Months after the police killing of Breonna Taylor thrust her name to the forefront of a national reckoning on race, the city of Louisville agreed to pay the Black woman’s family $12 million and reform police practices as part of a settlement announced Tuesday.
But Taylor’s mother and others who have taken up her cause said much more must be done to right the wrongs of racial injustice in America.
“Please continue to say her name,” Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, declared at an emotional news conference, evoking the call that has become a national refrain for those outraged by the shooting and police violence.
Taylor’s death sparked months of protests in Louisville and calls nationwide for the officers to be criminally charged. The state’s attorney general, Daniel Cameron, is investigating police actions in the March 13 fatal shooting.
“I cannot begin to imagine Ms. Palmer’s pain, and I am deeply, deeply sorry for Breonna’s death,” said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer in announcing the terms of the lawsuit settlement.
Standing nearby as the mayor spoke, Palmer said the police reforms were not enough.
“We must not lose focus on what the real job is, and with that being said, it’s time to move forward with the criminal charges, because she deserves that and much more,” Palmer said. “As significant as today is, it’s only the beginning of getting full justice for Breonna.”
The lawsuit, filed by Palmer in April, accused police of using flawed information when they obtained a “no-knock” warrant to enter the 26-year-old woman’s apartment. Taylor and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, were roused from bed by police, and Walker said he fired once at the officers, thinking they were intruders. Investigators say police were returning fire when they shot Taylor several times. No drugs were found at her home.
Dissatisfaction with the settlement extended to “Injustice Square” in downtown Louisville, where demonstrators have gathered daily for 113 days, demanding justice for Taylor. Some who listened to the announcement over a loudspeaker near a memorial for Taylor said the price for a life seemed low, the promised reforms too little and too late.
“It’s just not enough,” said Holly McGlawn, who noted how much Taylor might have made had she lived. She was young, she could have worked for another 40 or 50 years, she said.
“You can’t put a price on a Black woman being able to sleep at night and know she’s not going to get murdered,” McGlawn said.
“Justice delayed is justice denied. There was a better way to handle this,” agreed Shameka Parrish-Wright who has been part of the daily demonstrations where the city often faced peaceful protesters with force. “I’m hearing apologies now that should have happened early on.”
Palmer left the news conference with one of her attorneys, Ben Crump, and met with protesters at the nearby park. She surveyed the original art of her daughter, prayed and wiped away tears.
She had just two words to say: “Pressure applied,” a saying her daughter often used as an emergency medical tech.
Crump said the $12 million payout is the largest such settlement given out for a Black woman killed by police.
The settlement, “sets a precedent for Black people,” he said. “When (police) kill us we expect full justice. We expect justice for the civil rights that you took from this human being. And then we expect full justice from the criminal justice system.”
In the time since Taylor’s shooting, her death — along with George Floyd and others — has become a rallying cry for protesters seeking a reckoning on racial justice and police reform. High-profile celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and LeBron James have called for the officers to be charged in Taylor’s death.
The warrant was one of five issued in a wide-ranging investigation of a drug trafficking suspect who was a former boyfriend of Taylor’s. That man, Jamarcus Glover, was arrested at a different location about 10 miles (16 kilometers) away from Taylor’s apartment on the same evening.
The settlement includes reforms on how warrants are handled by police, Mayor Fischer said.
Other reforms seek to build stronger community connections by establishing a housing credit program to encourage officers to live in certain low-income areas in the city. Officers will also be encouraged to perform two paid hours of volunteer work every two weeks in the communities where they serve. The city will also track police use-of-force incidents and citizen complaints.
The city has already taken some other reform measures, including passing a law named for Taylor that bans the use of the no-knock warrants. Police typically use them in drug cases over concern that evidence could be destroyed if they announce their arrival.
Fischer fired former police chief Steve Conrad in June and last week named Yvette Gentry, a former deputy chief, as the new interim police chief. Gentry would be the first Black woman to lead the force of about 1,200 sworn officers. The department has also fired Brett Hankison, one of the three officers who fired shots at Taylor’s apartment that night. Hankison is appealing the dismissal.
The largest settlement previously paid in a Louisville police misconduct case was $8.5 million in 2012, to a man who spent nine years in prison for a crime he did not commit, according to news reports.
WILL PROMISE OF REFORMS HAPPEN?
A settlement between the family of Breonna Taylor and the city of Louisville could bring wide-ranging reforms to how police officers live and work, changes that would represent a rare outcome in a police misconduct lawsuit.
But some activists hoping for deep, lasting change fear reforms won’t be enough if not accompanied by community input and criminal charges against the officers involved in Taylor’s death. And a legal expert noted that even the most wide-ranging of reforms won’t succeed if the people entrusted with implementing them aren’t onboard.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer outlined what he described as “significant” reforms on Tuesday as part of an announcement that the city would pay $12 million to Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer.
The measures include giving officers housing credits to live in the neighborhoods they police; requiring that only high-ranking commanders approve search warrant requests; involving social workers to help resolve situations when necessary; and additional drug testing for officers.
“I’ve worked on a lot of different cases,” said Pete Kraska, a criminal justice expert and professor at Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies. “I’ve not seen a settlement that included a set of reforms like this one did. I think it’s a good first step.”
But Shameka Parrish-Wright, a community activist, had hoped the reforms would include the involvement of a citizens police review board with subpoena power.
“You keep creating and adding on top instead of uprooting the problem from the very root,” Parrish-Wright said. “Every eye is on us all over the world because we’ve got a chance to make reforms that matter.”
One of the key factors cited in Taylor’s death on March 13 was the type of warrant officers had — and how they got it approved — before they burst into her apartment and ultimately fatally shot her after returning fire from her boyfriend.
The officers obtained a no-knock warrant that would have allowed them to enter without announcing themselves, though police have said that they knocked and announced themselves at Taylor’s door. The city of Louisville passed a new law earlier this year, named after Taylor, that bans the use of no-knock warrants.
Under the settlement’s guidelines, officers must get approval from a commander of higher rank than a sergeant before asking a judge for a warrant.
Kraska said that he has worked with police departments where the number of requests for no-knock warrants dropped by 95% when they were required to go through a chief or a captain. Those in the higher ranks are going to give the requests more scrutiny, he said, and will be more likely to say, “‘I don’t see where you’ve made the case that you need to bring a 32-person SWAT team to the door of this home.’”
Brian Dunn, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in police misconduct, said whatever reforms are approved will only succeed if the officers’ direct commanders are onboard.
“What is written on paper, and what is trained in the academy are far less significant than the unwritten attitudes of the superiors overseeing the rank and file officers in any particular station,” Dunn, managing partner of the Cochran Firm California, wrote in an email to the AP.
“To a very large extent, the only directive that a police officer will truly heed, and respect, must come from another sworn, superior officer.”
One of the reforms Fischer introduced on Tuesday would provide incentives for officers to live in the neighborhoods they patrol. Community activists have argued that police officers who live far removed from their beats are not invested in the cities where they work.
Some cities have police residency requirements, a movement that took root in the 1970s to diversify police departments. In 2017, the city of Sacramento, California, began offering a $5,000 incentive to encourage officers to purchase a home in the city.
But some officers take issue with living in the community where they work, saying it forces them to come into contact with people they’ve arrested when they’re off-duty or to routinely revisit places where they’ve seen tragedies.
In addition, fewer agencies are now imposing these rules. Missouri lawmakers earlier this month advanced a bill that would end the decadeslong residency requirement in St. Louis, for example.
Tamika Mallory is among numerous activists in Louisville who say police reforms will be meaningless if the officers involved in Taylor’s death aren’t charged.
Taking the podium after Mayor Fischer spoke on Tuesday, Mallory said she was encouraged by the settlement but “to not have an indictment happen in this city is to say that, no matter how much we pay, no matter how much reform we do, we’d rather pay, we’d rather cover it than deal with the issue.”