Breonna Taylor’s Killers Got Off — and We’re the Ones Paying for It

A taxpayer-funded settlement does not equal justice for victims of police brutality

Photo: Jeff Dean/Getty Images

So much for arresting the men who killed Breonna Taylor. Earlier today, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron announced that a grand jury had declined to indict two of three Louisville law enforcement officers who fired their weapons into Taylor’s apartment in March. The third, detective Brett Hankison, was arrested and charged with three counts of first-degree wanton endangerment — charges predicated not on Hankison shooting Taylor, but on his shooting into a neighboring apartment.

At the press conference, Cameron declared that the “use of force” from the two other officers present, Jonathan Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove, had been in response to Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, opening fire after his door was being broken down in the middle of the night. As such, neither were criminally charged. (Hankison was fired by LMPD in June.)

The way the law tells it, no one killed Breonna Taylor. Her death was collateral, the act of a ghost — and in any case, only the welfare of her neighbors is of any importance.

These are changes for which policymakers in Louisville had been advocating for several years in an effort to reduce costs spent on police misconduct cases. But none of them actually address the brutal, callous manner in which Breonna Taylor’s life was ended that bloody night — and none of them would have saved her.

This entire summer has been a slap in the face of the Taylor family and activists nationwide, many of whom have led an urgent conversation rethinking the role and necessity of police. The visibility of Taylor’s case, the ceaseless protests in her name, and the unprecedented mainstreaming of concepts like defunding and abolition might have convinced the public that justice might actually be had. Yet here we are, exactly where we were always headed: a reminder that power structures gonna power structure.

The only sliver of restitution in this entire travesty is the civil settlement granted the Taylor family earlier this month, a historic $12.5 million check from the city of Louisville. That settlement also includes initiatives for changes within the Louisville Police Department, including mandatory commanding officer sign-offs for warrants, incentives for police to move into the low-income neighborhoods they’re surveilling, and a requirement for an EMT to be present for all search warrants.

These are changes for which policymakers in Louisville had been advocating for several years in an effort to reduce costs spent on police misconduct cases. But none of them actually address the brutal, callous manner in which Breonna Taylor’s life was ended that bloody night — and none of them would have saved her. In fact, the civil suit lays bare a pattern of citizens footing the bill for police misconduct, one that’s remained woefully unexamined for more than 40 years.

Police settlements are a relatively modern concept. In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled in Monell v. Department of Social Services that citizens had the right to sue police officers for misconduct. This led to Congress passing the Civil Action for Rights Deprivation Act a year later, allowing for citizens to sue public officials for damages. But the law came with a catch: a clause that protects individual police officers from lawsuits. Plaintiffs in these cases, according to the law, had to prove that there was a concrete link between a specific municipal policy and the harm caused by policing. Couple that with the fact that federal officials could not get involved with those cases at the time, and what felt like a useful tool of recompense became in practice a shield for law enforcement to protect its own, even after endangering civilian life.

Shortly after the Civil Action for Rights Deprivation Act passed, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommended that Congress enact legislation permitting the attorney general jurisdiction over law enforcement departments that showed proven patterns or practices of misconduct. That legislation was finally passed in 1994, after 20 years of lobbying from Black Democrats, but has done little in the time since to deter police misconduct. In fact, while we’ve seen ever-swelling payouts for victims — Taylor family attorney Ben Crump has said he believes their settlement is the largest for the police killing of a Black woman in the U.S. — there have been few, if any, ramifications for violating officers.

Instead, police settlements have become a useful tool to leverage both public opinion and legal standing for local departments. Cities agree to pay victims for their encounters with the police, if only to say they did something when those same police officers return to work — and in the process boost their chances of eluding federal investigation for corruption and misconduct. But where do the hundreds of millions of dollars that cities like Milwaukee, New York, and Chicago have recently doled out to victims of policing come from? Directly from taxpayers.

Even more bothersome, in order to cover the expenses for police misconduct, these local governments take out what the Action Center for Race and the Economy (ACRE) has called “police brutality bonds.” In 2018, ACRE found that Wall Street was profiting from the fees banks charged cash-strapped cities — like Chicago, which took out a $225 million general obligation bond in 2017 to pay off its misconduct debts — by underwriting those bonds.

In the aftermath of Breonna Taylor’s murder, the only entity that has sacrificed has been the people of Louisville. This is how the system operates: Taxpayers fund police, who kill Black and Brown people at genocidal rates, and then we, the people, are left to foot the bill.

And filing a lawsuit against the police doesn’t end the suffering. Whitney Duenez, whose husband Ernesto was killed in 2011 after a police officer in California shot him 11 times, described her 2014 settlement proceedings to The Marshall Project. “Men in suits would sit there and actually talk about what my husband’s life was worth,” she said. “Like, ‘Oh okay, well, he was only a dad for a year, so he wasn’t really that much of a dad. So that takes a little bit of money off.’” (Duenez ultimately received a settlement of $2.2 million dollars. “I’m thankful for what we got,” she says, “but… my husband died for this.”)

I can’t imagine the unfillable void that Tamika Palmer feels today. I can’t imagine the weight of knowing that what the family received was not a payout but a payoff. The criminal charge against Brett Hankison — wanton endangerment is a Class D felony in Kentucky, on par with prescription forgery and eavesdropping — is a joke, one whose punchline is how police and the infrastructure empowering them feel about Black lives. The police will continue to violate oppressed people because the system necessitates it so.

And this latest joke invites another opportunity to evaluate what retribution actually looks like. Does it mean more fire in the streets? More feet pitter-pattering on the front lawns of U.S. politicians? Keeping the babies awake until freedom is taken? Because make no mistake — it must be taken. Liberty has never been granted, at least not willingly. The agents of Whiteness have taken freedom from us for hundreds of years. It’s about fucking time we take that shit back.

African from Texas• Staff Writer at LEVEL • Black politics, Celebrity interviews, TV & Film Criticism • Previously: MTV News, San Francisco Chronicle

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