Breonna Taylor verdict highlights issues with police accountability, UC Berkeley professors say

BLM protest in Berkeley
Sunny Shen/File
A Black Lives Matter protest takes place in Berkeley. After Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, was shot March 13 by Louisville police who entered her home, protesters nationwide called for charges against the police officers involved.

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The Kentucky grand jury’s Wednesday decision against indicting police officers for the shooting of Breonna Taylor highlights issues surrounding police accountability, some UC Berkeley professors said.

After Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, was shot March 13 by Louisville police who entered her home, protesters nationwide called for charges against the police officers involved. According to UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy professor Jack Glaser, it is extremely difficult to indict a police officer acting in the line of duty.

“In this case, the officers were probably acting within policy,” Glaser said in an email.  “Somebody made a grievous error about the location, and the officers probably used much more force than necessary, and the no-knock warrant set the stage for a violent confrontation. But the likelihood that a jury would find a guilty verdict, given the judicial precedent, was very low.”

Glaser attributes the difficulty of holding police accountable for their actions to judicial precedent and ambiguity in the law in regards to the use of force. According to Glaser, laws surrounding what justifies police actions such as the use of force and searches typically use vague standards of “reasonableness.”

Additionally, Glaser said cases regarding police use of force are often looked at with “final frame analysis,” meaning the reasonableness of an officer’s actions is typically judged based on the seconds surrounding the forceful action itself. Officers are rarely held accountable for their actions leading up to the use of force, Glaser said.

Courts also show favor toward police officers, according to Glaser. Police witness testimony is given more credibility than that of civilians since the police are assumed to be serving the public’s interest. Additionally, as defendants, police officers are more likely to receive the benefit of the doubt from the court.

With about 18,000 police departments in the United States under municipal control, policing is highly decentralized, according to Glaser.

“The silver lining in that is that considerable reform can happen when there is local political will, and many major city police chiefs are quite receptive to reform,” Glaser said in his email. “No-knock warrants, like the one that led to Taylor’s death, are very much on the chopping block in some cities.”

UC Berkeley School of Law criminal justice professor Jonathan Simon had different suggestions on what police reform should entail, and said police need to put an end to stopping drivers and pedestrians unless there is probable cause that a crime has occurred, rather than the “reasonable suspicion” that the law currently permits.

He also called for an end to the war on drugs and the use of police against drug trafficking, and said police should respond to requests for assistance from victims of serious crime.

“Realistically, anything more than superficial reforms will require the movement to stay in the streets as well as voting aggressively in local elections because the criminal justice status quo has a lot of very powerful supporters,” Simon said in an email.

Contact Blake Evans at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @Blake_J_Evans.