On March 13th, 2020, Breonna Taylor was killed in her home by police officers during a no-knock raid. Her death prompted national attention and outrage as yet another illustrative case of racist and violent police tactics that have taken far too many Black lives, including those of Black women who are both primary targets of the war on drugs and caught in the crossfire when members of their families and communities are targeted. The drug war — and the legal precedents that enable it — is the primary reason for Breonna’s tragic death.
In 1971, President Nixon declared drugs “public enemy number 1,” flooding law enforcement with billions of federal dollars and other incentives over the ensuing decades in order to carry out the war on drugs. As time progressed, penalties became more harsh, including the enhancement of mandatory minimums, enactment of three strikes laws, and the passage of the crack to powder cocaine sentencing disparity. Millions of people, like Taylor’s ex-boyfriend Marcus Glover, have been arrested, charged, and convicted under these laws. The majority of people arrested are low-income, Black and Brown people in possession of small amounts of drugs or who were low-level sellers, despite the fact that people of all races and classes use and sell drugs at similar rates.
The drug war made no-knock and quick-knock search warrants like the one that brought police to Breonna’s door legal. They are used in far too many parts of the country — and have resulted in the deaths of a number of Black women and girls, including Tarika Wilson, Kathryn Johnson, Alberta Spruill and Aiyana Stanley-Jones. While police entering a home without announcing themselves as law enforcement and producing a warrant would normally be a violation of the 4th amendment protection against unwarranted search and seizures, no-knock and quick knock warrants were deemed constitutional after several notable drug-related court cases. No-knock and quick-knock warrants were deemed legal where it was possible that, if the police had announced themselves, residents might have destroyed evidence (namely, drugs) before the officers could have gained entry and conducted a search. These raids are often conducted in the middle of the night, involve military equipment and tactics, and result in immense emotional distress and trauma, destruction of property, physical injury, and sometimes, death- and they are disproportionately carried out in lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color.
Black women are frequently profiled and targeted in the war on drugs directly or indirectly — ranging from strip searches and cavity searches at airports and on the streets, to federal drug trafficking and conspiracy charges based on their relationships with people involved in the drug trade. Like Breonna Taylor, thousands of women every year are targeted for criminalization and police violence as members of households where other people are — or are perceived to be — involved in the drug trade. Often police target women who use or sell drugs in an attempt to get them to “flip” on people higher up the chain in the drug trade. Many times, these women are minimally or unwittingly involved in the drug trade, or are in positions of little power and have little or no information to trade in exchange for leniency. These tactics have impacted thousands of women for no or minimal involvement in drug activities — but because of mandatory minimums, women are given long prison sentences. Over the past four decades, the number of women in state and federal prisons have grown 800 percent, in large part because of the war on drugs.
Police enjoy tremendous discretion and leeway in waging the war on drugs- even as they leave a trail of lives taken, destroyed, and forever changed. All three officers were placed on administrative leave pending an investigation of their actions on the night of the raid in Taylor’s home. Administrative leave is common for law enforcement who have used lethal force, and placement on administrative leave does not presume guilt for their actions or any officer wrongdoing. In fact, officers are still paid full-time and receive full benefits during this time, and it can cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars a year.
Meanwhile, it is common for civilians to be charged and convicted with assault or attempted murder of law enforcement when defending their homes during no-knock raids, even when there is evidence that they did not know the intruders were law enforcement. Although Walker was initially prosecuted for assault and attempted murder of a police officer, charges were eventually dropped, but only after public outcry and attention to the details of the case. If not for the national attention on the case, Walker could have been like thousands of other people who attempted to defend their homes against intrusion and end up criminally charged.
It is actually quite rare for police officers to face termination or disciplinary actions for misconduct or using lethal force due to the fact that prosecutors choose not to press charges against them. Only one of the three officers, Hankison, was terminated from employment in June and later indicted by a grand jury in September for his actions on the night that Taylor’s home was raided. The grand jury determined that he used deadly force and engaged in wanton endangerment when he indiscriminately shot into Taylor’s home, also placing her neighbors at risk. His conduct, combined with a history of disciplinary action for past behaviors, contributed to his firing. The other two officers were not indicted on any charges for their actions and are still on the force.
Law enforcement routinely face little to no accountability whether it’s a stop and frisk, extortion of sex in exchange for not arresting or charging someone with a drug offense, humiliating, degrading, and invasive strip and cavity searches, destruction of homes, families, and communities, or, in this case, taking a life. Far too often, their actions in the service of the drug war are deemed acceptable or even justified.
Though Louisville and jurisdictions across the country have since passed laws to ban the use of no-knock warrants in their communities, it was the drug war that took her life and created the conditions for this violence to become commonplace. If we really want to honor Breonna’s life and save other families from enduring such a tragic loss, we must begin by ending the drug war, investing in communities, and repairing the harms of racist and classist policies.