Police reforms in Breonna Taylor case praised, scrutinized
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.
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“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 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 on board.
“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.”
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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 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 decades-long 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.”
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