In the middle of the night on March 13, 2020, Breonna Taylor was killed by police in her home during the execution of a “no-knock” search warrant.
Her death, along with the death of George Floyd in Minnesota two months later, sparked national conversation surrounding not only the use of no-knock warrants by law enforcement, but also about broader police reform.
This movement led several cities, localities, and states to introduce and enact legislation addressing no-knock warrants and other police reform measures — including Louisville, where Breonna’s tragic death occurred.
“Breonna’s Law” was passed by the Louisville City Council in June of 2020. Now, lawmakers in Kentucky’s state legislature are trying to pass similar legislation at the state level.
Kentucky House Bill 21, “Breonna’s Law,” would ban no-knock warrants, in addition to requiring all law enforcement officers to wear body cameras when carrying out search warrants and during other interactions with the public. An officer’s failure to activate their body camera — especially if done intentionally — can result in discipline for the officer.
The bill also contains requirements for release of body camera footage to the public and addresses exceptions for when release of footage would be improper or would implicate safety or privacy concerns (for example, if the footage showed the body of a deceased individual, of minor children, etc.).
Additionally, the bill touches on certain defenses that will not be available to an officer subject to a civil suit as a result of their failure to comply with the bill’s requirements. For example, an officer cannot defend themselves from civil liability by simply claiming that they acted in good faith. The bill also requires law enforcement officers who discharge their weapon in a deadly incident to be tested for drugs and alcohol after the incident occurs.
The bill currently has 16 sponsors — all of whom are Democratic legislators in a state government that has a Republican supermajority. The bill was filed in August of 2020, but still has yet to be assigned to a committee.
Given that this bill would affect not only all law enforcement officers and agencies in the state — but also many Kentuckians across the commonwealth — it is perplexing as to why Republican lawmakers seem to believe it is not worth their time and attention.
Other cities and states across the country have felt that these issues were deserving of proactive legislation.
How can we, as the host state of the tragic event that sparked this national conversation, simply ignore the problem?
Given that this bill, if passed into law, will have an effect on law enforcement officers and agencies throughout the state, and that the law enforcement community is likely to lead the opposition against this bill, I felt it was important to talk with someone involved in law enforcement to understand what aspects of this bill might spark controversy with that community.
I spoke with Hopkins County Sheriff Matt Sanderson, who is the sheriff for my home county. Sanderson expressed that while he believes this bill has good intent, there are certain aspects of the bill that go too far.
One of Sanderson’s primary concerns was about how the state plans to fund the supply of body cameras to law enforcement agencies across the state. Body cameras can be very expensive, and there are often additional costs imposed for things like purchasing and maintaining storage space for video files.
According to Sanderson, his department has a budget of approximately $50,000 per year for body cameras and related expenses. He was concerned that other departments — particularly those in smaller or poorer counties — may not be able to afford the upkeep of such expensive technology.
Another concern Sanderson had was that, as with all technological devices, body cameras can sometimes malfunction or can run out of battery if an officer is on a prolonged mission without access to be able to charge it. Given that the bill would create a presumption of misconduct against an officer if they fail to activate their body camera, Sanderson was concerned that there may be liability placed on the officer when the technology itself might be the culprit.
Other issues Sanderson has with this bill relate to the civil defenses portion and the section that addresses officer testimony in court (Section 6 and Section 4, respectively). He is concerned that taking away certain defenses from officers is essentially eliminating qualified immunity without saying as much.
Sanderson is concerned that without certain protections in place for officers, he will have a hard time finding people willing to work in law enforcement, a task which he says has already become difficult. Sanderson found the portion of the bill that creates a presumption of inadmissibility of statements by an officer who fails to comply with the body camera requirements particularly “offensive,” saying that an officer’s sworn testimony should still count for something.
When it comes to the bill’s objective of eliminating no-knock warrants, Sanderson was much more open to such legislation and mostly agreed with what the bill is attempting to do in this area.
In Sanderson’s opinion, no-knock warrants should only be used in the most extreme and extraordinary cases anyway, saying that there are “rare situations where it’s appropriate.”
That said, Sanderson is not sure that an outright ban is appropriate, but said his department, having never executed a no-knock warrant to his knowledge during his 20-plus years of employment there, would largely be unaffected if a ban is put into place.
He says no-knock warrants are incredibly dangerous not only for the citizens involved but the officers executing the warrant as well, and that there are many more negatives involved than positives when it comes to no-knock warrants. Sanderson is one of many involved in law enforcement in Kentucky that do not see much value in the use of no-knock warrants (see https://spectrumnews1.com/.../law-enforcement-supports-no...).
The bill’s primary sponsor is Representative Attica Scott, a member of the Kentucky House of Representatives from Louisville. When I spoke with her about why she feels this bill is so important, Scott said the bill is a direct response to the injustice that Breonna Taylor suffered, but is also a measure that she believes would keep all Kentuckians safe, including law enforcement.
Scott expressed her frustration with the bill not moving forward, saying that we “can’t put off justice.” She stated that her Republican colleagues have not reached out to her with interest in getting involved with this bill thus far.
When I told her about some of the concerns that Sanderson had expressed, she welcomed the feedback and told me about some of the things she was doing in her work on this bill to address those concerns.
For example, when asked about funding for body cameras, Scott said this was something she and others working on the bill had considered and that a potential solution for certain departments was to have them use more inexpensive recording equipment, such as Go-Pro cameras or cell phone video.
Additionally, Scott expressed that she was interested in working with law enforcement to address their concerns regarding this bill and that she is in fact actively doing so. She recently met with the state Fraternal Order of Police, is in dialogue with the Chief of Police in Louisville, and also had a national SWAT member read the bill and give feedback on its provisions.
After doing extensive research on the types of police reform addressed in this bill, talking with Sanderson and Scott, and recognizing Breonna Taylor’s horribly unjust death, it appears certain police reform measures are necessary and that law enforcement may be receptive to some of those reforms.
No-knock warrants appear to be widely condemned across the state even by law enforcement officers themselves, and those that do support them tend to do so only in very limited circumstances. The area likely to be most affected by a ban on no-knock warrants would arguably be Louisville (given its population density compared to the rest of the state), which has already banned them anyway.
Given these facts, it is hard to see why our legislature could not come up with a solution to address no-knock warrants — the very thing that led to Breonna Taylor’s death — by banning them altogether or coming up with a very restricted framework in which such a warrant would be allowed by law.
The argument in favor of banning no-knock warrants is further bolstered by the fact that law enforcement can enter a residence without a warrant at all if someone’s life is at risk or if there is a danger that someone inside the residence may destroy evidence of a crime (see Missouri v. McNeely, 569 U.S. 141 (2013)).
Other aspects of the bill may be met with more resistance, such as the body camera requirements or the provisions addressing officer discipline and civil defenses. However, simply ignoring this bill altogether is not an admirable or efficient solution.
Even if this bill is seen as imperfect, too broad, not broad enough, or lacking in some way, the issues it addresses are at least worth a conversation, which it will never get if it is not allowed to move forward.
Republican lawmakers have spent much time recently working on bills aimed at limiting Governor Beshear’s power to implement certain restrictions during the pandemic, expressing concerns about government overreach and protecting the personal freedoms of Kentuckians.
Why are their concerns of government overreach and protecting freedoms of citizens not extended to law enforcement operations as well?
This bill does not have to be controversial or lacking in bipartisan support. While bipartisan efforts seem something like a fairy tale these days, they are not impossible and can be an extremely effective way to initiate real change.
If members of our legislature from both parties could sit down with those in the law enforcement community, and with Kentuckians of color and those who may have been affected by police misconduct or brutality, and all have a conversation about what we can do to make law enforcement more effective while protecting the safety of both officers and citizens, we could initiate a collaborative effort that would send an inspiring message to the rest of the world that the people in the state where Breonna Taylor lost her life decided to get together and do something about it.
This bill needs to be assigned to committee so a conversation can begin about what we can do in this state to improve law enforcement operations and keep our state’s citizens safe.
The sponsors on this bill, in addition to organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, Hood to the Holler, and The Institute for Compassion in Justice, are urging Kentuckians to contact their representatives, particularly Speaker of the House David Osborne and those representatives on the House Judiciary Committee, to give this bill a hearing. Please urge your legislators to give this bill the time and consideration it deserves.
Farris Melton is a J.D. Candidate, 2021- enrolled in the J. David Rosenberg College of Law at the University of Kentucky. She is a 2013 graduate from Madisonville North Hopkins High School and has interned with Judge Susan McClure and Hopkins County Attorney Byron Hobgood.