On the Murders of Breonna Taylor and Atatiana Jefferson

On the Murders of Breonna Taylor and Atatiana Jefferson June 1, 2020

Let’s talk about the murder of Breonna Taylor. Her killing, and that of Atatiana Jefferson a few months ago, drew attention to a bizarre double standard. In the United States, we hold both that police can shoot and kill anyone who points a gun at them and that individual citizens have a second amendment right to own guns and use them to defend their homes against intruders.

Anyone should be able to see that this creates a dangerous situation. Clearly, people aren’t supposed to use guns to defend themselves against police—but what if they don’t know that their attackers or intruders are police?

And so we end up with things like this:

Mr. Walker, 27, has contended that he did not know that it was police officers who had been knocking at the door and feared for his life when he grabbed his gun and fired.

Kenneth Walker was Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend. The police broke into their home at 1am while he and Breonna were in bed. He grabbed his gun, thinking—understandably—that their home was being broken into by bunglers. After Kenneth fired a warning shot, the police opened fire, killing Breonna.

I have questions. So, so many questions. Let’s start with this one: why are police breaking into people’s homes at 1am? Surely they had to realize that the residents were probably asleep? What in the high heaven prevented them from visiting the home in the day? Is it not obvious that someone woken from their bed by someone battering down their door at 1am might be confused, take some time to figure out what’s going on, and make hasty decisions?

We don’t live in a police state. Or at least, we aren’t supposed to.

In addition to watching his girlfriend be murdered in front of his eyes, Kenneth was charged with attempted murder for shooting a police officer. Those charges were later dropped after outcry—but what would have happened if this story hadn’t spread, if what happened had been more hushed up?

“We’re happy that the case is dismissed,” said Mr. Walker’s lawyer, Rob Eggert. “He always said that he didn’t know these were police officers, and they found no drugs in the apartment. None. He was scared for his life and her life.”

Break into someone’s house in the middle of the night, shoot and kill their girlfriend, and then claim they committed attempted murder by trying to defend themselves. This sounds like something a gang would do.

The Louisville Courier-Journal reported that the police had been targeting two men who they believed were selling drugs out of a house more than 10 miles from Ms. Taylor’s apartment. However, a judge had signed a warrant allowing officers to search Ms. Taylor’s home — and to enter without warning — in part because a detective said one of the men had used Ms. Taylor’s apartment to receive a package.

I did not know warrants allowing police to enter without warning were a thing. Can the police not see that this is dangerous, in a country where it is legal for citizens to own guns and use them in self-defense—in a country where “stand your ground” laws allow people to legally shoot and kill home intruders?

Also, drugs are not this important. Apparently all it takes is the mere suggestion that you are involved in the drug trade and you loose all your rights.

And then there is Atatiana Jefferson. A neighbor called in a well check for her because they noticed that her front door was open at 1am, which they thought was odd. The police arrived and, rather than knocking at her front door—which would seem like the obvious thing to do—an officer went around back, in the dark. When Atatiana—who was up playing video games with her nephew—heard a prowler in her backyard, she got out her gun. The officer, seeing her gun, shot and killed her through her window, in front of her nephew.

When did we decide police could shoot first and asks questions later? I do not remember being consulted about this. I am not okay with this.

The police should care as much about not killing anyone—anyone—as they do about preventing crime. Respect for human life should be central to their mission and their institutional culture. Remember, the police never arrest criminals—they only arrest suspects. They are not the judicial system. That is not their job. They do not convict people. Sometimes I wonder—do they know this?

So, which is it? Are people allowed to defend themselves with guns against intruders, or not? Are cops allowed to break into people’s homes like they’re home invaders on the flimsiest excuse? Or they allowed to prowl in people’s backyards, trespassing on private property, and then shoot residents who are understandably afraid, in their own homes? What kind of world do we live in?

I’ve left race mostly unstated. Both Breonna Taylor and Atatiana Jefferson were Black. Do white people have the right to bear arms, while Black people don’t? This is a question that bears asking, but while Black people bear the brunt, the problem we are confronting is endemic to policing today. Yes, there are white people who call the police on Black people, who use the police as an agent of violence. But white people, too, have been charged for trying to defend themselves from police serving no-knock warrants in the middle of the night.

I cannot read things like this and conclude anything other than that there is a very, very big problem here:

Historically, police officers executing a warrant were supposed to knock, announce themselves, and wait before entering a person’s home. But in the 1970s and ’80s, as the war on drugs ramped up, many officers argued that drug dealers would take advantage of the warning to destroy evidence or arm themselves. Judges began approving more no-knock warrants, along with “quick-knock” warrants, another type that requires officers to knock but allows them to barge inside seconds later. Around the country, no-knock and quick-knock drug searches surged—from around 3,000 in 1981 to at least 60,000 annually in recent years, according to Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University who studies these raids. In many cities, it’s rare for a judge to deny an officer’s request for a no-knock warrant, partly because it’s easy to argue a suspect will be dangerous when you consider that 4 in 10 American adults live in a home with a gun.

This is not okay. None of this is okay.

Consider the logic here—the claim is that it’s okay for police officers to break into people’s houses without warning … because many Americans own firearms. That makes no sense. Owning firearms is legal in the United States. The claim that this makes Americans so dangerous police have to break into their homes in the middle of the night without warning—which itself creates a dangerous situation, because people woken like that in the middle of the night have every right to think they are defending themselves from burglars—is absurd.

Let me see if I have this straight: Widespread firearm ownership has rendered Americans so dangerous that police have no choice but to behave like an occupying military force and suspend people’s rights into order effectively police them. Something is broken here. Something is very, very broken.

As so often happens, these overarching problems in the system affect Black people disproportionately due to ongoing systemic and individual racism. A white person with a gun is a patriot exercising their second amendment rights. A black person with a gun is a criminal up to no good. Typing those two sentences hurt, but this is where we are in America today. The solution is—apparently—more guns, more battering down doors, more body armor, more tanks.

I did not sign up for this. I am not okay with this. This needs to end. Now.

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