Radley Balko, The Washington Post - The Breonna Taylor police killing: what went wrong was familiar

Radley Balko, The Washington Post
The Breonna Taylor police killing: what went wrong was familiar


The famous Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz is credited with the concept – “the fog of war,” specifically the “fog of greater or lesser uncertainty” which he said defined warfare. 

Von Clausewitz had witnessed more than enough battle action to know what foggy uncertainty produces: fear, of the dangers that can hide in fog. Especially when the uncertainty and danger arise suddenly, unexpectedly.

Louisville, Kentucky Metropolitan police officer Brett Hankison told a grand jury, he noticed that older officers had been assigned to a midnight raid on Breonna Taylor’s apartment, “because this was going to be the easy location.”

Instead, when officers used a battering ram to break down her front door, a shot rang out and an officer went down, shooting, Officer Jonathan Mattingly testified, as he fell. He and Detective Myles Cosgrove fired more than 20 bullets, at least five striking and killing Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician.  

Hankison testified, “What I saw at the time was a figure in a shooting stance, and it looked as if he was holding, he or she was holding, an AR-15 or a long gun, a rifle.” In fact, what Hankison saw was Taylor’s boyfriend Kenneth Walker holding a 9mm handgun with which he fired one shot. Hankison’s response, like that of Mattingly and Cosgrove was to shoot back, again and again.

In that fog of fear and uncertainty and, well, panic, Hankison’s shots went through a neighboring apartment, a fact cited in his firing and in the reckless endangerment charges that have been filed against him by Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron. Hankison is the only member of the Louisville PD to face charges. Mattingly and Cosgrove, whose bullets killed Taylor, were in Cameron’s opinion, shooting in self-defense.

They certainly took their 20 shots at Breonna Taylor in a fog of uncertainty. Hankison heard the shots and said he thought the first two cops through the door “were just being executed,” while Lt. Shawn Hoover said he believed his whole team was being “ambushed.”

A lot went wrong during the raid of Breonna Taylor’s apartment, the one with the big bright H-O-M-E emblazed across the battered front door. But to me, it all starts with this, policing is not war. 

Civilians, even suspects, are entitled to a presumption of innocence, and America has laws and its police departments have professional standards meant to protect both citizens and those concepts. When Supreme Court rulings are routinely ignored, when professional standards are adapted for military weaponry, military tactics, and a military mentality, the no-longer-metaphoric war on crime can cause a lot of collateral damage. And when a grossly disproportionate share of the damage is done to People of Color, and, as it was in the case of Breonna Taylor, the damage is done by White police officers, it’s easy to see why so many African-Americans, Latinos and other racial, ethnic or religious minorities feel like they face a war on them. 

After all, The LMPD took Breonna Taylor’s apartment as if it were Hamburger Hill.



Radley Balko is an Opinion columnist for the Washington Post, focusing on civil liberties, the drug war and the criminal justice system. He was previously a senior writer and

investigative reporter at the Huffington Post, and a reporter and senior editor for Reason magazine. He is author of the books “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces” and “The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South” (co-authored with Tucker Carrington). His work has been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Mississippi Supreme Court and two federal appeals courts. He also occasionally writes about the music and culture of Nashville, where he lives.



















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