The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
In many ways, America asks police officers to do too much. They’re asked to enforce the law, yes. But they’re also asked to deescalate some of the most tense moments in our communities. They’re asked to serve as de-facto mental health and crisis counselors. Over time, we’ve come to ask more from our police officers than we should of one particular profession.
Even with that recognition, however, it’s not too much to ask that police officers carry out their important roles with rules and actions that value human lives equally.
It’s not too much to ask that police officers don’t shoot an unarmed health care worker in her own home, even when authorities say her boyfriend fired a shot and struck an officer in the leg, and her boyfriend says he didn’t realize it was the police breaking down the door. It’s not too much to ask that officers clearly identify themselves when serving a warrant. It’s not too much to ask that they know where they’re shooting if they ever have to use deadly force.
And it’s not too much to ask that there are appropriate consequences for the very real human costs of their actions. Unfortunately, that is not what happened in Louisville, Kentucky last week when only one of the three plain clothes police officers involved in the shooting death of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was charged related to that fatal March 13 incident.
The three charges of wanton endangerment against now former-officer Brett Hankison are particularly outrageous because they don’t even relate to Taylor. Hankison has been charged for endangering Taylor’s neighbors, not her, for shooting wildly into her apartment and adjoining units. This sends an unmistakable, unacceptable message that the damage done in other apartments and the potential harm to neighbors somehow matters more than the actual, deadly damage done to a young black woman.
Kentucky Attorney Daniel Cameron spoke after the charges were announced last week, and said there was “nothing conclusive to say” that anyone of the 10 bullets fired by Hankison hit Taylor, as reported by the Louisville Courier Journal. That would seem to indicate that the six shots that struck Taylor were fired by officers Jonathan Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove.
Cameron said his office’s investigation found Mattingly and Cosgrove’s actions to be justified because Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, shot first and struck Mattingly in the leg.
If Hankison endangered the lives of Taylor’s neighbors, he also endangered her life, even if none of the shots he fired hit her. Hankison was fired by the Louisville Metro Police Department in June, and interim police chief Robert Schroeder did not hold back from criticizing him at the time.
“I find your conduct a shock to the conscience,” Schroeder wrote to Hankison at the time. “I am alarmed and stunned you used deadly force in this fashion.”
It’s also a shock to the conscience that such a use of deadly force did not result in charges specific to the risk Hankison posed to Taylor. In this discrepancy, and even in the city of Louisville’s record $12 million settlement with Taylor’s family that came without an admission of wrongdoing, the human value and human consequences seem to have been left out of the equation.
It’s no stretch to look at the charges brought last week, and those that weren’t brought, and reach the conclusion that the criminal justice system placed more value on neighboring apartments than on Breonna Taylor’s life. Or that it placed more value on an officer’s ability to fire his weapon blindly (in self-defense or otherwise) than on a black woman’s right to exist in her home. These are demoralizing conclusions, particularly for black Americans, who are three times more likely than white people to be killed in an encounter with police, according to a study from Harvard researchers.
As part of the settlement with Taylor’s family and in separate actions, Louisville has moved forward with several reforms such as banning no-knock warrants and other search warrant restrictions, and requiring that emergency medical personnel be on scene when forced entry is used. Cameron is also convening a statewide task force on how search warrants are executed.
Those have the potential to be positive steps toward a more just system, but do not change the fact Breonna Taylor has not been afforded the same justice.
“This is a tragedy,” Cameron said last week. “And sometimes the criminal law is not adequate to respond to a tragedy.” But it is not just a tragedy. It is an injustice, and if current criminal law is incapable of providing justice, then the law needs to change — not through violence or through abolishing the police — but through reforms that reduce the use of deadly force and better recognize the human costs when officers make mistakes.