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One Year After Breonna Taylor Killing, Legislature Advancing Limited Police Reforms

J. Tyler Franklin

Police reform wasn’t on the radar of most Kentucky lawmakers when Louisville police killed Breonna Taylor last March.

But after months of protests calling for change, politicians started to pay attention.

Demonstrations led to some new policies—the city of Louisville passed a ban on no-knock warrants and Lexington temporarily suspended them.

And at the statewide level, police reforms are moving forward through the state legislature, but they’re not everything the protesters hoped for.

Democratic Rep. Attica Scott’s bill to ban no-knock warrants, Breonna’s Law for Kentucky, will get its first hearing in the House Judiciary Committee this week.

“Breonna Taylor deserves to have her name on a piece of legislation in Kentucky that protects other Kentuckians from over policing and violent policing,” Scott said during a recent interview.

Scott’s bill would also create penalties for police who don’t turn on their body cameras and require drug and alcohol testing after police fire their weapons.

But leaders of the Republican-led legislature have been rallying around a different bill, sponsored by Senate President Robert Stivers, that would only limit no-knocks to searches involving alleged violent crimes.

During a committee hearing last month, Stivers said some no-knock warrants are still necessary and that Taylor was killed after “a series of bad police judgments.”

“No matter what an individual was involved in, they have the right to counsel, they have a right to face their accusers, they have a right to trial by jury and to bring witnesses on their behalf. This young lady was denied that,” Stivers said.

Stivers’ bill, which passed unanimously out of the Senate, would also require specially-trained police officers like SWAT units to serve warrants. They would have to wear body cameras and only enter property between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., except in some emergency situations.

Scott says she and Stivers haven’t been working together on the issue.

“He expressed no interest in supporting the efforts of our community that’s been working so hard on this legislation, and it just makes absolutely no sense, it’s just erasing our efforts,” Scott said.

Another item protesters in Louisville have been calling for would give subpoena power to the city’s new civilian review boardthat oversees police activity, which the legislature would have to authorize.

But proposals so far would only indirectly give subpoena power to the board. One of the measures, House Bill 309 would require subpoenas to be approved by the Metro council’s Government Oversight and Audit Committee.

Republican Rep. Jason Nemes says elected officials, not citizens, should be the ones to sign off on subpoenas.

“That is, as everyone knows, a very big and awesome power,” Nemes said during a debate on the House Floor. “The documents would come to the ethics committee of elected officials. If they misbehave, they can be run out of office.”

The issue has also gotten caught up in local party politics: the bill would make several changes to Louisville governance like reducing the number of terms a mayor can serve from three to two.

Initially it would have required the city’s mayoral races to be nonpartisan, a measure long-sought by Republicans seeking office in the heavily Democratic city, but that portion was removed.

Meanwhile protesters have continued to apply pressure on the legislature. Last week a caravan of demonstrators gathered at the Capitol to call for the passage of Breonna’s Law.

But the legislature has been advancing proposals to boost penalties for people who protest.

Republican Sen. Danny Carroll, a retired police officer, sponsored Senate Bill 211, which would make it a crime to insult a police officer.

Carroll said last year’s protests, which he called “riots,” showed that police need to be able to react to disrespectful behavior.

“In these riots, you see people getting up in officers’ faces, yelling in their ears, doing everything they can to provoke a violent response,” Carroll said.

“There has to be a provision within that statute to allow officers to react to that. Because that does nothing but incite those around that vicinity and it furthers and escalates the riotous behavior.”

Another proposal, House Bill 479, would give Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron power to prosecute common protest charges like disorderly conduct, unlawful assembly and obstructing a roadway, which are normally handled locally.

Cameron is also forming a task force to study search warrant policies, though the panel is mostly made up of government officials and organizations representing police, judges and prosecutors.

There’s only a little more time in this year’s annual legislative session. It ends on March 30.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives for Kentucky Public Radio, a group of public radio stations including WKMS, WFPL in Louisville, WEKU in Richmond and WKYU in Bowling Green. A native of Lexington, Ryland most recently served as the Capitol Reporter for Kentucky Public Radio. He has covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin.
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