While the death this week of George Floyd in Minneapolis has unleashed a wave of protests across the country, fury over the killing of an African American medical worker in Louisville, Kentucky, by police has also been growing, driving tense demonstrations in that city.
On Saturday, Louisville’s mayor, Greg Fischer, said he would institute a dusk-to-dawn curfew and call in the National Guard after protests had raged in the city Friday night. The night before, seven people were struck by gunfire during demonstrations.
Q: What happened in Louisville?
A: Shortly after midnight on March 13, Louisville police, executing a search warrant, used a battering ram to crash into the apartment of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African American emergency room technician. After a brief confrontation, they fired several shots, striking her at least eight times.
According to The Louisville Courier Journal, police were investigating two men who they believed were selling drugs out of a house that was far from Taylor’s home. But a judge had also signed a warrant allowing the police to search Taylor’s residence because police said they believed that one of the two men had used her apartment to receive packages. The judge’s order was a “no-knock” warrant, which allowed the police to enter without warning or without identifying themselves as law enforcement.
Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, said her daughter had big dreams and planned a lifelong career in health care after serving as an EMT and as an emergency room technician.
“She had a whole plan on becoming a nurse and buying a house and then starting a family. Breonna had her head on straight, and she was a very decent person,” Palmer told The Courier Journal. “She didn’t deserve this. She wasn’t that type of person.”
Q: Why did the police fire their weapons?
A: Louisville police say that they only fired inside Taylor’s home after they were first fired upon by Kenneth Walker, Taylor’s boyfriend, who was in bed with her. They said that Walker wounded one of the officers, who was hit in a leg but was expected to make a full recovery. Walker was subsequently charged with attempted murder of a police officer, though the charge was dismissed earlier this month.
Police also assert that, despite having a no-knock warrant, they knocked several times and identified themselves as police with a warrant before entering the apartment. Police said that officers then “forced entry into the exterior door and were immediately met with gunfire.” The officer who was wounded, and two others, then returned fire, police said. The three officers have been placed on administrative reassignment.
Q: Is the police account disputed?
A: Yes, hotly. Taylor’s relatives and their lawyers say that police never identified themselves before entering — despite their claims. They also say that Walker was licensed to carry a gun.
And Walker, 27, has said that he feared for his life and only fired in self-defense, believing that someone was trying to break into the home.
“He didn’t know these were police officers, and they found no drugs in the apartment. None,” said Walker’s lawyer, Rob Eggert. “He was scared for his life, and her life.”
In a 911 call just after the shots were fired, Walker told a dispatcher that “somebody kicked in the door and shot my girlfriend,” according to a recording released this week.
Taylor’s family also said it was outrageous that police felt it necessary to conduct the raid in the middle of the night. Their lawyers say police had already located the main suspect in the investigation by the time they burst into the apartment. But they “then proceeded to spray gunfire into the residence with a total disregard for the value of human life,” according to a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Taylor’s mother.
There was no body camera footage from the raid. And, for now at least, prosecutors have said they had dismissed the charges against Walker, adding that they will let investigations into the killing run their course before making any final decisions. Some legal experts said the fact that prosecutors dropped charges after a grand jury indictment suggested that they may have doubts about the version of events told by police.
Q: Why did this take so long to receive national attention?
A: Lawyers for Taylor’s family have suggested that the intense focus on the COVID-19 pandemic over the past few months most likely dampened the initial response from people in the community and in the news media.
Q: Has there been other fallout?
A: Plenty — even aside from the continuing protests.
The FBI is now investigating the shooting. And Fischer, who called Taylor’s death “tragic,” later instituted a new policy requiring “no knock” warrants to be endorsed by the police chief or someone designated by the chief before being sent to a judge for approval. Then this week, the mayor temporarily suspended all “no knock” warrants.
Fischer has also announced other changes to ensure “more scrutiny, transparency and accountability,” including the naming of a new police chief; a new requirement that body cameras always be worn during the execution of search warrants; and the establishment of a civilian review board for police disciplinary matters.