Don’t Count On Louisville To Be A Sanctuary City

Jul 6, 2022 at 6:02 pm
Operation Save America brought a large group of children to the protest at EMW Women's Clinic in 2017.
Operation Save America brought a large group of children to the protest at EMW Women's Clinic in 2017. Photo by Daniel Hosterman.

After the Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade triggered Kentucky’s absolutely horrifying and absurd abortion ban, there’s been a lot of talk about how the city of Louisville can stand in defiance.

To what degree do our leaders have to enforce the law?

Can we become a sanctuary city?

But, the real question might be: Do city officials actually have the guts to stand in unison against the state and/or federal government?

Recent history suggests no.

When similar-size metros across the country declared themselves as sanctuary cities in 2017, refusing to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents as then-President Donald Trump intensified deportations, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer used more careful and vague language.

He called Louisville “compassionate” and “welcoming.” He claimed that Louisville police already didn’t work with ICE. He downplayed the term sanctuary.

“This term sanctuary city has become very politically divisive, and obviously, there is no one place that you register to become a sanctuary city,” the Courier-Journal reported Fischer saying in January 2017 at a pro-immigration rally outside the Muhammad Ali Center. 

Months later, in the fall of that year, a story from the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that the LMPD responded to at least 23 requests for assistance from ICE in 2017.

The city government scrambled after the news broke, and Fischer announced there would be policy changes. 

In 2017, Metro Council passed an ordinance saying that LMPD officers cannot work with ICE agents unless a judge signs a warrant or if there’s a risk of danger to the public.

Although, under the ordinance, city employees are still allowed to provide information to ICE and other agencies.

Some advocates thought it fell short, that it was only partially protective and still had holes. 

But, either way, people suffered because of a lack of action at the beginning of the problem. The hesitancy to defy the Trump administration, the fear of losing federal funds, caused citizens confusion and harm. 

In 2019, Metro Council passed an ordinance making investigations, citations and arrests of adults over 21 years old possessing a half ounce of marijuana or less “the city’s lowest law enforcement priority, without superseding existing state or federal law.”

In other words, a suggestion to the police. A pinky promise to the public.

In a WFPL article titled “LMPD Says Marijuana Decriminalization Ordinance May Not Change Much,” a sponsor of the ordinance, then-District 8 Councilperson Brandon Coan, said:

“The officer should confiscate that drug, but send that person on their way instead of putting them through the criminal justice system, and leaving that person with a mark on the record and something that could impact their lives and their family’s life.”

But, in the same story, Jessie Halladay, a spokeswoman for the Louisville Metro Police Department, said that the department would follow state law. “I’m not sure exactly that you would see any major changes by this department and how they operate because we follow the state statute,” she said.

In 2019, County Attorney Mike O’Connell announced that his office would stop prosecuting people for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana for those over 21 and not in possession of a firearm.

In several police citations reviewed by LEO Weekly over the last eight months, Louisville citizens are still being charged with possession of small amounts of marijuana and police are still using the smell of marijuana as probable cause during traffic stops. In one case, a woman who did not show up to her court case for possession of marijuana had a bench warrant put out for her arrest, although her case was ultimately dismissed after she eventually showed up to court. Had she interacted with a police officer while the bench warrant was out, she would have likely ended up in the city’s troubled jail. 

O’Connell’s move was pretty progressive, but why are cases even still getting to the court system? It’s likely because that Metro Council ordinance is weak, and is given little respect by police.

And maybe that encapsulates the heartbeat of Louisville politics — symbolic talk and actions, but very little progressive bite.

So, as we enter uncharted territory with a cruel abortion ban, it’s hard to take the calls for sanctuary, and the murmurings about a Metro Council ordinance, seriously. 

When Democratic mayoral nominee Craig Greenberg recently said that if he is elected mayor, Louisville police “will not be the enforcement arm of a ban on reproductive healthcare, be it abortion or other medical decisions,” it’s hard to actually believe.

In a statement to LEO Weekly, Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Wine said that the potential investigation and prosecution of abortion law violations could go forward even if LMPD is told not to pursue such cases. 

It’s going to be a long and tedious fight. But, if there’s going to be a pro-choice victory, it will likely come from activist groups in court, and not from city officials. •