Today marks the one year anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s death at the hands of the government. Some call it murder, but the legal definition in Kentucky, according to Section 507.020, includes intent in the definition. It will be hard to impossible to improve the officers involved in the homicide of Breonna Taylor went to her apartment with the intent to kill her. That’s why I don’t think any of the officers will ultimately be convicted on any type of murder charge. That’s a different post for a different day though.
In 2020, we had to deal with the deaths of the three people above. All three killings involved active duty or retired law enforcement officers. In light of these and other killings by police, there has been a movement started to defund the police. The idea behind this is to take funding for police and move it towards other avenues in the community to alleviate police from having to respond to calls they’re not well equipped or trained to handle. These types of calls include mental health calls, and there have been others killed since these three from mental health calls alone.
While the idea appears sound and may provide relief and lower the number of homicides committed by police, there is one glaring shortcoming in this approach. There is no incentive or punishment for police to change their behavior in how they handle their calls. I’m all for getting people the appropriate help they need, and police are not always the answer for an emergency. That said, the ultimate goal should be changing police behavior away from the us vs them mindset that results in deadly force being used when it’s not required. Shifting money doesn’t change the behavior.
To change police behavior, we must go to the source where the behavioral policy is formed, the courts. Police use of force policy is typically written based upon what the courts will allow police to do. These decisions from the courts are usually wrapped in the logic of what any reasonable officer in that situation would respond. While that sounds okay to police departments, the departments are not really challenging themselves to actually determine what is reasonable among themselves. As a result, you get decisions from courts granting officers qualified immunity in cases where reasonable officers would have responded differently.
Take this case for instance. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court and granted qualified immunity to two officers who tased a gasoline soaked suspect. There was a third officer who allegedly warned that tasing the suspect would light him on fire, and when the two other officers tased the suspect, he did catch fire. The fire burned down the house and the suspect eventually died from his injuries.
Now, there is a court precedent saying that tasing a gasoline soaked subject is not an excessive or inappropriate use of force. The court basically okayed the officers killing of the suspect when most any taser training will tell you explicitly to not deploy the taser on someone soaked in flammable liquids because they will combust. The court has taken an unreasonable application of force and made it reasonable and justified. This won’t be undone by defunding the police.
What needs to happen is we need to focus on the courts. The courts is where limits are set on what is considered appropriate behavior by police. When the limits are well beyond appropriate, we’re stupid for expecting police to remain within what would actually be appropriate. They’re given leeway to go above and beyond and will continue to do so until the legal side of the equation is recalibrated and inappropriate and excessive force is ruled as such.
On the one year anniversary of losing Ms. Taylor, I don’t want her death to be in vain. I don’t want her name to become just another person we mourn in the pantheon of unjustified police killings. No knock warrants have already been ruled unconstitutional. The original warrant applied for and issued was a no-knock warrant. The police used dubious evidence to obtain the warrant, so the warrant itself is questionable to begin with. This is all before we even get to the execution of the warrant.
Defunding the police and directing money to more appropriate applications of assistance will undoubtedly save someone’s life. That said, moving money around will not change police behavior, and that’s why moving money alone will fail. People need to take the defund the police movement and couple it with reclaiming and reining in the courts if the goal of slowing/stopping unjustified police killings is to be achieved.