Laws Written with One America in Mind: Our Statement on the Breonna Taylor Case

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Breonna Taylor (Source: Taylor Family)

The US criminal legal system has proven again that it serves an incomplete form of justice — justice without accountability — because it is a system never designed with Breonna Taylor, or people who look like her, in mind.

This week, a grand jury indicted Officer Brett Hankinson on three counts of wanton endangerment for shooting into a neighboring apartment, while not a single officer was charged with the killing of Breonna Taylor. The $12M settlement paid to Breonna Taylor’s family does not represent justice and only scratches the surface of accountability. An innocent woman, asleep in her home, was murdered. Her family, partner, and loved ones are grieving her loss.

There can be no justice in this case, but there can be justice in the future, if we act.

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Source: Darron Cummings/AP

What would justice look like? Justice would look like urgent changes to failed policies like the no-knock warrant that led to Breonna Taylor’s brutal killing. Since Breonna’s death, “Breonna’s Law” has banned no-knock warrants in Louisville, Kentucky. Other municipalities must follow suit.

Justice would look like urgent cultural change to the systemic, structural, and individual racism that sees Black people three times more likely to be killed by police than their White counterparts. Cultural change is revolutionary but necessary if we are to ever experience justice.

As attorneys, advocates, and activists, we work to confront and change flawed and failed policies. No-knock warrants are everyday policing practices fueled by racist war on drug policies and the erosion of Fourth Amendment protections. They disproportionately target and terrorize low-income Black and Brown communities. Thomas B. Harvey, Justice Project director with the Advancement Project National Office, reports that police carry out about 20,000 no-knock actions a year, “overwhelmingly against black and brown people in America.” And the ACLU reports that “42 percent of those subjected to SWAT search warrant raids were Black and 12 percent Hispanic.” Further, a New York Times article cited, “of the 81 civilian deaths tallied by The Times, half were members of minority groups.” These raids and deaths all occurred during the execution of no-knock warrants.

No-knock warrants allow police officers to kill individuals in their homes with impunity. Thirteen states have laws explicitly permitting no-knock warrants, and the remaining states issue them based on a judge’s discretion. Florida and Oregon have banned no-knock warrants.

We can change these policies by raising our voices (as individuals, communities, and in coalition) and by voting. The presidential election is important and the president’s criminal justice plan will impact us all. However, it is equally important to research and vote for federal and state legislators, local judges, district attorneys/state’s attorneys, and other local and state elections, ordinances and propositions where you live. The Prison Policy Initiative has created a legislative guide for winnable, high-impact criminal justice reforms detailing some of the most important criminal legal system issues that will be on the ballot across the country this November. We encourage you to explore this resource and vote.

At Root & Rebound, we’ve been on the frontlines of statewide policy changes to our criminal legal system like Parole and Sentencing Reform. We believe individuals and organizations can raise awareness and increase the public pressure on lawmakers, one day banning no-knock warrants, and one day saving lives. Even with that said, we also recognize that this issue requires something greater than policy change. It requires cultural change.

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A woman in Louisville cries out after charges were announced. (Source: Darron Cummings/AP)

People — with biases and prejudices — create, implement, and apply laws. When specific groups of people are adversely impacted by racially and economically unjust laws — like war on drug policies; like no-knock warrants — we must interrogate the ideas and attitudes — and the people — who helped create them. As human beings from all walks of life and backgrounds who show up every day to work at Root & Rebound, we believe we can begin to write and enact anti-racist laws throughout our systems, but especially within the criminal legal system.

Kenneth Walker, Breonna’s partner, was a registered gun owner who tried to protect Breonna when plainclothes police officers entered their home. Kentucky has a “stand your ground” law that gives residents the right to use deadly force against an intruder. Kenneth told investigators that he thought he was being robbed. According to a US News article, “Walker told police he heard knocking but didn’t know who it was. He said he and Taylor were moving toward the door when it was knocked down, so he fired a shot that hit an officer.”

Police officers broke down the door and killed Louisville EMT, Breonna Taylor, and never found drugs or a trace of the person they were trying to apprehend. They were looking for Breonna Taylor’s ex-boyfriend who didn’t even live in that apartment. In fact, he had already been apprehended when police broke down the door that fateful night.

Where are the laws that would protect Breonna Taylor and Kenneth Walker, in this botched no-knock raid? Where were Breonna Taylor’s and Kenneth Walker’s 2nd Amendment and 4th Amendment rights?

The reality of our legal system is, if Kenneth and Breonna lived in an affluent and predominantly white neighborhood, they would have slept peacefully on that fateful night. Affluent and predominantly white neighborhoods (built on decades of explicit, legalized exclusion of people of color) experience an entirely different justice system, where police obtain search warrants and respectfully enter the premises, after announcing themselves.

Far too often, laws are written with one America in mind.

What if police had knocked and announced themselves? What if police were not the government’s answer to drug use or sales? What if they’d done their due diligence and found that the person they were pursuing was already in custody? Police behave like this in one America. Not the other.

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Source: Jeff Dean/AFP/Getty Images

What will it take for us to have one justice system for ALL Americas? Deep, deep work, reflection, and a resolve to commit and never stop fighting for our legal system to be overhauled, for our policing system to be overhauled, and for all Americans to reckon with the systemic racism and implicit bias that is the underlying current that runs throughout the underbelly of this country, rearing its head in ways that no one should be surprised. Racial and economic injustices are at the very core of this case. Interrogating the laws and our application of the laws is critical. We owe it to Breonna Taylor and her family.

This work will not be easy. If you are feeling demoralized and defeated by the realities of our legal system, by this American nightmare of rampant police killings of Black people like Breonna Taylor with no accountability, you are being challenged to help change it. If you are an ally in this fight, we’ve reached a tipping point. This fight needs your voices and action to break new ground. The system wins if you remain silent. The system thrives on your apathy.

We owe it to Breonna and to her family to never stop trying. One place we can start is by supporting the BREATHE ACT — a visionary bill, being championed by Representatives Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib, that addresses the ways the criminal legal system has harmed and failed Black communities. The bill invests in a new vision for public safety. You can get involved by volunteering or spreading the word on social media. Visit their website to learn more.

Though no one law will solve for this — we must interrogate and reform policy after policy in the years to come, with resolve to be unified and strong in our fight for justice, and the BREATHE ACT is a really important place to start.

We may not get justice for Breonna Taylor. But we can get justice one day, if we act now, and forevermore, with unrelenting resolve.

This article was written by Damali Robertson and edited by Katherine Katcher.

Damali is the Deputy Director of Strategic Partnerships at Root & Rebound. She is a mission-driven nonprofit leader passionate about advancing positive social change, a restorative justice practitioner, and a poet.

Katherine is the Founder & Executive Director of Root & Rebound, a passionate ally to those impacted by the system, and an advocate for reform in her own right — using her legal education as a tool that could serve others and catalyze change.

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Restoring power & resources to the communities most harmed by mass incarceration through legal advocacy, public education, policy reform & litigation.

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