Can the city government win back public trust?

Jan 6, 2021 at 10:32 am
Father’s Day

Each new year offers an opportunity to fix our failures and shortcomings of the past — begin anew with healthy living, diets and exercise; being a better spouse, parent or friend; setting budgets and ridding frivolous habits.

Resolutions should be noble and ambitious endeavors toward self-improvement, while some are borne of necessity. Such is the case for Louisville Metro Government, which should focus on two main resolutions: rebuild trust and restore confidence within the community. 

Every decision made by Mayor Greg Fischer, the Metro Council and Louisville Metro Police Department needs to support these two goals. They might not be able to fully repair the damage done in 2020 — and before — but by focusing on transparency and accountability, they can begin restoring public trust and confidence in our city. 

The tragedy of Breonna Taylor alone would have been enough to shatter public trust and confidence: From the beginning, the underlying case argued to obtain the “no-knock” search warrant of Taylor’s residence was questionable. The ambiguous, sometimes conflicting accounts from officers the night of the raid only added to public skepticism. Then, a dubious internal investigation brought the entire department’s integrity into question. Finally, Attorney General Dan Cameron’s sham-Grand Jury presentation guaranteed there would be no transparency for the community — or justice for Breonna.

It’s even possible that Kenneth Walker — who was originally charged with attempted murder of a police officer — would be in jail, today, were it not for family members, attorneys and activists fighting to raise public awareness of his unjust arrest. Yet, the mistakes and failures kept piling on. 

This was most evidenced in 2020 by the city’s insistence on aggressive policing of peaceful protests — even after it had become clear that aggressive policing was largely responsible for escalating violence and disorder among otherwise peaceful demonstrations. 

Police brought the violence when the LMPD — alongside the National Guard — cleared a parking lot in The West End, more than 20 blocks from the protests, which led to the killing of David McAtee.

Police brought the violence to peaceful marchers, barricading and bullying them on Main Street hours before a city curfew.

Police brought the violence when they corralled protesters on Bardstown Road — while protestors, before that, self-governed anyone who became remotely destructive. 

Police brought the violence to a local news cameraperson, shooting them on live TV with a rubber or pepper bullet.

Each instance — among many others — showed a failure of accountability and an inability to learn from mistakes, undermining public trust and confidence. So, who will be accountable in 2021 for these and years of other failures? 

Just in recent weeks, we learned that LMPD continues to lie and illegally conceal information from the public. “Louisville Metro Police concealed at least 738,000 records documenting the sexual abuse of Explorer Scouts by two officers — then lied to keep the files from the public, records show,” The Courier Journal reported in mid November.

It’s not just the LMPD. Recently, The CJ reported that Fischer, council members and other public officials held over two dozen private calls, potentially violating Kentucky’s open meeting laws. The calls began as Fischer attempted to communicate quick-moving developments related to the pandemic to other city officials, which The CJ confirmed from city records they later obtained. However, the calls eventually expanded to include discussions of broader issues and the city’s response — business that is expected to be announced and held before the public.

Several elected officials involved in the calls (some through a spokesperson) pushed back against accusations that these calls violated the open meetings law. Jean Porter, Fischer’s spokeswoman, told The CJ, “We viewed the calls as a way to be responsive to the council and keep them as up to date as possible.” 

To be fair, 2020 was disorienting. The rapid, escalating demands to respond to a global health crisis, the social- and racial-justice movement and the logistical disruptions to everyday life — having to modify every operation to function virtually — it’s understandable that even the most responsible public officials would cut corners to do their jobs and be responsive to the public. 

The city settled a lawsuit brought by The CJ to stop the secret calls, in which they agreed to turn over records related to the calls and pay The CJ $10,000 in attorneys fees… but did not admit wrongdoing. But the law was violated — even if with good intentions. 

This is why it’s important that our elected leaders start from a foundation of trust: When an honest mistake is made, we can trust it was at least with good intentions — and not to protect what’s behind the curtain. 

The city needs our leaders to restore integrity to our institutions. The only way to do it is a steady diet of transparency and accountability. •