LOUISVILLE, Ky. — On June 11, just 13 weeks after Breonna Taylor had been shot dead by Louisville police, her mother stood on the steps of Louisville Metro Hall to praise the city’s passage of “Breonna’s Law.”
The ordinance banning no-knock search warrants was a testament to her daughter’s “agenda to save lives” as an ER tech who dreamed of becoming a nurse, Tamika Palmer told a crowd of supporters.
“I knew she was destined for greatness,” she said, her smile beaming. “She’s showing it. She’s showing it.”
In the eight months since, versions of Breonna’s Law, have been proposed in cities and states across the U.S. — from Wisconsin to New Mexico, and from Columbus, Ohio, to Pomona, California.
Proposals would ban or restrict no-knock search warrants like the one police obtained for Taylor’s apartment, which allows officers to enter a residence without first knocking and announcing their presence as law enforcement.
While Louisville police insist they did knock and announce themselves before ramming in Taylor’s front door, the move to ban the controversial search warrants has been increasingly embraced by jurisdictions grappling with police brutality and racial justice in the wake of the deaths of Taylor, George Floyd and other unarmed Black Americans at the hands of police.
“We’ve got folks across the country who are literally filing and passing bills with her name on them to ban the use of no-knock search warrants,” said Kentucky Rep. Attica Scott, D-Louisville, who’s proposed a statewide version of Breonna’s Law.
“That is a policy legacy that she’s leaving with us.”
A Courier Journal analysis has found that since the 26-year-old’s slaying, at least 84 proposals in no fewer than 33 states would monitor, curtail or ban no-knock warrants:
- One state, Virginia, has passed and signed an outright ban into law.
- Forty-five proposals would ban no-knocks with exceptions, and 26 would restrict their use. Others would study, clarify or offer greater oversight of the warrants.
- State legislators have put forth at least 39 bills on no-knocks, and local government or police department leaders have proposed or implemented another 33 measures.
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Advocates of restrictions around no-knock warrants credit the Taylor case for bringing the issue to the forefront and for inspiring officials to overhaul policies that will save lives.
Such efforts are “about honoring the life and legacy of Breonna Taylor,” said Keturah Herron, an American Civil Liberties Unio of Kentucky strategist, who spearheaded Louisville’s ban this summer and has pushed the Kentucky General Assembly to adopt something similar statewide.
“What we’re seeing across the nation is due to the work that we did here in Louisville,” she said, pointing out that Louisville’s legislation passed in a matter of weeks.
“The story around Breonna Taylor, what happened to her, how she was brutalized in her home, the fact that she was an essential worker — people realized how important this was.”
Why no-knock search warrants are so contentious
No-knock warrants have been a controversial issue for years, raising concerns on the left and right alike about the militarization of police, respect of civil liberties and their disproportionate use against communities of color.
A Courier Journal analysis showed that Louisville’s no-knock warrants most often targeted Black residents.
They also carry greater risk.
The March 13, 2020, raid that left Taylor shot six times by Louisville detectives and a police sergeant wounded is not the first time a no-knock search warrant has proven deadly.
A 2017 New York Times analysis found the warrants have resulted in at least 31 civilian and 8 police officer deaths from 2010 to 2016.
Taylor’s death helped catapult the issue to the forefront, spurring lawmakers and officials around the country to take stock of their no-knock policies and laws.
“The Breonna Taylor thing is, Wow, the police can step over the threshold from public space into people’s private space, into their so-called ‘castle’ and engage in a level of violence for no real good reason,” said Peter Kraska, an Eastern Kentucky University professor who has studied police raids and militarization.
Roughly two-thirds of Americans support a federal ban no-knock warrants, a June 2020 poll from Morning Consult and Politico found. That includes 75% of Democrats and 52% of Republicans.
Katie Ryan, campaign manager for Campaign Zero, said no-knocks present a safety issue for law enforcement, which has drawn some conservatives to the cause.
According to Gallup, roughly 44 percent of Americans live in a home with a gun.
“The chances, when you barge into someone’s home, of being met with gunfire is pretty significant given that reality,” Ryan said, “and that people are within their rights to fire at someone who is in the midst of a home invasion, which is what these raids look like.”
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Kentucky Rep. Kevin Bratcher, R-Louisville, reiterated as much.
“On the first blush of (Taylor’s) story, when it first broke, I was thinking, ‘If somebody came into my house at 1 o’clock in the morning, unannounced, they’re going to get some resistance in my house,'” Bratcher told fellow lawmakers Wednesday.
In Virginia, Breonna’s Law resonated with gun owners, some of whom sleep with guns on their nightstands, said state Delegate Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg.
“The idea that law enforcement can enter your home and you would be held responsible, because of them, did not set well,” she said.
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Herron hadn’t worked on policing legislation before Breonna’s Law in Louisville.
But the days of protests got her thinking about how to transform the movement demanding justice for Taylor into policy changes, and reforming no-knock search warrants seemed the way to go.
“I wasn’t thinking that it would get the national attention that it did,” Herron said. “It was just, ‘What can I do right now to help our city?’ And that’s how it started.”
The Louisville Metro Council’s swift action June 11 to permanently ban no-knock search warrants — following Mayor Greg Fischer’s prohibition of the searches — sparked a surge of legislation across the country, said DeRay McKesson, co-founder of Campaign Zero and its ‘End All No-Knocks‘ effort.
“I think that without Louisville taking a stand early, I think nobody else would have,” he said.
Then-Councilwoman Barbara Sexton Smith, one of the Louisville Metro Council’s lead sponsors of Breonna’s Law, said she and Councilwoman Jessica Green, D-1st District, knew it was important that the place where Taylor was killed take “swift, meaningful legislative action.”
“One thing her mother was asking for was, ‘Say her name,'” Sexton Smith said. “We had to not just say her name, we had to solidify her name into the Louisville Metro Code of Ordinances that can never be taken out of the historical context.”
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Other jurisdictions took note.
Later that month, Lexington’s mayor issued a moratorium on no-knock warrants, allowing their use only in life or death situations.
By the end of the summer, the police departments in Indianapolis, Memphis and Long Beach, California, increased oversight of the warrants’ use or ended them altogether — along with legislators from as far as Colorado and Columbus, Ohio.
Aird, the Virginia delegate, told The Courier Journal she sponsored her state’s Breonna’s Law after doing research about no-knock warrants and realizing “if it occurred there, it could occur here.”
That legislation requires officers to announce themselves and their purpose and wear law enforcement attire, and stipulates that if those requirements aren’t followed, the evidence cannot be used in court.
“As a young Black woman, it hurts to think that, number one, this happened to Breonna. But number two, that this could happen in other places, because it just had not been on our radar,” Aird said. “We will forever remember her for saving other lives in perpetuity because she’s now formally going to forever be part of not just Louisville, but the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
Bianca Austin, Taylor’s aunt, said then she hoped Virginia’s step would encourage other states to follow Virginia’s “footsteps in the right direction, and ban no-knock warrants across the United States, period.”
A wave of similar bills have been filed in state legislatures across the country.
Wisconsin’s Rep. LaKeshia Myers of Milwaukee said in a news release about her Breonna’s Law legislation that Taylor’s death was a “clarion call” to end the use of no-knock search warrants across the country.
And a Pennsylvania lawmaker reintroduced a Breonna’s Law bill for the 2021 legislative session after a similar proposal failed in 2020.
State Senator Tim Kearney said in a statement he wouldn’t give up the fight, adding: “Breonna Taylor should be alive today, and we must ensure what happened to her never happens again.”
Reforms like these were among the first recommendations from the Council on Criminal Justice’s newly formed Task Force on Policing in January.
The nonpartisan group comprised of law enforcement, activists and policy experts called no-knock and quick-knock raids “ineffective in reducing crime, dangerous to occupants and officers, and unreliable as a means to recover evidence.”
Kentucky’s struggles with Breonna’s Law
Even as Breonna’s Law has advanced in other places, its progress has been halting in Kentucky.
Scott, the Louisville Democrat, prefiled her Breonna’s Law bill over the summer and asked for a hearing before the session’s start. That didn’t happen.
In fact, Scott’s bill, House Bill 21, wasn’t heard in a legislative committee until this week — and then only as an item for discussion — with time running out before the end of the session.
Scott, one of two Black women in the commonwealth’s legislature, said it’s disappointing Kentucky has “dragged its feet for months.”
The Republican-controlled legislature has focused this session on no-knock warrant legislation filed by Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester. That bill passed out of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday and already has been unanimously passed by the full Senate.
Senate Bill 4 stops short of a complete ban. It would:
- Allow no-knock search or arrest warrants in cases involving alleged violent crimes, or where lives or evidence could be at risk;
- Require a beefed-up review before no-knock approval; and
- Mandate searches take place between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. by a specially trained team recording body camera footage.
Stivers, an attorney for more than 30 years, told The Courier Journal his bill was crafted to allowno-knock search warrants in only the most “narrowly tailored” circumstances.
“Is there a need to really do a no-knock search warrant on a theft ring? No,” he said. “Is there a need to do a no-knock warrant on drugs …? No. There’s other ways to do that, a regular, announced entry, search warrant.”
Ryan Straw, the governmental affairs director for the state Fraternal Order of Police, told The Courier Journal the union recognizes the no-knock search warrant process must be reviewed, but it’s a tool police need for certain circumstances such as hostage situations or with suspected terrorists, where “you wouldn’t want the person you’re looking for to know you’re coming.”
“Generally, I think it’s clear we need to ask ourselves what specifically we should use these for,” Straw said. “We recognize we have improvements to make, that we need to work with the community and listen to the community.”
Still, Straw argues that had Louisville police carried out the no-knock warrant as approved by a judge, Taylor might still be alive.
Police said they knocked and announced themselves, then broke in Taylor’s door when no one responded. Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker fired a shot that struck one of the officers, prompting police to return fire and kill Taylor, who was unarmed, in her hallway.
Walker said neither he nor Taylor heard police announce themselves and thought intruders were breaking in when he fired one shot from his legally owned handgun.
Critics of Stivers’ bill say it is deeply flawed, since it would not mandate alcohol and drug testing for officers following critical incidents such as shootings and in-custody deaths, still allows for no-knock search warrants in some situations and does not carry Breonna Taylor’s name.
At the bills’ hearing Wednesday, former state Rep. Charles Booker emphasized it was Scott’s proposal that “came from the people,” born out of the community’s demands.
“They were grieving in the streets. They were crying out, they were demanding justice and they were demanding the freedom to be OK in their home,” Booker said.
Herron told The Courier Journal Stivers’ legislation could use some amendments, and it should have Taylor’s name attached to “honor her legacy.”
“As Ms. Tamika (Palmer) said, after the passing of Breonna’s Law (in Louisville), banning or restricting no-knock warrants will allow Breonna to do what she wanted to do: save human lives. That’s what this is about,” Herron said. “Her legacy is lived through this legislation.”
Stivers said Wednesday morning he’s never named bills after people, but is also not opposed.
Herron called it bittersweet to see a Black woman recognized because she was killed.
“We’re constantly working in contradictions,” she said. “Being excited that this bill was named after a Black woman, but in the same breath, it’s about honoring her” after her death.
Banning no-knock warrants just the beginning
Kraska, the expert in the militarization of police, has been unequivocal each time he speaks about the issue: banning no-knock warrants alone is not meaningful reform — it is the “minimum of what needs to happen.”
Kraska, who is working with Campaign Zero’s effort, has repeatedly pointed to a 2015 study by Brian Schaefer that found Louisville officers routinely make no-knock entries even when they received a standard knock-and-announce warrant.
Schaefer spent 21 months shadowing two police units conducting 73 raids connected to drug and gun investigations. (The report uses the pseudonym Bourbonville but lists demographics and other descriptors of the “Southern-Midwest” and “vibrant river city” that match Louisville.)
In all 73 search warrants, officers used a ram to break down the door, and officers announced themselves at the same time they hit the door, Schaefer wrote.
That is why, Kraska said, the most effective measures must address no-knock tactics and not just no-knock warrants.
That means requiring police to clearly knock and announce themselves, then wait a reasonable amount of time for an answer; receiving explicit authorization for a forced entry; documenting all searches with body cameras; banning nighttime raids; mandating the collection of data to promote transparency; and limiting civil asset forfeiture in drug raids.
Attorney Sam Aguiar, who represents Taylor’s family, has said the effectiveness of any search warrant reforms hinges on oversight of those practices.
Just as important as a no-knock ban, Aguiar said, is monitoring the execution of all knock-and-announce search warrants to make sure officers are following the law.
“They have the footage: Watch it. Use that as an opportunity,” Aguiar said.
With signs in Frankfort signaling the passage of Stivers’ bill, Kraska is concerned the result will be largely symbolic.
“It’s either an opportunity lost, ‘We did something, let’s turn the page and forget about it,'” he said. “Or, it’s an incremental step to really bring about some changes.”
Stivers said he feels no-knock reforms are well-covered in his bill. Would he be open to future warrant reforms?
“Yeah,” he said, “bring them to me.”
Scott said she hoped to see further changes to Stivers’ legislation. If Taylor’s name were to be attached, it could be a “beautiful, powerful, painful statement,” she said.
“As we come upon the eve of her murder, the thought that she could be enshrined in state law, it’s heavy to me,” she said.
“Here’s an opportunity for her to forever be able to save lives.”