Daniel Cameron, the rising Republican star and Kentucky attorney general, had the presence of mind to mention Breonna Taylor once, albeit in passing, during his prime-time remarks at the Republican National Convention in August. His bromides, at once Trumpian and smooth, gave no hints about the then still-pending investigation into the Louisville case, which he had taken over as special prosecutor in May. By then, it had already become a flashpoint — both in Cameron’s young career in politics and for the nation’s demands for racial justice. In his vague appeal to “heal the nation’s wounds” that night, though, Cameron did offer this: “Democracy is a system that recognizes the equality of humans before the law.”
On September 23, facing a national audience yet again, Cameron put that proposition to the test when he announced that the three Louisville police officers who raided Taylor’s home shortly after midnight on March 13 and sprayed her body with bullets would not be charged with any of the six homicide charges available under Kentucky law. “The facts have been examined and a grand jury comprised of our peers and fellow citizens has made a decision,” Cameron told reporters. “Justice is not often easy, does not fit the mold of public opinion, and it does not conform to shifting standards. It answers only to the facts and to the law.”
Only one officer, Detective Brett Hankison, would be charged with what state law calls “wanton endangerment” — not of Taylor’s life or her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, but of three neighbors whose apartment was collateral damage in the shootout. The charge is considered a Class D felony — the same level offense demonstrators received in July after protesting outside Cameron’s home. Maybe that’s who the attorney general was referencing when he called out “mob justice” during the Taylor announcement: “If we simply act on emotion or outrage, there is no justice,” he said.
Nevertheless, Kentuckians and the rest of us have a right to be outraged at the law’s failure to protect Breonna Taylor. From Staten Island to St. Louis, Mo. to Tucson, Ariz., Americans have seen this film time and again: a horrific case of police brutality, sometimes caught on camera, sometimes not, grips the nation, driving calls for justice, reform, and a modicum of accountability, only to result in an elected prosecutor announcing modest or no charges, a civil settlement, and minor adjustments to local policing practices. More than the slap on the wrist for Hankison, Cameron’s greatest acknowledgment that something was really rotten in the way the indicted officer and his armed companions ambushed Taylor’s apartment was the promised creation of a task force that will conduct “a top-to-bottom review” of how police in the state seek and execute search warrants.
Breonna Taylor’s life and death in her own home mean many things to different people, but what renders her case so visceral is the invasion of her and her boyfriend’s intimacy under color of state law — to say nothing of the string of systemic failures that landed her in the sights of the Louisville Metro Police Department in the first place. As The Washington Post’s Radley Balko has deftly written, these failings all go back to the boilerplate, rubber-stamped search warrant that, in the officers’ minds, gave them authority to invade Taylor’s privacy and shoot to kill if necessary. In the eyes of the law, Taylor’s home was treated no differently than a stash house — using nearly identical language, Louisville police managed to convince a judge that their investigation of Jamarcus Glover, Taylor’s ex-boyfriend and a convicted drug dealer, justified conducting a drug raid of Taylor’s apartment on top of four other actual “trap houses” located in a different part of town.
Search warrants aren’t mere formalities; they’re written into the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution as an independent check on the government’s limited authority to seize and search “persons, houses, papers, and effects” — all things that, to the Founders, represented “the sanctity of a man’s home and the privacies of life.” Some 135 years ago, the Supreme Court said that the amendment goes beyond the mere breaking and entering of private property by government officials. “It is not the breaking of his doors, and the rummaging of his drawers, that constitutes the essence of the offence; but it is the invasion of his indefeasible right of personal security, personal liberty and private property,” the court wrote.
For many decades since, the Supreme Court has talked a big game about the protections of the Fourth Amendment while consistently chipping away at its protections. As Balko explained, in 2005, a 5-to-4 decision more or less swallowed whole the rule requiring police officers to knock and announce themselves prior to the execution of a search warrant. In his dissenting opinion, an exasperated Justice Stephen Breyer, who isn’t exactly a flaming liberal in matters of criminal law and procedure, lamented that the ruling “weakens, perhaps destroys, much of the practical value of the Constitution’s knock-and-announce protection.”
The point of constitutional rules is to guide future police behavior — not to tie officers’ hands or let true criminals go free, but to instill thoughtful, deliberate policing that looks out for everyone’s civil rights. Without them, innocent couples like Taylor and Walker end up terrorized, even dead. There remains grave uncertainty as to whether the officers who raided their apartment even announced themselves — a crucial oversight that could have averted the deadly shootout in the first place. Cameron said that “an independent witness” attested to the officers’ announcing their presence. There’s reasonable doubt about that: A distraught Walker told investigators that he and Taylor only heard loud banging on the door, and no response after they yelled out for the intruders to identify themselves. The New York Times interviewed nearly a dozen neighbors at the same apartment complex, and none heard anything.
In Louisville or anywhere else, that’s akin to police-induced terror, and wholly justifies Kenneth Walker, a lawful gun owner, grabbing his Glock and firing it in his own and Taylor’s defense the moment the officers breached their peace. He doesn’t have a criminal past; he’s the good guy with a gun. The NRA should celebrate him as a model citizen. The conceit of Cameron’s announcement, which has fed the insidious view that Walker is at fault for his girlfriend’s death, is that he shot first, and that you simply don’t shoot at cops. Everything else that followed was a tragic consequence of that choice. They were “fired upon by Kenneth Walker,” according to Cameron’s police-speak. In his telling, no homicide charges are justified against the shooting officers because they were acting in self-defense during a home invasion that may well have been unconstitutional from the start.
That assessment might be correct under the law, but the Constitution demands more of those who are sworn to serve and protect and carry a shield and a gun. The attorney general’s new task force is one step in that direction. As are calls for releasing the grand jury transcripts, an ongoing civil-rights probe led by the FBI, and Louisville’s own reforms to its police department. As VICE News reported late Saturday, there yet remain many unanswered questions about what went wrong on March 13, and transparency will help expose the rot. And in a world where the Justice Department isn’t captured by a partisan attorney general, its civil rights division would already be taking a hard look at bringing the police department under federal supervision, as happened in the aftermath of Ferguson and other localities with a history of troubling practices.
None of these things are panaceas. But if Breonna Taylor is to be honored, her beautiful life remembered, the very least the nation should expect is policing that treats every home, no matter who’s in it, as a place where baking cookies, playing Uno, and curling up to watch Netflix isn’t a woman’s final, happy memory.
Cristian Farias is a legal journalist and a writer-in-residence at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
Originally Appeared on GQ