Former Louisville police officer Katie Crews told investigators she fired her pepper ball gun in the moments before West End BBQ chef David McAtee was killed not because she encountered a disorderly or aggressive crowd, but because she believed people gathered at the intersection 26th and Broadway June 1, 2020 were non-compliant with orders to disperse.
The use of the chemical dispersal agent by Crews was the catalyst for the chaotic moments that followed.
People rushed into McAtee’s small kitchen from the alley to flee the pepper balls. The Black chef, who was inside as police and National Guard soldiers arrived in the area to enforce a 9 p.m. curfew, moved through the crowd in his small kitchen and then twice leaned out the doorway, raised his arm in the air and fired a shot from a pistol. Crews, fellow police officer Austin Allen and two National Guardsmen responded with a salvo of 19 bullets, with a round from a National Guard soldier’s rifle killing McAtee. Family members of McAtee and their lawyer have said he would never knowingly open fire at police — who he often fed for free at his restaurant — and that he was firing warning shots.
Last week, under Kentucky’s open records law, LEO Weekly obtained the internal Louisville Metro Police Department policy violation investigation into the incident, which would lead to her eventual firing in February of this year.
The files include interviews with Louisville Metro Police Department officers Crews and Allen, but no civilian witnesses, National Guard soldiers, other officers on the scene or supervisors, resulting in a limited scope. Additional interviews were conducted in a separate internal investigation probing potential criminal offenses during the incident, but those files have not yet been provided to LEO.
Despite its limited scope, the investigation seen by LEO provides additional insight into controversial actions by LMPD at a time when the city was seething over the police killing of Breonna Taylor.
‘I just went off of what I was told’
In August of last year, more than a year after the shooting, an LMPD Professional Standards Unit investigator asked Crews if the people she encountered outside of McAtee’s BBQ restaurant were disorderly.
“No, sir,” she responded.
“Were they aggressive?” an investigator followed up.
“They were not just compliant?” they asked.
Immediately following those answers, an investigator asked Crews again if the crowd she encountered was disorderly or aggressive and she replied in the same way.
Asked what information she attempted to gather upon arrival at the scene to assess the risk there, Crews said: “I just went off of what I was told. Just to clear that — clear that crowd.”
She told investigators that she had limited experience and training on pepper ball guns and that she and other officers given pepper ball guns that night were not given instructions on the circumstances under which they should use them.
When Crews was asked by an investigator whether she had received approval from a commanding officer to use the pepper ball gun, Crews said: “I don’t recall getting any verbal commands by any… higher ranking person.”
She claimed to investigators that she gave verbal commands to the people she was trying to disperse as well as time for them to comply with her commands. Crews also indicated that she was unaware that a woman she fired pepper balls at was on private property.
Fired and charged for her part
In March, Crews was federally charged for her actions the night McAtee was killed, with the Department of Justice saying she fired a pepper ball gun at a person who “was standing on private property and not posing a threat to the defendant or others.” If convicted, Crews faces a maximum sentence of ten years behind bars.
After she was federally indicted, LMPD said she had been fired the month before. A termination letter later obtained by LEO in March showed that Chief Erika Shields determined that in the incident where McAtee was killed, Crews had violated LMPD policies on the use of body worn cameras, de-escalation and the use of chemical agents. However, Crews was deemed not to have violated LMPD’s use of deadly force policy.
In a February termination letter, Shields wrote that Crews “used pepper balls to disperse a large crowd that was neither disorderly nor aggressive. Further, you directed a pepper ball at an individual standing in the doorway of a private business.”
Shields also wrote that Crews violated de-escalation policy by failing to give people the opportunity to respond to her commands before firing her pepper ball gun.
Additionally, Crews violated LMPD’s social media and conduct unbecoming policies through a Facebook post just days before McAtee’s killing in which she taunted a protester, writing, “I hope the pepper balls that she got hit up with a little later hurt. Come back and get you some tonight ole girl, I’ll be on the line again tonight.”
Other officer cleared
According to the LMPD investigation, the other Louisville police officer who fired their pistol during the incident, Austin Allen, was found to have violated only the department’s body camera policy. His punishment for that violation was a letter of reprimand.
Allen told investigators he was not with Crews as she approached McAtee’s small BBQ restaurant and was instead across the street asking people to leave the parking lot of Dino’s, a gas station and convenience store.
Like Crews, Allen said that officers had been instructed to clear the area, but were provided little guidance on how to do so.
He told LMPD investigators that a few people were yelling at police and National Guard soldiers when they arrived, but that “overall, from my point of view, people were leaving on their own, packing up their stuff, getting their cars, and driving off.”
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