The Breonna Taylor homicide in Louisville. KY was a tragedy and there are calls to arrest the officers involved in the incident. While there doesn’t seem to have been a crime committed, there are definitely lessons we can learn and potential changes that can be made to how warrants are served.
There is a lot of misinformation about this event so first let’s establish the things that are known.
Police had a valid search warrant based on observing a known drug dealer enter her apartment and leave with a mail package. This is consistent with a major distribution method for Fentanyl and other drugs. The warrant for the search did authorize a “no knock” entry.
They conducted a dynamic entry of the apartment and encountered her boyfriend Kenneth Walker who was armed. During the ensuing exchange of gunfire, a police officer and the boyfriend were wounded and Breanna Taylor was killed.
The only fact that seems to be in dispute is whether the police did a knock and announce before the dynamic entry. The officers say they did even though the warrant did not require it, Mr. Walker says they did not.
The calls for the officers to be arrested are misguided. There is nothing in any of the accounts that points to any crime at all related to the shooting or conduct of the warrant service. If it were proven the officers did not knock and announce, that would be a separate situation for lying in a sworn statement. But regarding the shooting itself, they were not required to knock and maintain unanimously that they still did.
There is a perception currently that police are killing large numbers of unarmed black people. The actual number for all of 2019 when querying the Washington Post database is 14. That does not mean there is not a problem, but certainly not an epidemic. We should not treat every case of a police homicide as an example of a systemic problem based on this inaccurate perception.
The lack of any likely arrests in this case will inflame activists, but we cannot make decisions about lawful actions by police officers based on the level of anger shown. The officers were put in a situation where the possibility of violence was larger than it needed to be even though their actions violated no policies or regulations.
We can however make decisions about how we have police serve warrants and what we can do to avoid killing unarmed civilians. In addition, the decision by Louisville prosecutors to initially charge Kenneth Walker with Attempted Murder seems very unwise and unfairly punitive and fortunately those charges were dropped.
Since this incident the Louisville City Council passed what was called “Breonna’s Law” to ban no knock warrants. That may be an overreaction and perhaps better handled by approving no knock warrants only when there is solid evidence of weapons and a potential for violence.
The issue and the way to go forward is not blanket restrictions on some needed tactics for police. But better training and use of a continuum of force approach. All police interactions should begin at the lowest level of force possible without placing the officers in undue danger. Any escalation of force must be the smallest amount needed to deal with the threat.
Most police forces use some version of this already, but that should become ubiquitous and all units could use a refresher and update of their policies to ensure all officers are aware.
I’ve trained numerous SWAT units and hostage rescue teams around the world in best practices as well as use of force decision-making. The one thing that seems clear to me in this incident is there was no need for a dynamic entry. This type of action is inherently more dangerous and should be reserved for situations where the suspects are known to be violent and armed. Ms. Taylor was not known to be either and only suspected of a non-violent offense.
It would have been better to put surveillance on her apartment and wait for her and the boyfriend to leave. They could then be detained outside and an orderly search conducted. This should be the standard for almost any warrant, use the least aggressive means possible. That can include things like trickery. One of my favorites is sending notices to people with warrants telling they won a prize they must come in to claim and arresting them when they show up.
There is a list of eight demands for police reform circulating called 8 Can’t Wait.
- requiring officers to intervene to stop another officer from using excessive force;
- banning or at least restricting the use of chokeholds and strangleholds, including carotid restraints, to situations where deadly force is authorized;
- requiring officers to de-escalate situations before using force;
- using a use-of-force continuum that defines and limits the types of force that can be used in response to various forms of resistance;
- requiring officers to give a verbal warning before using deadly force;
- prohibiting officers from shooting at people in moving vehicles unless the person poses a deadly threat by means other than the vehicle
- requiring officers to exhaust all other reasonable alternatives before resorting to using deadly force; and
- requiring comprehensive reporting that includes both uses of force and threats of force
Many agencies already have all of these policies in effect. I personally support all but 5 and 6. Although even those could probably be acceptable if they include an exemption for acting in self-defense to an imminent threat. There are certainly instances where giving a warning before using deadly force could be deadly to an officer and vehicles have often been used as deadly threats to officers, so I think there must be an option for self-defense there as well.
Police fill an irreplaceable security need in our society. Criminal violence is an innate problem with humanity. Someone must deal with the elements of society who have no regard for human life. And while only a tiny fraction of police interactions result in the death of an innocent, we should do everything we can to make that number as small as possible.