For many, the grand jury announcement in Breonna Taylor’s case was more of the same, underscoring the need for systemic change.
“The system that killed Breonna Taylor is not set up to provide justice or reparations for the killing of Breonna Taylor.”
— Andrea Ritchie, author of “Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color”
After more than 100 days of protests demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, a grand jury’s decision on Wednesday to not bring charges related to her death against the police officers involved landed with a thud for those who had hoped for more, and stronger, charges.
On March 13, a little after midnight, three police officers punched down the door of Ms. Taylor’s apartment in Louisville, Ky. using a no-knock warrant in a late-night drug raid. Her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, fearing an intruder, reached for his gun and let off one shot, wounding an officer. Another officer and the wounded officer returned fire, while a third began blindly shooting through Ms. Taylor’s window and patio door.
The two officers who shot Ms. Taylor six times face no charges, while a former police detective, Brett Hankison, was indicted on a charge of “wanton endangerment” for firing recklessly into a neighbor’s apartment.
“The decision before my office is not to decide if the loss of Breonna Taylor’s life was a tragedy — the answer to that question is unequivocally yes,” said Kentucky’s attorney general, Daniel Cameron, at a news conference in the state’s capital, Frankfort.
“Justice is not often easy and does not fit the mold of public opinion,” Mr. Cameron said, adding that not everyone would be satisfied with the charges and that, as a Black man, he understood the pain brought about by Ms. Taylor’s death.
As the decision was read aloud, a crowd that had gathered in downtown Louisville shrieked in despair. Shouts of “That’s it?” rose from the crowd. “They murdered her!” a woman yelled between sobs.
“This is one of the biggest miscarriages of justice I’ve seen in about 25 years,” said Linda Sarsour, a political activist who was among the crowd in Louisville when the announcement came down. “I’m remembering a quote by Malcolm X: ‘The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman.’”
For many, the heartbreak was compounded by the fact that, despite mounting national attention and pressure, the outcome was, simply put, unsurprising. It had crushed cautious hopes that this case could have spurred change, particularly for Black women.
“Sometimes you wish, even outside of the knowledge that you have, that lightning strikes and something different will happen,” said Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at U.C.L.A. and Columbia Law School and founder of the Say Her Name campaign. “You can attach that hope to some of the factual distinctions of this case: The police can’t even claim she was doing anything. But realism tells you that the likelihood of something different was pretty slim.”
Few police officers who cause deaths are charged or convicted. Since 2013, law enforcement officers across the country have killed about 1,000 people a year and Black people are about three times more likely to be killed by the police than white people, according to the crowdsourced database Mapping Police Violence.
Yet, since 2005, only 121 officers in total have been arrested on charges of murder or manslaughter in on-duty killings, according to data compiled by Philip M. Stinson, a former police officer himself and a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Of the 95 officers whose cases have concluded, 44 were convicted, but often of a lesser charge, like assault, he said.
While fewer women than men are killed by the police overall, the conviction rate is low in those cases, too, particularly for Black women. Since 2015, nearly 250 women in total have been killed by police officers, of which 48 — about a fifth — were Black, according to a Washington Post database.
In that same time frame, there have been two cases in which officers were charged with manslaughter or murder in an on-duty shooting of a Black woman, Professor Stinson said. One officer was acquitted and the other case is still pending.
By comparison, there have been five cases since 2015 in which officers were charged with manslaughter or murder in an on-duty shooting of a white woman and three of them resulted in a conviction.
The numbers in Professor Stinson’s database, as well as in others, are most likely an underrepresentation, relying on news media reports and alerts, he explained, “because the government does a lousy job of collecting this sort of data.”
“Law enforcement agencies don’t like providing this data,” he said. “And we have 18,000 agencies across 50 states and the District of Columbia that define things differently. It’s just very complicated and decentralized.”
Andrea Ritchie, author of “Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color” and co-author, with Professor Crenshaw, of the Say Her Name report, which investigates police brutality against Black women, said the fact that the criminal justice system so rarely convicts police officers is a key reason activists should seek structural change.
“This is part of a larger pattern, and if we don’t interrupt the pattern, we’re going to be in this position again and again and again,” Ms. Ritchie said. “The system that killed Breonna Taylor is not set up to provide justice or reparations for the killing of Breonna Taylor.”
Activists on the ground are working to change that system.
The Black Lives Matter movement in Louisville has urged the city’s mayor, Greg Fischer, to fire the police officers who weren’t indicted, said Shawnte West, adjunct professor of social policy at the University of Louisville and a volunteer with the group. Professor West added that B.L.M. has also called on Mayor Fischer to investigate the gentrification policies that, she said, had “created the conditions that led up to the murder of Breonna Taylor,” and for increased investments in community services, like child welfare or homeless shelters.
Partly because of persistent pressure from the group, Mayor Fischer in June signed “Breonna’s Law,” which effectively outlawed the kind of no-knock warrants that enabled the three officers to burst into her apartment. And, this month, the mayor announced a $12 million settlement in the civil suit by the Taylor family that included police reform policies like a requirement that commanders approve all search warrants before they go to a judge and the use of mandatory body cameras.
“Now I’m hearing Black women talking about running for judge seats, for City Council positions, in statewide elections,” Professor West said. “We’re not just sitting around and being sullen. This is just the second day of the second phase of this.”
John Eligon contributed reporting from Louisville, Ky.
Correction: Sept. 24, 2020
An earlier version of this article misstated Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw’s role in the Say Her Name campaign. She is the founder, not the co-founder.
Correction: Sept. 25, 2020
An earlier version of this article included remarks from Professor Stinson, which misstated the number of cases in which officers were charged with manslaughter or murder of a Black woman since 2015. It is two, not one.
Alisha Haridasani Gupta is a gender reporter covering politics, business, technology, health and culture through the gender lens. She writes the In Her Words newsletter. @alisha__g