His dulcet tones and gushing sympathies notwithstanding, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s press conference on Wednesday announcing a grand jury’s decision in the investigation into Breonna Taylor’s March 13th killing by police made it clear that—at least in his judgment, and that of the grand jury—cops in this country have enormous latitude under the law to respond to threats with deadly force. So much latitude, in fact, that the level of response “justified” against such threats seems almost unconstrained.
Cameron was effusive in praise of his colleagues in the investigation: “These men and women are true public servants who for months have shown up every day … to seek the truth.” According to Cameron, the grand jury’s decision was simply the one most “justified” under the law by the cold hard facts of the case. If we have to be mad at anything then, we should be mad at the law, not those in the criminal justice system—cops included—who are responsible for upholding it.
So what is the truth? What are the facts? Breonna and her boyfriend Kenneth Walker were awoken in the night by banging and shouting at their door at about 12:40 a.m. Walker believed someone was breaking into their apartment and, presumably befuddled and afraid, fired one shot in the direction of the door at approximately 12:43 a.m., hitting an officer in the leg. The three officers then immediately fired more than twenty rounds in response, six of which struck Taylor, who bled to death in the hallway of her home. She was unarmed and had no criminal history. No drugs were found at the site.
Yet, as Robin Givhan put it in The Washington Post, “The criminal justice system decided that the police officers were ‘justified’ in their use of force, ‘justified’ in the return of deadly fire, ‘justified’ in protecting themselves. Taylor’s killing was ‘justified.’”
The cops were simply responding to a threat, right? So they get off scot free—at least in regards to Taylor’s death—no matter how necessary or proportional or reckless their use of force actually was. And no matter how justified Walker was in initially trying to protect himself, his girlfriend, and their home.
The takeaway for the casual observer in this case is simple: In America, no matter what police actions initially provoke a civilian to attack the police—even if they bust down your door, guns blazing, in the middle of the night—any amount of deadly force is “justified” for police to use in retaliation to the attack.
That is of course what the cops involved in the case would also like you to believe. One of the three officers involved in the incident, Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly, sent a six-paragraph email-rant to more than 1,000 of his colleagues on the day before Cameron’s announcement. According to Mattingly, he and the other officers “did the legal, moral and ethical thing that night.” He showed no hint of real remorse, no sense of the immense tragedy and miscarriage of justice that occurred, no sense that anything about the incident was inappropriate or unjust.
Clearly, if his view is that of most cops in Louisville—or nationwide—then they really aren’t getting the message protesters are sending. Mattingly’s email proves why these protests need to continue.
The Difficult Job of Police
Look, I’m not naïve. There are lots of dangerous people out there. There’s no sense in pretending that police don’t feel rightly threatened by some of the encounters they have with civilians. I don’t envy the difficult job they have to do day after day, and not least because they are often called upon to be on the front lines of providing mental health services in this country.
In a recent PBS NewsHour story about law enforcement and mental health in Colorado, officers expressed frustrations about how many of those they arrest are in the midst of severe mental health crises—and how poorly the system is equipped to get those people the care they really need. These frustrations “with lack of access to care, and placing people on a 72-hour mental health hold, only to see they are getting little help, is borne out by the numbers,” PBS’s John Ferrugia said. “In 2018, there were more than 33,000 mental health holds in Colorado… About 5,000 people were detained more than once.”
Later in the piece, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle explained that the police role in dealing with the mental health issues of civilians has only expanded in recent years. As Ferrugia added, “the jail population receiving mental health services has grown from 13 percent in 2002, when [Pelle] first became sheriff, to now, on certain days, 60 percent.” I don’t know about you, but that seems pretty high to me.
Of course, there are many dangerous people in America not suffering mental health crises, and obviously, the overwhelming majority of Americans who struggle or have struggled (myself included) with mental health issues are not remotely dangerous. But it’s a serious problem that those suffering often the most extreme mental health issues do not have access to better services, and it’s crazy to think that cops should have to take a primary role in dealing with such matters, or that jails and prisons should serve the purpose of mental health institutions.
Maybe that’s one area in criminal justice reform that we can all work together on.
The Role of Guns
But that police have to deal with so many unstable, potentially violent people is a matter made exponentially worse by one simple fact: Because we live in the United States, many of those people have easy access to guns.
Our nation is awash with deadly weapons. According to a recent piece in The Atlantic by Derek Thompson, “roughly 400 million firearms are in circulation in the U.S.” and the stark statistical reality is that “Life is more dangerous in the presence of firearms—period. A 2013 study of U.S. states in the American Journal of Public Health found that for each percentage-point increase in gun ownership, the overall firearm homicide rate increased by 0.9 percent, controlling for other factors. The correlation between gun availability and violent crime is statistically significant at every level of income.” In other words, whether you are rich or poor, having lots of guns around significantly increases your chances of being shot.
Of course, the overabundance of deadly weapons in this country also hurts police. As Thompson continues, “police officers are especially likely to be shot dead in states with more guns. … [Another AJPH study, from 2015] examined the relationship between state firearm-ownership rates and police killings, controlling for factors that relate with homicide rates, such as income, poverty, property crime, and alcohol consumption. The researchers concluded that ‘a 10% increase in firearm ownership correlated to ten additional officer homicides’ from 1996 to 2010.”
And that heightened risk goes both ways too. In other words, “Where guns are abundant, civilians are more likely to kill civilians and cops, and cops are, in turn, more likely to kill civilians.”
Given this evidence, you’d think that police would be inclined to support gun control. Unfortunately that is not the case. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, “law enforcement officers overwhelmingly say it is more important to protect the rights of Americans to own guns than it is to control gun ownership. By a margin of 3-1, officers supported rights over gun control (74 percent to 25 percent).”
That seems counterintuitive, but part of the reason for their lack of support for gun control may be that police in America have for decades been increasingly militarized and trained in a kind of “warrior” culture. As Thompson continues, “One of the most common criticisms of modern policing is that officers dealing with traffic violations and homeless people shouldn’t be lugging around military-style weaponry or exhibiting a ‘warrior’ mentality on the street.” And yet, ironically, as Thompson goes on to demonstrate through several historical examples, “police militarization and this pernicious ‘warrior mentality’ are a direct response to gun violence and mass shootings” going back decades.
So, in some sense, we’re left with a classic eye-for-an-eye situation: Gun violence has justified increased police militarization which has made it less likely cops will support gun control, resulting in more guns on the streets which leads to more gun violence, and more cop-on-civilian and civilian-on-cop violence specifically. When will this cycle end? Who is going to end it?
The Big Picture
On a per capita basis, no other developed country has cops that use deadly force as often as we have. As a share of GDP, the U.S. actually “spends less on police than the European Union does,” and yet, as Thompson notes, no EU country “shares our epidemic of police violence. American police kill about 1,000 people every year. Adjusted for population, that body count is five times higher than that in Sweden, 30 times higher than that in Germany, and 100 times higher than that in the United Kingdom.”
If you’re not appalled by those statistics, you should be. Something—or many things—need to be done to fix the injustices in our system, stop the bloodshed, and heal our societal wounds.
Ultimately, until at the very least we start to get more help for those in society who need it most and get more guns off the streets, cops are going to continue to feel under threat on a daily basis. And if, as in the case of Breonna Taylor (and countless other cases), they are allowed under the law to continue to respond with almost unconstrained deadly force to such threats, they will. And they’ll continue to feel “justified”.