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In Breonna Taylor grand jury decision, Berkeley scholars see grave racial injustice

The killing of an unarmed Black woman will deepen the crisis of racial injustice that has gripped the nation, experts say.

Protesters hold up a sign saying "Breonna Taylor Matters"

Since the death of Breonna Taylor this past March, protesters throughout the country have called for the police officers involved in her shooting to be arrested and charged. Today, A Louisville, Ky. grand jury verdict did not charge any of the officers for her death. (Photo courtesy of flickr/InformedImages)

In a season of strife over police violence against people of color, a Kentucky grand jury decision Wednesday (Sept. 23) against charging officers with the killing of Breonna Taylor reflects devastating racial biases in the American system of justice, UC Berkeley scholars said today.

The grand jury’s decision may have correctly followed current law on police use of deadly force, said experts in policing and law. But they predicted that the killing of an unarmed Black woman, who was not a criminal suspect, will deepen the crisis of racial injustice that has gripped the nation this year following high-profile incidents of police brutality.

Savala Trepcyznski

Savala Trepczynski is the executive director of the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at UC Berkeley.

“The larger context of the Breonna Taylor killing is that police operate in communities of color with a high degree of aggression,” said Jack Glaser, a Berkeley social psychologist and an expert in police practices. “It’s entirely reasonable to say that they would have acted with greater restraint in a white community. And that’s the racial injustice of this.”

“I have to say, as an attorney, that the decision didn’t surprise me,” added Savala Trepczynski, executive director of the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at the UC Berkeley School of Law. “It’s very hard to hold the police accountable in a deep way. … Given the system that’s in place and how it tends to favor police at every turn. As a person, though, the (decision) is upsetting, disappointing, angering — all of those things. I felt grief, a familiar grief.”

Listen to the full interview with Trepczynski on the Fiat Vox podcast.

Breonna Taylor was a 26-year-old Black woman, an emergency medical technician who dreamed of being a nurse. She was at her apartment with her boyfriend, Adrian Walker, early on the morning of March 13 when a narcotics squad broke down the door and raided the home. When the raid was over, Taylor was dead, one officer was shot, and police had found no drugs.

Along with the May killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minnesota, and after the shooting last month of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisc., also by a white officer, the Taylor case has sparked an urgent nationwide conversation about racism in policing and other institutions.

Taylor’s killing was “a terrible injustice” and “a form of state homicide,” said Jonathan Simon, associate dean at the UC Berkeley School of Law and an expert on American criminal justice. “Whether you want to blame it on these individual officers in Louisville or not, this is a real story of racial injustice. But it’s a story in which criminal law, and holding people accountable, is very imperfect.”

Portrait of a “justifiable” police killing

In Louisville Wednesday night, a state of emergency and a curfew were in place as local political leaders tried to prevent protesters’ frustration and anger from erupting into violence. But according to news reports, two Louisville Metro officers were shot and wounded, with few further details available.

Earlier in the day, the grand jury’s decision was announced by Daniel Cameron, Kentucky’s Republican attorney general. Under state law, Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly and Detective Myles Cosgrove were “justified to protect themselves,” Cameron told reporters. “This justification bars us from pursuing criminal charges in Ms. Breonna Taylor’s death.”

portrait of Breonna Taylor at her graduation ceremony as an emergency medical technician

Breonna Taylor was a 26-year-old emergency medical technician in Louisville, Kentucky, when she was killed in a police raid at her home in March 2020. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The circumstances of the raid, and of the slow official response to the killing, have been at the center of a controversy that has received extensive national and international attention.

Louisville police obtained a search warrant for Taylor’s home as part of a wider drug investigation, and three plainclothes officers arrived to serve the warrant at about 12:40 a.m. on Friday March 13. None was wearing a body camera. What happened next remains in dispute.

Police said they identified themselves, but received no answer. Walker told investigators they were awakened by a loud banging on the door, and that they did not hear police identify themselves. While one resident in a neighboring apartment reported hearing police announce the raid, other neighbors reported that they did not.

The officers then burst the door open with a battering ram. They found Walker and Taylor inside. Walker told investigators that he didn’t know who was invading the home, and that he fired one shot in self-defense, hitting an officer in the leg. All three officers then returned fire.

Walker was not wounded. Taylor, however, was hit several times and died at the scene.

a logo reading "racial justice in America"

Berkeley News will examine race justice in America in a new series of stories.

Louisville Police Detective Brett Hankison was fired in June for firing 10 shots “wantonly and blindly” into Taylor’s apartment that night. He was the sole officer charged by the grand jury — his shots did not hit Taylor, but he faces three counts of wanton endangerment for shots that entered the apartment next door where three people were staying. None of the neighbors was injured.

Though none of the officers were charged directly in Taylor’s killing, those three felony counts were important, Berkeley legal scholars said, because it is so difficult in such cases to hold police accountable.

In the complex emotions that emerged after the decision was announced, Trepczynski recalled “that familiar feeling of too little, too late, of not really getting what you need.

“It’s a measure of justice,” she added. “It’s not the whole thing.”

‘White supremacy is built into the laws’

And yet, the Berkeley scholars saw the grand jury decision as another episode in 2020’s painful reckoning with police brutality and systemic racism in policing. And even with the charges in Louisville, the grand jury’s decision is likely to sharpen the edge of that complex debate.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of Berkeley Law, launched an investigation into John Henry Boalt's racism.

Berkeley law school dean, Erwin Chemerinsky. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

“I believe that this will increase the tension,” said Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky. “This is going to widely be perceived as an injustice. And I think that the people who were so upset about policing the United States will see this as yet another indication of the system failing.”

Reform advocates will focus on police tactics, and on whether the Louisville narcotics squad could have handled the case with a more subtle approach. Indeed, the City of Louisville has already agreed to police reforms as part of a $12 million settlement with Taylor’s family.

But reform will not advance far without an acknowledgement of the underlying racial hostility that influenced the raid.

“I think we need to dramatically reform policing in the United States,” Chemerinsky said. “We need to acknowledge the racism in policing in the United States and deal with it.”

Berkeley African American Studies Professor Nikki Jones, whose research focuses on race relations and the criminal justice system, said the erosion of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment is a core problem. It’s supposed to protect Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures, she explained, but it gives police officers protection at the expense of the people they serve.

Nikki Jones wearing glasses smiling

UC Berkeley African American Studies Professor Nikki Jones.

“If you understand critical race theory of the law, you understand that white supremacy is built into the laws and into the institutions,” Jones said. “White supremacy is not designed to protect the lives of Black people. Having that lack of protection, and that persistent vulnerability, requires us to imagine other systems that can not only deliver justice, but can reduce harm, and can respond to the harm that’s done in ways that are more restorative.”

Jones, who has chaired the Chancellor’s Independent Advisory Board on Police Accountability and Community Safety on campus, said that for some Berkeley students who can identify with Taylor, the Louisville decision may be traumatic.

“This is just another example of a Black life, specifically a Black woman’s life, not mattering in the U.S.,” said student-athlete Cailyn Crocker. “Black women are continuously the most disrespected individuals. Breonna Taylor deserves justice and it is just not right. I am just so sorry for her and her family. I will keep fighting.”

Crocker, a second-year point guard with UC Berkeley’s Women’s Basketball team, recently started a Racial Justice Council with other student-athletes who will address ways they can make a difference on campus.

Third-year Berkeley Men’s Football player Nikko Remigio said he joined racial justice protests following the death of George Floyd, but now hopes that students who really want to make a difference turn out to vote in November.

“Everybody needs to get involved politically and use their right to vote,” said Remigio, a legal studies major. “Participating not only in the presidential election, but in your local elections — all of that matters at the end of the day. So, I mean, everybody’s attentiveness as students, everybody’s participation, everybody exercising their rights is ground zero for finding a solution to this all.”