U.S. Justice Department to probe police shooting death of Breonna Taylor

The U.S. Justice Department is opening a sweeping probe into policing in Louisville, Ky., after the March 2020 death of Breonna Taylor, who was fatally shot by police during a raid at her home.

It’s the second such sweeping investigation into a law enforcement agency announced by the Biden administration in a week.

The 26-year-old Taylor, an emergency medical technician who had been studying to become a nurse, was roused from sleep by police, who came through the door using a battering ram.

Her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, fired once. A so-called no-knock warrant had been approved for the dwelling as part of a narcotics investigation. No drugs were found at her home.

Sweeping review of Louisville police

The new investigation is known as a “pattern or practice” — examining whether there is a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing — and will be a more sweeping review of the entire police department.

Sam Aguiar, an attorney for Breonna Taylor’s family, posted a message on social media shortly after the announcement.

“Boom. Thank you,” he wrote. Aguiar and other attorneys negotiated a $12 million US settlement in September with the city of Louisville over Taylor’s death.

The investigation will specifically focus on whether the Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD) engages in a pattern of unreasonable force, including against people engaging in peaceful activities, and will also examine whether the police department conducts unconstitutional stops, searches and seizures and whether the department illegally executes search warrants, said U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.

The probe will also look at the training that officers receive, the system in place to hold officers accountable and “assess whether LMPD engages in discriminatory conduct on the basis of race,” among other things, he said.

The attorney general has said there is not yet equal justice under the law and promised to bring a critical eye to racism and legal issues when he took the job. Few such investigations were opened during the Trump administration.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted last week of murder in George Floyd’s death. No one has been charged in Taylor’s death, although her case also fuelled protests against police brutality and systemic racism.

U.S. Justice Department to probe police shooting death of Breonna Taylor
Protesters march against racial injustice and for Black women in Denver, Colo., on Sept. 26, 2020. The Justice Department probe will examine whether the Louisville Metro Police Department engages in a pattern of unreasonable force. (Kevin Mohatt/Reuters)

No-knock warrants examined

Her death prompted a national debate about the use of no-knock search warrants, which allow officers to enter a home without waiting and announcing their presence.

The warrants are generally used in drug cases and other sensitive investigations where police believe a suspect might be likely to destroy evidence. But there’s been growing criticism in recent years that the warrants are overused and abused.

Prosecutors will speak with community leaders, residents and police officials as part of the Louisville probe and will release a public report, if a pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct is discovered, Garland said.

He noted that the department has implemented some changes after a settlement with Taylor’s family and said the Justice Department’s investigation would take those into account.

“It is clear that the public officials in Minneapolis and Louisville, including those in law enforcement, recognize the importance and urgency of our efforts,” Garland said.

Kentucky’s lawmakers passed a partial ban on no-knock warrants last month.

The measure would only allow no-knock warrants to be issued if there was “clear and convincing evidence” that the “crime alleged is a crime that would qualify a person, if convicted, as a violent offender.” Warrants would also have to be executed between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Leadership changes at LMPD

Louisville hired Atlanta’s former police chief, Erika Shields, in January. She became the fourth person to lead the department since Taylor’s death on March 13, 2020.

Longtime chief Steve Conrad was forced out in the summer after officers responding to a shooting during a protest failed to turn on their body cameras. Two interim appointments followed before Shields was given the job.

Shields stepped down from the top Atlanta post in June after the death of Rayshard Brooks, a Black man who was shot in the back by police in a restaurant parking lot. Shields remained with the Atlanta department in a lesser role.

U.S. Justice Department to probe police shooting death of Breonna Taylor