The trial of the one Louisville police officer who faced criminal charges after the March 2020 raid that killed Breonna Taylor began yesterday. Former detective Brett Hankison is charged not with killing Taylor, an unarmed 26-year-old EMT who died in a hail of bullets after cops broke into her apartment in the middle of the night, but with endangering her neighbors by firing blindly into the building.*
Hankison "is the one that fired the shots that are the subject of this case," defense attorney Stew Matthews told the jury. "That's not the issue. The issue is: What was the reasoning behind his firing those shots?" Reasoning is probably too strong a word for what was going on inside Hankison's brain that night. But Matthews suggested that the detective's actions were understandable in the circumstances. "You are going to discover that this scene was total chaos," he said.
While Hankison undoubtedly contributed to the chaos, he was by no means mainly responsible for it. The people who were have escaped criminal liability, vividly illustrating how the war on drugs transforms murder into self-defense.
The raid that killed Taylor began with an investigation of her former boyfriend, Jamarcus Glover, who was implicated in drug dealing. Although Taylor was no longer dating Glover, he continued to receive packages at her apartment. The search warrant for Taylor's apartment ostensibly was based on the suspicion that the packages contained drugs or drug money. But a month before serving that warrant, police knew that the packages, which reportedly contained clothing and shoes, came from Amazon.
Taylor had no criminal record, and there was no evidence that she was involved in drug dealing, aside from her association with Glover. Joshua Jaynes, the detective who applied for the search warrant, said he had "verified through a US Postal Inspector" that Glover was receiving packages at Taylor's apartment. But he did not mention that the local postal inspector's office had concluded "no packages of interest" had been sent there. Furthermore, Jaynes applied for a no-knock warrant based on boilerplate safety and evidence-preservation concerns without offering any information specific to Taylor.
Even though they were authorized to enter the apartment without knocking, the officers who served the warrant banged on the door for at least 30 seconds around 12:40 a.m. They claimed they also announced themselves before using a battering ram to break in—a point that was disputed by all the neighbors who were later interviewed, including one who subsequently changed his account to fit the official story. Taylor and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, were in bed at the time. Walker later said they had no idea who was at the door, although he was "scared to death" by the pounding and worried that it might be Glover.
Walker reacted to the alarming tumult by grabbing a gun and firing a single shot, which struck one of the officers in the leg. Three officers responded by firing a total of 32 rounds, six of which struck Taylor, who was standing next to Walker in a dark hallway.
Myles Cosgrove, a detective who fired 16 of those rounds, later said he was "overwhelmed with bright flashes and darkness," which led him to believe "there's still these gunshots happening due to those bright lights." He also said he only surmised that he had used his gun.
"I just sensed that I've fired," Cosgrove said in an interview that was played for grand jurors. "It's like a surreal thing. If you told me I didn't do something at that time, I'd believe you. If you told me I did do something, I'd probably believe you, too."
Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly, the officer who had been struck by Walker's bullet, simultaneously fired six rounds, which may explain why Cosgrove believed Walker was still shooting. According to "medical evidence," Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron said after investigating the incident, just one of the bullets that hit Taylor was fatal, and it would have killed her within two minutes. While a state ballistic analysis could not determine who fired the fatal shot, the FBI's lab concluded that it came from Cosgrove's gun.
Hankison, who was outside Taylor's apartment when the gunfire began, fired 10 rounds without a clear target. "Your actions displayed an extreme indifference to the value of human life when you wantonly and blindly fired ten (10) rounds into the apartment," Robert Schroeder, then the interim police chief, wrote in his June 2020 termination letter to Hankison. "These rounds created a substantial danger of death and serious injury to Breonna Taylor and the three occupants of the apartment next to Ms. Taylor's…I find your conduct a shock to the conscience. I am alarmed and stunned you used deadly force in this fashion."
The grand jury agreed with Schroeder's assessment. That September, it approved three charges of wanton endangerment against Hankison, one for each of the three people living in a neighboring apartment that was penetrated by the detective's bullets: Cody Etherton, Chelsey Napper (who was pregnant at the time), and her 5-year-old son. The charges allege that Hankison "wantonly engage[d] in conduct which create[d] a substantial danger of death or serious physical injury to another person" in circumstances that indicated an "extreme indifference to the value of human life." That is a Class D felony, punishable by one to five years in prison for each count—a maximum of 15 years in this case.
Etherton testified yesterday that he was awakened by the sound of police crashing into Taylor's apartment, which was quickly followed by gunfire. Several rounds pierced the wall separating his unit from Taylor's, he said, nearly hitting him and the boy. "A professional, a well-trained officer, should have had the floor plans, the blueprints," Etherton said. "They didn't even know whose back door it was. They didn't even know who lived there. That kind of upset me. It was just reckless to me."
But Hankison was hardly the only officer who acted recklessly during the raid or in the weeks preceding it. Yvette Gentry, who succeeded Schroeder as interim police chief, concluded that Jaynes had lied in his search warrant application. "Detective Jaynes lied when he swore 'verified through a US Postal Inspector,'" she wrote in her December 2020 termination letter to Jaynes. "Detective Jaynes did not have contact with a US Postal Inspector….Having an independent, third party verify information is powerful and compelling [evidence]. The inclusion of this in the affidavit as a direct verification was deceptive."
The search of Taylor's apartment was based entirely on the notion that "suspicious packages" had been delivered there. Jaynes' lie was crucial in establishing that point.
Gentry also faulted Jaynes for failing to complete an operational plan before the fatal raid. "It is clear from this review that there should have been better controls, supervision and scrutiny over this operation prior to the warrant being signed and executed," she wrote. "Because the operations plan was not completed properly a very dangerous situation was created for all parties involved. You were the officer who conducted the majority of the investigation; however, neither you, your direct supervisor, [nor] his lieutenant were present or available at the scene when the search warrant was executed."
In a termination letter to Cosgrove that she sent the same day, Gentry said he failed to "properly identify a target" when he fired 16 rounds down a dark hallway. "The shots you fired went in three distinctly different directions, demonstrating that you did not identify a specific target," she wrote. "Rather, you fired in a manner consistent with suppressive fire, which is in direct contradiction to our training, values and policy."
Walker was initially charged with attempted murder of a police officer, but prosecutors dropped that charge two months later, implicitly recognizing that he had a strong self-defense claim. Cameron, who accepted the controverted claim that the officers had announced themselves, concluded that Cosgrove and Mattingly also had fired in self-defense. Although Cameron said "the grand jury agreed" with that conclusion, one of the jurors contradicted him, saying prosecutors did not even present charges against Cosgrove or Mattingly as an option to consider.
Even if you buy Cameron's conclusion that the 22 shots fired by Cosgrove and Mattingly were justified in the circumstances, something clearly has gone terribly wrong when both sides in a deadly confrontation with police can plausibly claim that they acted in self-defense. Leaving aside the problems with the search warrant itself, the way it was served predictably created a situation in which cops were easily mistaken for criminals. This same basic scenario has been playing out in cities across the country for years—most recently in Minneapolis, where a SWAT team awakened Amir Locke early in the morning and killed him within nine seconds because he, like Walker, picked up a gun in response to a terrifying home invasion.
The "chaos" that Hankison thinks justified his blind gunfire was the culmination of several egregious failures.
Jaynes failed to tell the truth when he applied for a search warrant. Jefferson County Circuit Judge Mary Shaw, who approved that warrant and four others related to the case against Glover within 12 minutes, failed to question the thin evidence that Jaynes presented to establish probable cause and the complete lack of information to support dispensing with the knock-and-announce requirement.
The cops who served the warrant failed to plan the operation carefully, failed to consult with SWAT officers, and failed to consider the potential for deadly confusion. Cosgrove and Mattingly, who placed themselves in a "fatal funnel" that exposed them to the danger they cited to justify their use of deadly force, failed to anticipate that the 22 bullets they fired in the dark might strike someone other than the person who had shot at them. Yet somehow Hankison is the only officer accused of showing "extreme indifference to the value of human life."
But for those failures, Taylor would still be alive. Most fundamentally, none of this would have happened if politicians had not authorized violence as a response to the consumption of psychoactive substances they have arbitrarily proscribed.
Without the war on drugs, we would not be arguing about whether and which cops committed crimes that night. They would be obviously guilty of burglary, assault with a deadly weapon, and murder. Walker thought he was defending Taylor and himself against violent criminals. If it weren't for drug prohibition, everyone would recognize that he was right.
*CORRECTION: The original version of this post erroneously said Taylor was 25 at the time of her death.