Feds: Louisville Police ‘Routinely’ Engaged In Unconstitutional Practices, ‘Harmed’ Black Community. Consent Decree Coming.

Mar 8, 2023 at 6:05 pm
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks at a press conference announcing the findings of the Department of Justice's two-year investigation into the Louisville Metro Police Department at Louisville Metro Hall on March 8, 2023.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks at a press conference announcing the findings of the Department of Justice's two-year investigation into the Louisville Metro Police Department at Louisville Metro Hall on March 8, 2023. All photos by Carolyn Brown

In a damning 90-page report released on Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Justice said it has “reasonable cause to believe” that the Louisville Metro Police Department engages in unconstitutional policing, including discrimination against members of the Black community, violating the rights of people engaging in free speech activities critical of the police and by “routinely” conducting unlawful searches and seizures.

“For years, LMPD has practiced an aggressive style of policing that it deploys selectively, especially against Black people, but also against vulnerable people throughout the city,” read part of the report’s executive summary. “LMPD cites people for minor offenses, like wide turns and broken taillights, while serious crimes like sexual assault and homicide go unsolved.”

The executive summary added that some officers “insulted people with disabilities; and called Black people ‘monkeys,’ ‘animal,’ and ‘boy.’”

Speaking at a press conference at downtown Louisville’s Metro Hall on Wednesday, US Attorney General Merrick Garland said the DOJ and the city had signed an “agreement in principle” committing them to negotiate a legally-binding federal consent decree. 

“This conduct is unacceptable. It is heartbreaking. It erodes community trust necessary for effective policing. And it is an affront to the vast majority of officers who put their lives on the line every day to serve Louisville with honor,” said Garland of the misconduct and unconstitutional police practices described in the report. “And it is an affront to the people of Louisville, who deserve better.” 

Garland called recent reform efforts within LMPD ahead of the report “commendable” but added that “more must be done.”

Speaking to LEO Weekly, Louisville Urban League President Kish Cumi Price said the report was “sickening, but also sobering to have the practices we’ve been calling out for so long to be validated, or affirmed, by the Justice Department.”

The DOJ announced its wide-ranging investigation into LMPD in April 2021, 13 months after the police killing of Breonna Taylor and following months of protests in Louisville. While the DOJ investigation was civil, not criminal, in nature, separately four former LMPD officers have been federally charged in connection to the raid that killed Taylor.

During the Metro Hall press conference, Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg, who said his office received the report on Tuesday, said hearing the details of the report “brings back a lot of painful memories.” The mayor, who was sworn in in January, publicly apologized to those who had been harmed by LMPD’s actions.

click to enlarge Photo by Carolyn Brown - Carolyn Brown
Carolyn Brown
Photo by Carolyn Brown

“Too many people who deserve respect and dignity didn’t get it from officers of the law sworn to protect them. Instead, they received contempt and abuse,” he said. “To those people who have been harmed: On behalf of our city government, I’m sorry. You deserved better. We can and will do better.”

Among a long list of violations, the DOJ also found that LMPD officers often escalate encounters, which then leads to excessive force, as well as allow police dogs to bite people after they have already surrendered.

Racial Bias In Policing

One subheading in the DOJ report is devastatingly blunt: “LMPD Engages in Racially Disparate Enforcement that Harms Black People.”

That section starts off by saying: “LMPD treats Black people differently than white people even when they engage in the same conduct.”

Illustrating that point, the report said Black people are 3.6 times more likely than white people to be cited for having a broken headlight, 4.7 times more likely to be cited for improper tags, more than four times more likely to be charged with loitering, 2.5 times more likely to be charged with disorderly conduct and 3 times more likely to be charged with littering.

“These disparities are so large that they are unlikely to result from race-neutral enforcement,” the report concluded.

The DOJ took aim at LMPD’s use of “pretextual” traffic stops — that is, traffic stops based on a minor violation like a busted headlight or a wide turn, but actually aimed at trying to find a larger charge or outstanding warrant. This kind of policing disproportionately targets Black residents, the report said, whether they are in a majority Black neighborhood or not.

LMPD also fails to take allegations of explicit racial bias by individual officers seriously, the report said. 

The report highlighted a 2015 incident in which a white sergeant called a group of Black men “fucking monkeys.” According to the DOJ, LMPD investigated the officer for “discourtesy and conduct unbecoming, but not bias or prejudice.”

In a 2017 incident, an officer said, “Gimme your arm, boy!” after chasing down a Black man who fled after officers approached him in the street. The officers struck him, leaving the man bloodied, and said, “This is what happens when you act like a fucking thug.” When the man denied having a gun, as officers accused, and asked why they chased him, the officer said: “That’s the problem with this community, nobody wants to take a stand for what they did.”

The officers were not disciplined.

Similarly, LMPD found no violations when a white officer during in-service training asserted that “minorities are the majority and they’re the ones that’s committing the…violent crime.”

“In sum, LMPD’s inadequate and dismissive response to racial bias signals that discrimination is tolerated,” the report said.

Weak Oversight And Accountability 

The widespread misconduct within LMPD is aided by a lack of oversight and accountability, the DOJ found.

“LMPD supervisors regularly fail to identify, document and address problematic conduct by officers under their command,” reads part of the report. “A high-ranking LMPD official told us bluntly, ‘There is a lack of supervision here.’ That view is widely shared within LMPD.”

Additionally, the DOJ found LMPD’s internal investigation protocols “flawed,” saying the department “sets arbitrarily high thresholds for investigating allegations of misconduct” and that even when investigations do occur, they fail to be “thorough, impartial and timely.”

LEO Weekly routinely encounters LMPD discipline investigations that take a year or more to complete.

Instead of recommending investigations into misconduct, the DOJ found, LMPD supervisors often “verbally counsel” the officer.

Additionally, the DOJ found officers discourage civilians from filing complaints by adding “unnecessary burdens,” including making members of the public sign statements that if they make a false statement in their complaint, they “shall be guilty of Perjury in the Second Degree” and that they can be sued by the officer their complaint is against.

The DOJ found that LMPD threatened and retaliated against civilian complainants. The report described how in one instance, a woman who’d been hit in a shooting was trying to file a complaint about how she felt the LMPD investigation was deficient. According to the DOJ, she then received a voicemail from a detective who said he was dropping the case because “you’re trying to file a formal complaint on me.”

Report Sheds Light On Specific Instances Of Misconduct, Unconstitutional Policing

While the investigation looked at patterns and practices within LMPD, it also highlighted a number of specific instances of officer misconduct and unconstitutional policing to illustrate the broader problems.

In one unlawful arrest incident the DOJ spotlighted, which was first reported by LEO Weekly, LMPD officers responding to the scene of a stabbing stormed into an apartment to arrest an uninvolved woman because she had a similar physical description to a potential perpetrator. 

In another incident, an LMPD officer searching for a suspect in a home invasion came across a Black 14-year-old boy lying face down in the grass. Without warning — and even though the child was not resisting — the officer sicced a dog on the boy and “ordered the dog to bite the boy at least seven times.” 

In 2019, the DOJ said, an LMPD officer slammed a Black man’s head into the ground, “causing profuse bleeding” after the man called the officer “too little.” 

“Nobody’s too little bro, this is what happens right here…. Who’s too little, huh?” the officer said. The DOJ added more force was used on the man, even though he was handcuffed and of no risk to the officers, or of fleeing.

As part of its investigation, the DOJ said investigators read “many thousands of documents” and reviewed “thousands” of hours of LMPD officer body camera footage. 

The DOJ also found that LMPD violates the Americans with Disabilities Act with its treatment of people with behavioral health disabilities. 

To highlight that point, the DOJ shed additional light on the case of Keith Smith, a homeless 66-year-old Black man who died in Louisville’s jail in January of last year. As LEO first reported several weeks after his death, despite a recommendation from Pretrial Services that he be released from custody, Smith was held in jail on a $1,500 bond after being arrested for refusing to leave a downtown restaurant on a cold night.

According to the DOJ, Smith had “an apparent behavioral health disability” and had more than 25 run-ins with LMPD in the two years that preceded his death — and in some of these instances, the DOJ said LMPD officers mocked him or escalated the situation. In one instance in October 2021, the DOJ wrote, officers were called to the scene of a “disorderly person panhandling” and found Smith with his shirt off. He spoke to officers and was “not making any sense,” but officers said he “always” acted that way. Despite that assertion, officers started talking about what to charge him with and wrote him up on a drug paraphernalia charge after bringing him to the hospital.

In body cam footage of Smith’s last arrest in January 2022, obtained by LEO Weekly, a seemingly distressed Smith can be seen asking LMPD to call EMS for him. 

“We’re not calling EMS,” said an officer to Smith, who was largely unintelligible in the body cam footage. “Because you don’t need EMS.”

Smith died several days later at Louisville’s jail.

“These encounters — including the October 2021 and January 2022 incidents — could have been handled by a behavioral health-focused response concurrently with law enforcement, and some did not need police involvement at all,” the DOJ wrote about Smith.

Several months after Smith’s death, Louisville launched a pilot program that sees non-police responders showing up to some 911 calls for behavioral health issues — occasionally by themselves, sometimes with police. However, according to the DOJ, as of January, that program is only operating for eight hours per day and only in one part of Louisville.

DOJ Lays Out Recommendations

In order to reform LMPD and ensure policing that complies with the Constitution and federal law, the DOJ has laid out 36 specific recommendations for the department.

Chief among them are reforms surrounding force, how and when it is used, and how to ensure accountability when force is used.

The DOJ is also calling on LMPD not only to adopt different warrant policies, but to make sure officers are aware of proper criteria and procedures for warrants and searches.

Other recommendations call for LMPD to create a “true crisis intervention team” to respond to behavioral health calls and for the city’s non-police response pilot program for certain 911 calls be expanded.

However, both the DOJ and city officials portray a long path ahead to reform.

“Whether here in Louisville or around the country, police reform won’t happen overnight or by chance. It will take time, along with focused effort and sustained commitment,” said Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta.

click to enlarge Interim LMPD Police Chief,   says that the changes will take time
Interim LMPD Police Chief, says that the changes will take time

“Improvement will not occur, as you’ve heard before, overnight,” said Interim LMPD Chief Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel.

In brief remarks, the interim chief, who took over the department in January, invoked Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saying: “The ultimate measure of a man is not when he stands in the moments of comfort or convenience, but when he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Reactions From Community, Politicians

In a statement, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear called the DOJ findings “concerning,” adding: “My hope is that everyone in Louisville will come together and see the findings of this report as an urgent opportunity to take intentional steps for positive, lasting change.”

On Twitter, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who is also the Republican frontrunner in the crowded race to take on Beshear in this fall’s gubernatorial election, wrote: “The vast majority of Kentucky’s law enforcement community practices & serves the Commonwealth with dignity & honor, & I am thankful to these brave men & women who put their lives on the line day in & day out to keep our communities safe. We hope that the U.S. Department of Justice’s work with Louisville Metro and city officials will help address lingering concerns & better allow law enforcement to keep people safe.”

In a statement, The 490 Project, an activist group focused on police reform, said the DOJ “confirmed what the people of Louisville already knew — the Louisville Metro Police Department has long engaged in unconstitutional practices and policies that violate constitutional rights.”

The group called for “systemic changes” as well as for transparency in the city’s upcoming contract negotiations with the police union, which the city has said would be closed-door meetings.

For LMPD and the city, building trust will remain difficult. 

Anti-violence activist Christopher 2X told LEO Weekly he was not surprised by the DOJ’s findings.

“For many years we’ve always heard these complaints. With regards to patrols and specialized units, you would always hear these things. And now the Justice Department saying based on their findings, these things are reality,” said 2X. “Now, the long-term challenge is how these relationships — especially with the African American community and LMPD particularly — is going to evolve into a trust relationship. Because you can believe, coming out of this, most likely there’s still going to be that hesitancy of trust based on what Attorney General Garland talked about today.”

Price, the Louisville Urban League president, was also hesitant about the prospects for bridge building.

“So much has been done to create a culture of mistrust, that in order to even begin to try to build trust, it really starts with listening to the community and then responding to what the community is sharing,” she said.

She added one of those potential building blocks for trust would be allowing the public into upcoming contract negotiations between the city and the police union — something the Greenberg administration has said it will not do.

“So instead of that being a block of trust, there’s mistrust there,” she said.

To read the DOJ’s report in full, click here. 

KEY FINDINGS OF THE DOJ REPORT (IN THE DOJ’S OWN WORDS)

LMPD uses excessive force, including unjustified neck restraints and the unreasonable use of police dogs and tasers.

LMPD conducts searches based on invalid warrants.

LMPD unlawfully executes search warrants without knocking and announcing.

LMPD unlawfully stops, searches, detains, and arrests people during street enforcement activities, including traffic and pedestrian stops.

LMPD unlawfully discriminates against Black people in its enforcement activities.

LMPD violates the rights of people engaged in protected speech critical of policing.

Louisville Metro and LMPD discriminate against people with behavioral health disabilities when responding to them in crisis.