It’s been almost four months since Louisville Metro Police Officers Brett Hankison, Jonathan Mattingly, and Myles Cosgrove entered the home of Breonna Taylor in an encounter that left her dead.
Acting on a no-knock warrant issued by Judge Mary M. Shaw, the officers entered her home just after midnight on March 13, 2020. Kenneth Walker, Breonna’s significant other, opened fire on the intruders in his home with his legally registered firearm.
The officers returned fire, lethally striking Breonna.
We know that this predicament is not new.
From Amadou Diallo to Elijah McClain, public outcry has been loud and plentiful for unarmed citizens who have died in police custody. However, the response to Breonna Taylor’s death has felt different and inspired a wide variety of actions.
Louisville residents have taken to the streets in protest.
Celebrities, including Beyoncé, have written letters to local government officials urging them to take action and bring justice to Breonna’s family.
Tamika Mallory, the organizer of the Women’s March, arranged a protest at the Kentucky Capitol in Frankfort with MC Lyte, Common, Jada Pinkett, Willow, and Jaden Smith to urge Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron to file charges against the officers.
The FBI launched an independent investigation into the case.
Mayor Greg Fischer signed Breonna’s Law into effect, ending the issue of no-knock warrants under most circumstances.
And while those things have brought worldwide attention to a case that was swept under the rug for weeks, many want more to be done. Nearly every day on social media, activists, influencers, and citizens are calling for the officers who killed Breonna Taylor to be brought to justice.
I have watched as the energy in the city where I live has spiked to a fever pitch and my personal friends have been arrested for protesting. It seems the process is taking too long. Many are asking why can’t the officers just be arrested already?
There are several steps to the process of seeking justice for victims in general, but especially those killed by law enforcement officers.
I am not an attorney and this is not a legal opinion. But, in order for the officers to be held accountable for the deaths of unarmed citizens, the following five steps must occur:
- They must be fired.
- They must be arrested and charged.
- They must stand trial.
- They must be convicted.
- They must be sentenced.
Why is it so hard to fire a police officer
In a nutshell, police forces are generally contracted to work for local governments through a collective bargaining agreement; that means they have a union.
They have protections and provisions that determine what can happen, based upon their contract, not the law. Louisville Metro Police Department has a provision in their collective bargaining agreement that an officer cannot be fired while a case is under investigation.
While Brett Hankison, one of the officers in the case of Breonna Taylor, has been fired, the other two remain on administrative leave; Hankison has the right to appeal.
Another challenging aspect of firing an officer is that it requires an investigation and proof of wrongdoing. But then the question becomes how can the police effectively police themselves?
Concerns about The Blue Code or The Blue Wall of Silence – a practice of police officers protecting and supporting other police officers, even in the face of potential wrongdoing – are prevalent.
The trouble with charging a police officer
As a functional arm of the American justice system and government, law enforcement operates by a different set of rules than regular citizens.
Similar to stand your ground statutes for regular citizens, law enforcement officers are given a high benefit of the doubt when they can demonstrate a reasonable fear for their own and public safety.
Some may argue this is necessary because of the nature of their work. This piece is not meant to diminish the extreme circumstances police officers often have to face.
The challenge comes in determining what “reasonable fear” means. In most cases, this is left up to the police force to determine for themselves.
How can you place a police officer on trial
If an officer is fired and arrested, they must then face a legal proceeding or trial. The 6th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States ensures citizens the right to a trial by jury…an impartial jury.
That’s almost impossible with a high profile case that’s gained media attention. The court of public opinion weighs in long before a trial can begin; it’s complex.
Even in cases like the Amber Guyger trial – the off-duty Dallas police officer who entered the wrong apartment and fatally shot Botham Jean – the public interest and participation in that process made it nearly impossible for anyone to be unbiased.
And she was tried as a citizen because she was not acting in an official capacity as an officer at the time of the shooting.
If an officer makes it to trial, the jury must still deliberate and find enough evidence to convict them of the charges. And further still, it is the judge’s job to sentence anyone who has been found guilty of the charges.
It’s a complicated endeavor that becomes even more complicated when the person accused of wrongdoing and breaking the law is an officer who’s supposed to be enforcing it.
The reality of the American criminal justice system is that it takes time.
Often, much more time than it feels like it should.
For a more detailed explanation of the process, read this article from the National Crime Victim Law Institute or this article from the United States Department of Justice.
Anitra Durand Allen is an advocate for marriage, motherhood, and mental health. She helps busy moms of teens get more done in less time with less stress at TheMomOnTheMove.com. Join her in the Facebook community Marriage, Motherhood and Middle Age.