Support Independent Journalism. Donate today!

How the Killing of Breonna Taylor Is Reshaping Louisville Politics

The political paradigm emerging in Louisville is being formed by newcomers to local politics.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

Nearly a year ago, officers of the Louisville Metro Police Department in Kentucky killed Breonna Taylor, and the fallout from her death is still reshaping local politics.

A citywide ban on “no-knock” search warrants, the kind that was used to justify entering Taylor’s home, was instituted on June 12. There is also a movement to extend the ban statewide. Louisville police officers are now required to intervene if they witness another officer committing some sort of misconduct on the job. Steve Conrad, the chief of police, was fired on June 1 when a beloved restaurant owner was shot and killed by National Guard officers. Louisville police officers who were involved in the incident failed to turn on their body cameras.

But the new political paradigm that is emerging in Louisville is perhaps best illustrated by the year that Mayor Greg Fischer has had since Taylor’s death.

Fischer had been a rising star in Democratic politics. In a 2016 Politico survey of America’s mayors, he ranked fourth (tied with Kevin Johnson, Tim Kaine, and Mitch Landrieu) among mayors most likely to be elected president in 2020 or 2024, behind Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, former Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Cory Booker, and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

In 2019, Fischer was voted to be president of the United States Conference of Mayors, a prominent political organization, for the following year. By July, when his tenure as president began, his cops had already broken into Taylor’s home and shot her in her own bed, and activists in Louisville had already been demanding his resignation for months.

Fischer addressed the nationwide marches for racial justice in his first speech to fellow mayors. “These protests are demands that our society offer justice and equity to people who’ve experienced centuries of cruelty and injustice, who’ve never known institutions dedicated to helping their human potential flourish,” he said. “Our job as mayors is to create the conditions so they can finally flourish and power an American Breakthrough that can address all in America that has broken down.”

But the damage to Fischer’s reputation was done.

On Sept. 17, the Louisville Metro Council voted 22-4 to declare it had “no confidence” in Fischer’s ability to lead the city through its ongoing crisis.

On Jan. 5, local activist Shameka Parrish-Wright responded to the rumors that Fischer, who is barred by term limits from running for mayor again, would appoint former Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields to run Louisville’s department, and to the general frustrations among Louisville residents, with a heartfelt and hopeful social media post.

“Millions and millions of dollars [were] raised on #BreonnaTaylor’s name worldwide and people in the city she lived & worked to save are still struggling to survive, sick, homeless, and hungry,” she wrote. In response, Parrish-Wright announced that she’s forming an exploratory committee to run for mayor in Louisville’s 2022 race.

Weeks later, Parrish-Wright discussed her emergent campaign on local news anchor Doug Proffitt’s local politics podcast. She said she’s running on a platform that will prioritize public health, cleaning up the city’s park space, and, of course, revamping the police department.

“What I hear a lot of the police saying is ‘We’re not social workers, we’re not counselors, we’re not teachers, we’re not therapists,’” she said. “Well OK—then you’re telling us that’s what you need to do community policing the right way. We’re not telling you you’re not needed in that way, we’re saying that community policing means we get officers paired with social workers.”

During the interview, Proffitt issued the prediction that the upcoming mayoral race “will be the most interesting race I’ve covered in my 33 years” covering city politics. It’s not hard to see why: If elected, Parrish-Wright would be the first Black mayor in the city’s history and would join a new class of politicians who rose to prominence in the wake of 2020’s international protest movement for civil rights.

So far, only one other major candidate has announced a run for the open mayoral seat: Metro Council President and former LMPD narcotics officer David James. Like Fischer, James faced serious pushback from activists during the latter half of 2020. Late last year, local business owner and activist Kris Smith directly confronted James and his record as a council member in a livestreamed interview. “I think you’re arrogant as hell and I don’t respect you, not even a little bit, because I feel like you’re full of shit,” Smith said to James. Smith added that he felt James had done “nothing significant” for his district since taking office, and that he was going to put all his energy into “getting you out so you can just live on your pension.”

On Dec.11, Smith was shot to death in what police say was a drive-by shooting by unidentified gunmen in a black truck. Smith was the second Black Lives Matter protester killed in Louisville last year, and one of multiple Black Lives Matter protesters to die under strange circumstances since the Ferguson, Missouri, protests of 2014. James, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, announced his run for mayor on Jan. 21.

The next week, an outside firm hired by Fischer released its 155-page audit of the police department’s conduct. 

The audit laid out a series of damning findings about the department. Nearly every finding showed that the department is “in crisis.”  According to the report, the department is whiter than the city it patrols; “strong evidence exists indicating that Black individuals are treated disproportionately in every category—electronic stop data, paper stop data, field contacts, arrests, and citations”; the department was wholly unprepared to handle last summer’s protests; Louisville officers “disproportionally police certain groups, particularly Black residents”; and the reforms to the department’s search warrant regulations—instituted after the killing of Breonna Taylor—are not being followed.

Taylor’s killing and its aftermath instigated a chaotic year in Louisville. The presence of local activists on the stages that were once solely occupied by career politicians has  shrunk the distance between government and those who are most affected by its action or inaction. A significant shift in the distribution of power could end the chaos.