When Rodney King was beaten nearly to death by Los Angeles police officers in 1991, Congress responded by passing the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. It gave the Department of Justice the authority to protect citizens from civil rights abuses by local police departments — essentially the power to police the police.
It’s been a month since the announcement that no criminal charges would be brought against the police officers responsible for killing Breonna Taylor. Still, everything we’ve learned since then — on top of years of scandals and questions of corruption and transparency — further demonstrates that the Louisville Metro Police Department is incapable of repairing itself. LMPD needs a comprehensive overhaul of cops and culture, and it must come from outside the department.
Mayor Greg Fischer needs to request that the DOJ spearhead a comprehensive reform of LMPD through consent decree. A mayor can make this request, as then-mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu did in 2010.
When local police departments exhibit patterns of misconduct, systemic-institutional failures and civil rights abuses — such as excessive uses of force or racial profiling — the DOJ can compel that department through consent decree to solve the problem at an organizational level.
We’re still learning about the institutional failures that led to Breonna Taylor’s death.
Detective Joshua Jaynes allegedly lied in the sworn affidavit used to receive the search warrant for Breonna Taylor’s home.
Former-LMPD Chief Steve Conrad was also lied to, or misled, by those under his command in the following hours and days. (His response was to avoid seeking further information out of concern that he might be pulled into an investigation by the Public Integrity Unit, pitting him against other officers.)
Body camera footage showed that a number of department policies seem to have been violated, to wit showing how Brett Hankison was allowed to walk around Taylor’s apartment discussing bullet casings. He was the only officer charged criminally (for shooting a neighboring apartment).
Recently, Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly, who was shot during the raid, revealed how he feels about civil rights, as well as about the FBI, writing in an email sent to over 1,000 of his LMPD colleagues: “The position that if you make a mistake during one of the most stressful times in your career, the department and FBI (who aren’t cops and would piss their pants if they had to hold the line) go after you for civil rights violations. Your civil rights mean nothing, but the criminal has total autonomy.”
Even the Public Integrity Unit investigation has been tarnished. A Courier Journal analysis found PIU, “investigators didn’t ask follow-up questions that would pinpoint what officers knew or didn’t know about who and what they were shooting at in the apartment.”
Further, the PIU, in a summary of the investigation report, outlined ways in which Maj. Kim Burbrink, commander of the Criminal Interdiction Division, injected herself into the investigation challenging investigator’s questions.
While Louisville’s focus at the moment is rightly on the Taylor case, we cannot forget evidence of the LMPD’s toxic culture comprising years of harassment of Black people, civil rights abuses, scandals and cover-ups: the Explorer Sex Scandal; videos of unjustified, harassing traffic stops; the killing of an unarmed, homeless man, William Young; and countless examples of excessive force against peaceful protesters.
All civil rights abuses.
All examples of systemic-organizational failures.
All evidence LMPD needs the DOJ to take control.
Over 40 consent decrees (or similar settlements) have been reached since 1994.
It is a legally binding agreement — enforceable by federal courts — requiring comprehensive reforms made under the DOJ’s guidance. Reforms can include: improving officer accountability and department transparency; achieving specific hiring and officer-demographic benchmarks; and overhauling training practices, use-of-force policies and basic street-stop procedures.
The DOJ can force reforms unilaterally, in some cases, prohibiting certain uses of force or eliminating problematic department practices. Or, reforms can be implemented gradually through incentives, grants and collaborative reform projects.
Not all consent decrees, but some, have produced transformative, permanent cultural changes.
After 12 years under a consent decree (from 2001 to 2013), Los Angeles police Chief Charlie Beck said, “It has been the catalyst for incredible change in my Police Department. We’ve become accountable, we’ve become transparent and we’ve become more effective than we’ve ever been.”
In recent years, the Baltimore mayor and police chief argued against efforts from the DOJ to delay their consent decree:
“After a consent decree experience, when it’s done right, that police department is forever changed for the better,” said Police Commissioner Kevin Davis in 2017.
In Louisville, we hope the FBI investigation leads to a consent decree. Because we have lost confidence that the city alone can fix its police department. •