At his press conference closing the investigation into the death of Breonna Taylor, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron said Taylor’s death in a March police raid was “a tragedy.”
“And sometimes,” Cameron added, “the criminal law is not adequate to respond to a tragedy.”
For months protesters have called for the Louisville Metro Police Department officers involved in Taylor’s death — Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly, Det. Myles Cosgrove, and former Det. Brett Hankison — to be charged with murder. A grand jury instead charged Hankison with three counts of wanton endangerment, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
To protesters and other advocates, the outcome did not adequately address the magnitude of the tragedy.
Now they’re setting their sights on changing the law, and expanding upon already announced reforms, to prevent a similar incident from ever happening again.
A centerpiece of the effort is a state bill known as “Breonna’s Law for Kentucky,” which would ban no-knock warrants like the one obtained for the Taylor raid, require drug and alcohol testing for police officers after a fatal police shooting, and mandate the use of body cameras during search warrants and most other interactions with the public.
Under the bill, which has been pre-filed for the coming legislative session, officers who fail to wear or activate their body cameras would face penalties. The bill would also set consistent standards for law enforcement agencies to release unedited video and audio recordings from body cameras.
The systemic effort at transparency is important to State Rep. Charles Booker, a Louisville Democrat and co-sponsor of the statewide “Breonna’s Law.”
“One of the things that has been robbed from us as a community is transparency,” Booker said. “We were really kept in the dark, all of us, even in elected leadership.”
On Wednesday, Attorney General Cameron reiterated what LMPD has said for months: There was no body camera footage of the Taylor killing. Cameron also announced the creation of a task force — which will include elected leaders, citizens and law enforcement, among others — to examine how search warrants are secured, reviewed and executed in Kentucky.
Locally, other policing reforms were announced last week by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer at a press conference with Breonna Taylor’s family publicizing the historic $12 million settlement to a wrongful death suit. Reforms include an early warning system that tracks all “use of force” incidents and citizen complaints, and requirements that commanding officers need to approve and review search warrants.
But to State Rep. Attica Scott, a Jefferson County Democrat leading the effort to pass Breonna’s Law for Kentucky, the task force and policing reforms amount to “dancing around the issue.” Task forces, she said, are created “when people don’t actually want to deal with issues.”
“The reality is that whatever this task force is going to address, and the Attorney General laid out some of it, that is all in Breonna’s Law for Kentucky. So why not advocate for Breonna’s Law for Kentucky and pass that when the General Assembly convenes in January?”
When asked about the attorney general’s position on Breonna’s Law for Kentucky, a spokesperson did not explicitly answer, instead pointing to the establishment of the task force to review search warrants.
The state bill is similar to a local “Breonna’s Law” passed by Louisville’s Metro Council in June.
Beyond Police Reform
But local advocates are also calling for policies that do more than repair broken relationships with police. For Jecorey Arthur, District 4 councilman-elect, underlying systemic issues such as the racial wealth gap and residential segregation require a “laser focus on the Black community.” Federally, Arthur said, Louisville’s descendants of slavery need reparations. Locally, the Black community needs “atonement.”
“If wealth was taken from us, wealth needs to be given to us,” Arthur said. “If you kept us from getting homes, you need to give us homes. If you kept us from getting a grocery store, you need to give us a grocery store. If you locked us up wrongfully, you need to release us, with compensation of course.”
On Wednesday, Fischer echoed calls for structural change, saying “Justice for Breonna also means a commitment to eliminating systemic and structural racism in our city and our country, to closing the unconscionable racial gaps in wealth, education, health and opportunity.”
For reformers, the question is what efforts to prioritize. Paula McCraney, District 7 councilwoman, is advocating for the creation of a civilian accountability board to oversee LMPD. Such a group would be independent, led by an inspector general with subpoena power, and would have authority to investigate police misconduct, examine complaints, review internal investigations and recommend changes.
Vesting the board with subpoena power, however, requires a change to state law. For McCraney, who co-chairs the city’s Civil Review Board work group, subpoena power is important but not essential.
“Even without subpoena power, the civilian review board as we are putting it together has a lot of authority. It can still do investigations and call witnesses,” she said. “It will be effective in that it can get started on day one in investigating the police. That will probably help the public start putting their trust in law enforcement.”
Some reforms might require both structural and cultural change, including in institutions adjacent to police departments.
Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, a sociologist at Brown University, has studied how career incentives for prosecutors lead to a lack of accountability for police officers.
Although citizens “assume prosecutors would create oversight for police,” Gonzalez Van Cleve said the reality is the opposite.
“They’re so dependent upon police officers to win cases and get promoted in the office,” she said. “Police are their star witnesses. So if a prosecutor wants to win cases that allow them to be promoted in the office, they’re trained early on that they need to go along to get along.”
One reform, she suggested, involves shifting the cost of police misconduct from taxpayers to police unions. Other reforms could include stronger whistleblower protections and stronger oversight not just of police officers but of prosecutors as well.
For Reginald Barnes, pastor of Brown Memorial CME Church in Louisville, the time is now for “transformation” in policy and for long-awaited accountability. Barnes, who serves as co-president of the faith and justice group CLOUT, said he encourages Louisvillians to “think globally, but act locally.” Some problems are national or statewide in scope. But the work of justice, he said, has to start here.
Over the coming months, and particularly after the November election, calls for reform from the streets will migrate into city halls and capitol offices. Advocates of systemic change are encouraging citizens to ground their efforts within their own communities — but also to dream big.
“Banning no-knock warrants is just a part of the conversation,” Rep. Booker said. “I’m at a point where I feel urgency about the bigger work we gotta do to make sure no one else’s door gets kicked in.”