Shot to death by police in her own home

The protest goes on: Hundreds of angry marchers continued to defy curfew this weekend. © Getty

Will there be justice for Breonna Taylor? As tensions rise again in the US over the police shooting of a young black woman, some campaigners are turning their attention to reform.

Breonna Taylor was in her own home, in her own bed, in the middle of the night when her life was suddenly taken away.

It was just after midnight on the 13th of March when three strangers broke down the door of her home in Louisville, in the US state of Kentucky.

Confused and alarmed, her boyfriend fired a single shot at the intruders. In response, they opened fire. Breonna, a 26-year-old black woman and emergency room technician, was hit six times.

When the attackers left the scene, her boyfriend, a licensed gun owner, still had no idea it was, in fact, the police, executing a drugs raid, who had entered their home. No drugs were ever found.

Now, six months on, one of the officers involved in her death has finally been charged with a crime – but not murder, or even manslaughter. Instead, Brett Hankinson faces three counts of “wanton endangerment” for firing into a white neighbour’s apartment.

Since the decision was announced, thousands have taken to the streets to demand action. Once again, chants of “no justice, no peace” can be heard in cities all across America.

But despite the outcry, many legal experts are not surprised. Estimates suggest that the police kill an astonishing 1,000 people in the US each year (compared to an average of just three in England and Wales), but only a small fraction of the police involved are ever charged. So far in 2020, only 10 have been charged – including the killers of George Floyd.

To explain this statistic, many point to the law. It varies from state to state, but in most places, officers are allowed to use “objectively reasonable” force to defend themselves.

Critics say this gives the police too much leeway for violence – if an officer says they were in danger they may escape accountability, even if hindsight proves no such danger existed.

It is a situation that has left campaigners wondering: what does justice for black Americans killed by the police really look like?

Law professor Kate Levine believes there should be less focus on charges and more focus on lasting change. “We are spending too much time focusing on prosecution of individual police officers and not enough time on big systemic changes that would stop police officers from being at Breonna Taylor’s house in the early hours of the morning with a battering ram.”

Reform is happening – slowly. In California, politicians have changed the wording of the law: officers must now use only “necessary” force.

And in Louisville, officials have agreed to pay a $12m settlement to Breonna Taylor’s family, one of the largest payouts for a police killing in American history.

For her mother Tamika Palmer, it is a step in the right direction: “Justice for Breonna means that we will continue to save lives in her honour. No amount of money accomplishes that, but the police reform measures that we were able to get passed as a part of this settlement mean so much more to my family, our community and to Breonna’s legacy.”

So, will there be justice for Breonna Taylor?

#SayHerName

Yes, say some. A charge, however minor, is an important step forward in her family’s fight for answers. FBI investigations continue, and the other officers involved could still be sacked. For several months, her killing was overshadowed by coronavirus but as protests grow, the media and even legislators are beginning to take notice. Justice for Breonna Taylor may involve reforms, not indictments.

No, say others. The man who shot Breonna Taylor dead, Detective Myles Cosgrove, has not been charged. But this is about more than individual police officers, or individual laws. Louisville is one of the most segregated towns in America. Until the problem of structural racism is solved in the US, there will be no justice for Breonna Taylor or any of the black Americans killed by police.

You Decide

  1. Should the police be armed?
  2. Is racism a bigger problem in America than in other countries?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are the mayor of Louisville. Write a letter to residents calling for calm after more than 100 days of protest.
  2. Using the expert links to help you, make a list of five changes you would make if you were in charge of the police in America. Do you think they would be easy or difficult to implement? Would they help to bring down the number of deaths?

Some People Say...

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Martin Luther King Jr (1929–1968), leader of the American civil rights movement

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that black people are disproportionately likely to be killed by police in the US. A project by the Guardian newspaper showed that as of 2016, black Americans were more than twice as likely to be killed by officers than white people, with deaths at 6.66 per million and 2.9 per million respectively. However, men are killed at a much higher rate than women – of the 1093 people killed by the US in 2016, only 13 were black women.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds what can be done to prevent more Americans, especially black Americans, being killed by police officers. Some say the law should be changed to make individual officers more accountable. Others say the issue is with training: a 2006 report showed that new US police recruits receive 111 hours of basic training on firearms skills and self-defence – but only eight hours each on ethics and integrity, community policy strategies and conflict management.

Word Watch

Drugs raid
The plainclothes police officers had a search warrant because they believed Breonna Taylor’s ex-boyfriend had used her apartment to receive drugs packages.
Brett Hankinson
The detective, who did not fire the fatal shot, was sacked in June, three months after the shooting.
George Floyd
An African-American man who died in Minneapolis in May this year when a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Accountability
Protected by powerful unions and their close working relationships with prosecutors, many feel that US police officers do not have to fear consequences for their actions.
Police reform
As part of the settlement, officials have agreed to reforms including changes to the process of obtaining search warrants, mandating that social workers respond alongside police to some calls and encouraging officers to live in the communities they work in.
FBI
The US security service is investigating whether or not the warrant that was used to enter Breonna Taylor’s home was obtained according to the correct procedures.
Segregated
US census data from 2010 shows that 48% of white Louisvillians live in neighbourhoods that are 95% or more white, while 40% of African American residents live in areas that are 80% or more black.

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