It has been a year since Breonna Taylor’s life was taken as part of the ongoing “war on drugs.” On March 13, 2020, just before 1 a.m. in Louisville, Kentucky, three white, male, plainclothes police officers battered down the door to Taylor’s apartment while serving a no-knock warrant at her address.
The officers claim that they announced themselves after their forced entry. Nevertheless, Taylor's boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, did not hear their announcement and responded to the sudden intrusion with a warning shot from his licensed gun. The officers answered with repeated shots, six of which fatally injured Taylor as she lay sleeping. Walker called 911 for medical assistance even as the officers failed to offer or deliver aid. Taylor died shortly afterward. She was 26 years old.
In acknowledging Taylor’s passing, Drug Policy Alliance (DPA)—a national nonprofit that works to end the war on drugs—has compiled an interactive timeline that reveals exactly what happened on the night of her death, with key points about the history of laws that enabled those actions to take place.
Sheila P. Vakharia, Ph.D., M.S.W.—DPA’s deputy director of research and academic engagement—was inspired to work on this detailed look into Taylor’s death because, “The drug war created the conditions that killed Breonna.” For Vakharia, the fact that Taylor died shortly after midnight is directly tied to the use of no-knock warrants during drug raids.
As DPA's timeline reveals, two court cases from the mid 1990s determined that because of “today’s drug culture,” suspects may be more likely to flee or destroy evidence, making it dangerous for police to announce their presence before entering. From there, it was determined that felony drug investigations could bypass “knock-and-announce” procedures without violating the right to protection against illegal search and seizure.
After that court ruling, no-knock drug warrant use exploded, with over 20,000 raids occurring in recent years, usually while executing search warrants that have been granted for drug investigations. The approval of these warrants is often based on flawed, limited, and haphazardly gained information. Disproportionately, the resultant state-sanctioned home invasions occur in communities of color or those that are economically disadvantaged.
A Sanctioned Pattern of Abuse
In addition to further eroding civil rights, no-knock drug warrants have caused numerous deaths and injuries, often to people who have nothing to do with the active investigation. For example, in January 2006, a 61-year-old Black man named John Adams was killed in Tennessee after two white male police officers shot him three times. Though the police claim they identified themselves, Adams’ widow told ABC News that she had no indication that they were police and “thought it was a home invasion.” Adding to the tragic loss of life was the revelation that the officers had been given the incorrect address by an informant.
In November 2006, three plainclothes Atlanta police officers killed Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old Black woman after forcing their way into her home as part of what they described as a “botched” drug raid. The officers handcuffed Johnston, even as she lay dying. In January 2011, Eurie Stamps was killed after police raided his home in Framingham, Massachusetts. Stamps, who had nothing to do with their investigation, was “mistakenly” shot in the head while lying on the floor. He was 68 years old.
In January 2019, Rhogena Nicholas, Dennis Tuttle, and their dog were killed during a failed drug raid in Houston, Texas. Though initially presented by Houston Police Officers’ Union president Joe Gamaldi as proof that officers have “targets” on their backs, it was later discovered that the raid was authorized thanks to false information and that at least one officer involved planted evidence in an attempt to obscure the fact that the information in question was not accurate.
The Consequences of Sanctioned Failure
Breonna Taylor’s death, while tragic, was far from uncommon. It fits within a decades-long established pattern of failed law-enforcement policy. From Vakharia’s perspective, “Breonna wasn't killed by drugs in her body; it was the war on drugs that took her life.” One thing that DPA’s interactive timeline of Taylor’s death makes clear is that instead of asking police officers to perform their jobs adequately, the court system has given them cover to kill innocent bystanders.
While looking at Taylor’s innocence, Vakharia cautions that no one deserves to die, even if they are involved in drugs. In saying this, she is responding to people who say that Taylor “should have picked a better (ex) boyfriend.” Vakharia says this is why DPA has expanded its review of no-knock warrants and other state-approved warfare tactics that the police state employs against Americans through a new project called Uprooting the Drug War.
This series of reports illustrates how the drug war has disproportionately ravaged Black people and other communities of color by contaminating six systems of American life: housing, employment, public benefits, immigration, child welfare, and education.
Vakharia says the reports look “at why everyone is subjected to a drug test on the job or why drug use is a condition of removing a child from a home. These are the tentacles of the drug war taking root in other systems and damaging Black and Brown lives disproportionately.”
Being Punitive Does Not Work
It’s a salient point. As Charles King, the CEO of Housing Works—a New York City–based organization dedicated to eliminating poverty, HIV, and homelessness—recently revealed while speaking to TheBody about how homelessness often results in HIV diagnoses, “One in three Black men is going to have a felony conviction following them for the rest of their lives,” which prevents them from securing stable employment or housing, and bars them from staying with relatives who live in public housing.
And according to Human Rights Watch, Black people make up 63% of drug offenders admitted to state prison across the nation, and Black men are sent to state prison on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white men. In 2017, a study compared the difference between how Black and white non-violent drug offenders were treated in New Haven, Connecticut. In observing data from 243 people, that study concluded that while Black people were convicted fewer times than white people (8.43 vs. 11.29 times), their sentences resulted in more incarcerations (9.09 vs. 6.15) for longer periods of time (1.74 vs. 0.71 years).
According to David Malebranche, M.D., M.P.H., a health care provider who specializes in working with people living with HIV, the institution of medicine has also been warped by perceptions of drug dependencies. During his early days in practice, he noticed “that if a patient was actively using drugs—whether it be meth, cocaine, or marijuana—and they wouldn’t stop, there were providers that would not prescribe them antiretroviral therapy, until they got clean.” Malebranche says this policy was rooted in “punishing somebody because they’re in the grips of substance use,” instead of providing vital assistance.
While acknowledging that substance-abuse addiction can derail one’s adherence to antiretroviral therapy, Malebranche says that a clinician’s priority should be establishing relationships with their patients and talking to them about overcoming substance use or any other vulnerabilities they may have.
For Malebranche, it is about respecting, rather than abusing, the existing patient-to-provider power dynamic. While calling out the hypocrisy of providers who have the same drug dependencies as their patients, he says that “some providers go home and have two to three drinks of scotch or do a line of cocaine or whatever and will go full Karen if another provider dares to say, ‘You’ve got a problem,’ or ‘You’re a functioning alcoholic.’ Being punitive does not work.”
DPA has been making the same point for years. Vakharia says, “Many medical residents have prescriptions for Ritalin because they’ve got to work 24-hour-long shifts. The only way for them to get through is on speed, but we’re not punishing them.” Their lack of prosecution has everything to do with race—the Association of American Medical Colleges has found that 56.2% of active physicians are white—and perceived class.
Regardless of one’s circumstances, people should not face prosecution and death for using drugs, whether they are doing so recreationally, recklessly, or to get through work. Vakharia hopes that in honoring the life of Breonna Taylor, Americans will recognize that the war on drugs is destroying society and can be decommissioned.
For more information about Drug Policy Alliance’s latest reports on the effect of the U.S. war on drugs, visit “No more excuses. The drug war killed Breonna Taylor” and “Uprooting the Drug War,” which provides six reports on how the drug war has corrupted six systems of American life.