After two years, we have finally seen the most significant step toward anything resembling accountability for the death of Breonna Taylor in March 2020. On Thursday, Merrick Garland announced that the Department of Justice has indicted four of the officers involved with securing and executing the search warrant that ultimately led to Taylor’s death. Even more surprising than the actual indictment, however, were the details it contained about how Louisville cops knowingly made false statements in securing the search warrant and then conspired to cover up their actions once things had gone awry.
Notably, the revelations unearthed in the indictment echo other recent cases in which police dishonesty has led to death and suffering. Everything learned in the aftermath of the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting, for example, has been marked by a lack of police transparency and a willful attempt to mislead the public into a false narrative that initially painted cops as heroes in the midst of crisis. Likewise, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when a SWAT raid resulted in the death of 15-year old Brett Rosenau, police immediately and knowingly released false information claiming that they were searching for another individual wanted for alleged state and federal warrants.
The deaths of Taylor and Rosenau represent just one of the most extreme results that occur when police act without regard for truth and integrity. For two years, Taylor’s death was explained away as the unfortunate cost of policing and public safety. Rosenau’s death ignited the familiar cycle of public protest and police investigation, but if the killing of his father by law enforcement 15 years prior is any indication, the cops may never be charged. The death toll in Uvalde, almost certainly increased by police inaction, and law enforcement’s subsequent willingness to lie in the face of grieving parents is a reminder that even the loss of the most innocent lives will not dislodge the police impulse to conceal the truth.
Together these incidents reveal one of the most glaring problems in policing today. We have written cops a proverbial blank check in terms of their discretion in the execution of their duties under the guise that they are legitimately engaged in ensuring public safety. But as these incidents show, the police routinely fail to hold up their end of the bargain—and then lie to cover their failures. Too often, the cost of this corrupted arrangement is paid for in the loss of lives.
The indictment of the cops that killed Taylor is unique in that it offers the public a peek into typically opaque law enforcement decisions. As the DOJ noted, the “Place-Based Investigations Unit falsified the affidavit used to obtain the search warrant of Ms. Taylor’s home.” To put it another way, the police had no real reason to be at Taylor’s house. They were not acting in the interest of public safety when they broke into her home in the middle of the night without knocking and shot her to death. Instead, the officers who authorized the warrant “knew that the affidavit contained false and misleading statements, omitted material facts, relied on stale information, and was not supported by probable cause.” It was the cops, we now know, not Taylor or her boyfriend, who broke the law and need to be brought to justice.
The details of Rosenau’s killing are just as chilling. The teenager died of smoke inhalation after the police bombarded his home with smoke bombs and flash bang grenades, setting the house on fire. The cops initially said they were there to arrest Qiaunt Kelley for a federal warrant. For weeks local media parroted these claims, reassuring the public that Rosenau’s death was an unfortunate casualty of official police business. Weeks after the incident, however, Source New Mexico, a nonprofit news organization, broke the news that no such warrant existed. Instead, Kelley was wanted for violating his parole.
And it wasn’t until the Austin American-Statesman released video footage of the first police on the scene at Robb Elementary School, where a gunman mowed down 19 children, that the public learned the startling truth about law enforcement’s response that day. The footage showed cops sanitizing their hands, checking their phones, and hiding around corners while the gunman killed kids inside of a classroom. Once again, when the time came for police to respond forcefully to neutralize a clear and present threat to the public, they fumbled. Afterward, they lied to cover their tracks. While their actions did not directly lead to lives lost, they certainly did little to prevent the losses, either.
We may be tempted to celebrate the prosecution of Taylor’s assailants, believing it to be a win for police accountability and justice. If we prosecute the rogue cops with an aversion to the truth and proper procedure, once convicted, those bad apples are gone and all will be well again. But this convenient line of thinking not only oversimplifies the solution but understates the problem. For one, the cops who killed Taylor are not outliers. More critically, however, the belief that prosecuting individual bad actors is the remedy for police misconduct wholly ignores the greater responsibility that police have in upholding critical aspects of society and the threat created when they neglect that responsibility in such a willful manner.
Police serve as the first representation of the state in holding individuals accountable in order to maintain a law-abiding society. This is not simply a function of government; more explicitly, it is a tenet of democracy. The contractual agreement between community and the government says that we will afford police wide latitude in their actions up to and including the ability to take human life in exchange for safety from evil doers who violate society’s laws and the larger protection of our democracy itself.
But for this contract to function effectively, it requires two prerequisites: truth and transparency.
Democracy cannot flourish, let alone function, where public trust in its core institutions continues to decline. When police operate without regard for the importance of hallmarks like honesty and truth, or even a basic respect for the law they are sworn to uphold, the results not only harm individuals and the communities they come from, but erode public trust in a way that threatens to snap the already fraying threads currently holding our democracy together.
The indictment of Taylor’s killers is decades too late. Over the past 40-plus years, the limits governing this contract have been steadily perverted in ways that have made embracing deceit a permissible, if not altogether accepted, function of American policing. Part of this is because police have been driving the narrative that in the paramount interest of public safety they need a wide-ranging arsenal of crime-fighting tools at their disposal. This is even more relevant today as violent crime across America is up and the stump speech echoing in cities everywhere is that the solution to reduce crime involves doubling down on police funding and returning to harsher tactics. Whether it’s stop-and-frisk or “no-knock” warrants, the litany of suggested techniques almost always seem to infringe upon well-established constitutional rights and disproportionately impact the most vulnerable and marginalized among us.
One such tool, police have argued, is deception. However, as we see in Taylor’s case , these discretionary tools have emboldened police beyond the function of that contract. In fact, the police in her case are charged with Title 18 violations, “meaning an official who is using or abusing authority given to that person by the government—to willfully violate a person’s constitutional rights,” as a DOJ press release explained. These particular cops, in this particular situation will have to stand accountable for their actions. But it is clear that across the board law enforcement seems to enjoy feeling beyond reproach. It is no wonder, then, that less than half of adults have confidence in America’s police.
If we accept the role of police as ground-level guardians of our way of life, then the actions of the cops indicted for violating Taylor’s civil rights can be viewed only as an attempt to undermine democracy. The same can be true for any of the other myriad instances in which cops have found it allowable to lie in any aspect of executing their jobs. Because of the esteem in which police function, their narrative—regardless of veracity—shapes public discourse. Police accountability must demand a strict adherence to notions of truth and transparency because anything less threatens not only human life, as we have seen, but the very foundation of American democracy.