photo by Drazen Zigic via iStock

October 23rd marks one month since a grand jury announced that it would not indict Louisville former detective Brett Hankison, and Officers’ Myles Cosgrove and Jonathan Mattingly for the death of Breonna Taylor. The public remains angered by the lack of accountability for these law enforcement officials responsible. The world watched as public outcry following the state sanctioned murder of Taylor and other highly publicized victims such as Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd were amplified mid-pandemic. Millions of citizens across America and internationally, channeled their energy into protests demanding accountability from civil servants while leveraging social media as a vehicle for resource exchange and public dialogue. 

As the latest waves of protests show, public pressure and scrutiny, not an inherent desire to deliver justice, are often the impetus for public agencies to act. In claims regarding alleged police misconduct, justice practitioners tasked with hearing these cases often seek verdicts that negate formal wrongdoing in the eyes of the law through settlements as a means to quell public tensions and prevent further backlash among victims and those closest to them. Historically, these settlement agreements include confidentiality clauses requiring victims to refrain from publicly communicating any information related to the case. In addition, non-disparagement clauses censor victims’ voices further, prohibiting negative public statements against the defending party, even if the statement is a fact.

There are a number of different reasons why a victim’s family may file a civil rights suit against a city, and specifically a police department. The families involved search for compensation and public vindication while exercising their sixth amendment right to a trial by jury.  As far as the public can see it, settlements have been viewed as a way to get a step closer to justice for the families of those killed by law enforcement officials. The ability to file a lawsuit against a police officer has been a right that has been exercised countless times by Black and Brown citizens. Since the beginning of 2020, 861 people have been killed at the hands of the police, with Black people making up 28% of this total despite comprising only 13% of the population. With taxpayers responsible for approximately $300 million in settlement funds last year alone, the legislative recourse as a result of these cases has been underwhelming to say the least, with only a handful of cases resulting in charges against offending officers. 

Utilizing settlement funds as a means to silence victims of police brutality creates a systematic cycle of deflection. Using compensation as a futile means to address claims brought forth without integrating substantive punishment and legislation that would address systemically discriminatory practices at the source, will have little to no impact in preventing police misconduct.

“Don’t congratulate us,” Eric Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, told reporters after the announcement of the $5.9 million settlement. “This is not a victory. The victory will come when we get justice.” 

In the case of Breonna Taylor, Louisville willingly agreed to the reforms written into the $12 million dollar settlement, but made it clear that this meant that they were in no way assuming responsibility for Taylor’s death. In what is now known to be the largest settlement awarded by the city of Louisville, there are still many unanswered questions by not only the residents of Louisville but the entire country. 

Is the award of a settlement enough to satisfy the public? Is it an indication of justice achieved? Was the swiftness of this agreement a tactic to silence the many protestors who took to the streets to advocate on Taylor’s behalf? Taylor’s settlement seemed to be somewhat expedited in comparison to other similar police-involved killings, and an amount was agreed upon in less than six months. In the case of Eric Garner, the $5.9 million dollar settlement took approximately one year. Philando Castile’s family waited 16 months before a settlement of $3 million dollars was reached by the city of Minnesota. 

When the settlement announcement became public, Louisville’s Mayor Fischer shared with the New York Times why he felt there was no need to wait for the grand jury’s decision on whether to indict the three officers involved. “My administration is not waiting to move ahead with needed reforms to prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again,” Mayor Greg Fischer said. “When you know what the right thing to do is you do it. Why wait?” 

The victory-adjacent response to this award was short-lived when a grand jury announced eight days later that it would not indict Detective Brett Hankinson and Officers Jonathan Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove for the death of Breonna Taylor. Louisville’s failure to admit any wrongdoing followed by a grand jury’s failure to indict the three law enforcement officials involved not only speaks to the dysfunction of a so-called justice system, but questions the existence of accountability as it pertains to Black and Brown bodies. The implications of this demoralizing cycle continue to reverberate in communities of color in particular, as the gross lack of accountability leads to growing tension between civilians and the people of government and law enforcement sworn to protect them. To add insult to injury, with police settlement agreements funded by taxpayer dollars, communities literally bear the financial burden of police misconduct.

This still leads the citizens of Louisville and the country yearning for a question that remains unanswered: who will be held accountable for Breonna Taylor’s murder? As for Taylor’s family, their settlement will assist in them living a comfortable life after suffering such a public loss. Despite their recent financial gain, they are left to deal with the aftermath of injustice and the judgement of the public in being awarded this settlement amount. “I won’t go away, I’ll still fight,” is what Tamika Palmer Taylor’s mother had to say prior to the announcement of the non-indictment. 

Our country’s inclination to use monetary compensation as a tactic to reconcile the loss of Black citizens at the hands of law enforcement further amplifies the perception in the Black community that Black lives are expendable. While retributive justice calls for compensation of victims, history shows that settlements in instances of police brutality and killings don’t result in substantive legislative action and, therefore, rarely deter police officers from wrongfully using excessive/deadly force in future civilian interactions, resulting in the repetition of police/community violence.

Tamar Montuma

Tamar Montuma