It was half past midnight on March 13, 2020, when three plainclothes officers raided the home of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky. As an EMT working at two hospitals, Taylor had been on the front lines of the deadliest global pandemic of the last century. Yet, it was in her bed, at home—the place we’ve all been told is the safest at this moment—where her life came to an end at the hands of police officers who were executing a drug warrant at the wrong address.
Since that mid-March evening, Taylor’s story has received more attention as it enters into conversations about Black Lives Matter and social media hashtags like #SayHerName. Over 60,000 signatures have been garnered on a Change.org petition calling for the police officers who shot Taylor to be immediately charged and for her family to be paid damages for wrongful death. Her family has hired Benjamin Crump, the well-known civil rights attorney that has represented the families of other slain Black children, men, and women, and together they filed a lawsuit against the Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD).
But the recent mobilization came only after two months of silence about Taylor’s death. There are many reasons her story took so long to arrive on the national stage. For one, the officers who murdered Taylor were a part of the LMPD Criminal Interdiction Unit, which does not wear body cameras. In today’s social media news cycle, stories about police brutality often grab public attention most aggressively when accompanied by video footage. Secondly, as The 19th editor-at-large Errin Haines writes, the silence around Taylor reflects the lack of attention often afforded to Black women who face state violence.
However, this postponed outrage also owes to early media accounts that tell a very different story about what happened that March evening—a story that, like most crime coverage, was heavily informed, if not deliberately shaped, by police accounts.
When half truths become the whole story
Among the earliest reporting about the night that ended Taylor’s life was a Louisville Courier-Journal article published the morning of March 13. The reporting largely centers around the injuries sustained by Sergeant Jonathan Mattingly, one of the two officers who murdered Taylor and who Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, shot at in response to the no-knock raid.
The story relies on accounts by LMPD Assistant Police Chief Josh Judah, who shared during a press conference that the officers were “serving a search warrant as a part of the narcotics investigation.”
Featured in the article is a picture of Walker immediately after his arrest while in the custody of LMPD. He looks disheveled and in shock, his eyes glancing away from the camera. A picture of Mattingly further down the page is a professional headshot. He is seated by an American flag, smiling into the camera and wearing a suit and tie.
The images underscore the language used throughout the piece to draw a sharp contrast between the two men. Both here and in another March 13 piece from WDRB News, Walker and Taylor are referred to as “suspects.” Meanwhile, Taylor’s death is mentioned as a footnote and any definitive information on who killed her is left unknown. “Her cause of death,” WDRB News reported, “was listed as a gunshot wound, but it remains unclear when she was shot and by whom.”
What this coverage fails to mention is that the officers were in plainclothes and failed to alert Taylor and Walker of their entry. It omits that Walker had a license to carry a firearm and that the narcotics investigation being executed was meritless from the moment police entered into their home. LMPD’s actual suspect not only lived miles away from Taylor, but had already been arrested and picked up by police earlier that evening.
Further, of the four people at the center of this incident, the only ones with an extensive history of misconduct were two of the police officers, Brett Hankison and Myles Cosgrove. The Taylor family lawsuit notes that Hankinson has a history of using excessive force and in 2006, Cosgrove was placed on administrative leave after fatally shooting a man while on duty.
Relying purely on police accounts obscures the whole truth. In the case of Taylor’s story, that overreliance in early press reports allowed for the exclusion of key details that paint a fuller portrait of the final moments of her life. In doing so, the coverage served to protect a police department that has an impressive track record of already safeguarding themselves.
Shooting without consequence
The term “officer-involved shooting” is purposely vague in its assignment of blame. It places the police at the scene of the violence but obscures whether they’re the victim or the perpetrator. Data compiled for LMPD’s Officer-Involved Shooting Statistical Analysis Report can appear similarly opaque, but a deeper look at the numbers exposes how often police within the department shoot civilians with relative impunity.
Since 2014, LMPD has had 50 “officer-involved shootings,” with four occurring in 2020 alone. These incidents are investigated by the Public Integrity Unit (PIU), a process that can take several months to complete, according to LMPD. The March 13 shooting of Taylor is under investigation by the PIU.
Following the investigation, the PIU shares its findings with the Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office who reviews them and determines if further investigation is needed, as well as if criminal charges are necessary.
Since 2014, of the 50 “officer-involved shootings” committed by members of the LMPD,31, or 62%, have involved Black civilians. Louisville is only 23% Black. Only 13 investigations into these 50 shootings have been closed, and in every case, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office has found the police officers to be justified.
This includes the fatal shooting of Deng Manyoun, a Sudanese immigrant who had been living in Louisville for seven years. In 2015, Manyoun was stopped by LMPD Officer Nathan Blanford and the two became embroiled in an altercation until Manyoun left momentarily, returning with a metal flag pole over his head. Moments later, Blanford shot him to death.
Notes in the LMPD database about the investigation into Manyoun’s shooting reads that after a “thorough review,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Thomas Wine “opined that Officer Blanford acted with a reasonable amount of force to protect himself.”
Brand management as police priority
In a Fall 2019 special report from the Columbia Journalism Review about the relationship between the police and the press, Alexandria Neason writes that “in relaying information about a crime in which an officer may have been at fault, brand management becomes a priority” for police departments.
That desire to portray officers in the best light can result in the omission of information that only sows deeper distrust amongst the public. According to a July 2019 survey conducted by Data for Progress, almost 40% of respondents strongly supported the public disclosure of details of internal police investigations in cases where misconduct was found. Only 3% strongly opposed.
When civilians die at the hands of the police, people want and need to understand what happened and why. When the media privileges police accounts and treats their version of the story as the unequivocal truth, they become an extension of that department’s brand management strategy. In cases like that of Taylor, this can mean that stories get memorialized incorrectly and that opportunities for securing justice get delayed—if not wholly denied.