylors, more protests, and more disappointment with nary a resolution in sight.

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