Louisville Police Contract Negotiations Will Again Keep Out The Press And The Public, Despite Calls for Transparency

Feb 28, 2023 at 4:27 pm
Louisville Police Contract Negotiations Will Again Keep Out The Press And The Public, Despite Calls for Transparency

Despite calls for more transparency from activists, upcoming contract negotiations between Louisville Metro Government and the union representing police officers will again be closed to the press and public, LEO Weekly has learned.

A gag order will also bar the parties from talking to the media about the negotiations.

A list of 'ground rules' for the contract talks, signed by chief negotiators for Louisville Metro Government and the River City Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 614 over the weekend, declared that “all negotiation sessions shall be closed to the press and public” and that “there shall be no discussion of the proposals negotiated between the parties with any member of the media, unless an impasse is reached.”

The list of ground rules is nearly identical to the one used the last time the city negotiated with the police union in 2021, even though activists and community members have repeatedly pushed for public access to the negotiations. The signing of the ground rules also comes after Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg entered office with a message championing greater transparency in city government.

Kish Cumi Price, president and CEO of the Louisville Urban League, described the decision to exclude the public as “tone-deaf,” following calls by the Urban League and others for more transparency in the contract negotiation process. 

“In 13 days, it will be three years since Breonna Taylor was murdered. And we still have yet to hear from the mayor and others about how they plan to incorporate community and keep us in a place where we don’t feel like the same thing could happen again,” she told LEO on Tuesday. “In my estimation, this was one of the first steps that the mayor could have made to ensure us that this was going to be a concerted effort to do things differently.”

The ground rules document was forwarded to LEO Weekly by The 490 Project, a local activist group advocating for police reform, along with an audio recording of a meeting between activists and city officials discussing upcoming negotiations with the police union. 

Before LEO received the document, the Mayor’s Office confirmed that members of the public would be excluded from the talks, with Press Secretary Kevin Trager defending the decision in a statement to LEO. 

“We negotiate contracts with 21 different unions representing Metro Government employees. While those negotiations historically have not been open to the public, we always welcome community input on best practices for labor negotiations,” he said in an emailed statement on Monday. “Additionally, once a proposed [contract] is submitted to the Metro Council there will be opportunities for public comment before the council takes it up for consideration.”

Following up with LEO briefly by phone, Trager said negotiations would “definitely” begin within two months and could begin within the next month. The contract between the city and police union is set to expire on June 30.

Representatives of the River City Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 614 did not respond to requests for comment.

The 490 Project spearheaded efforts for public access to negotiations with the police union in 2021, but was rebuffed by the administration of then-Mayor Greg Fischer.

On the heels of the Fischer administration that was frequently criticized for its opaqueness and silence in the face of scandals and crises, Greenberg made transparency a cornerstone of his campaign, raising hopes that his administration would do things differently. However, to those pushing for access to the contract negotiations, the barring of the press and the public is just more of the same.

“From what we can tell, from what we can see from the actions that the mayor’s administration is showing us, we don’t have any hope. There’s been no trust rebuilt at this point with this new administration, to think that what comes out of the negotiations will be any better than any previous times,” said Cara Tobe, an organizer with The 490 Project, which derives its name from subtracting 12 (a slang term for police) from Louisville’s area code, 502.

Beyond gaining public access to the negotiations, The 490 Project also wants their recommended changes to the contract to be taken into consideration. 

Chief among them, Tobe said, is removing language that allows officers to be suspended with pay when under investigation for misconduct, other than in extraordinary circumstances. That provision has seen officers who were found to have violated policies remain on the force while collecting a paycheck for a year or more before ultimately being fired. Tobe said The 490 Project instead wants officers to go on unpaid suspension and receive back pay only if they are cleared by investigation.

The 490 Project additionally requested that the city’s negotiation team include a member of the community, but that request was shot down by the city. (In both the audio recording provided to LEO and in a conversation LEO had with Greenberg’s press secretary, city officials pushed back against the notion that there was a negotiation team, asserting that there was a chief negotiator who had the sole ability to bargain. Last May, however, a campaign spokesman told LEO that Greenberg had supported allowing a community member on the negotiating team, something The 490 Project says Greenberg also told one of their organizers.)

The Louisville Urban League has also been encouraging the Greenberg administration to open negotiations up to the public, tweeting on Monday that members of the public should call his office. 

On Tuesday, Price said she was blindsided by the signing of the ground rules, saying that in recent weeks, city officials had told her that “nothing had been decided yet” regarding the negotiations.

In an audio recording of a call between city officials and organizers from The 490 Project, Greenberg’s Chief of Staff and General Counsel David Kaplan warned that having members of the public in the room for negotiations could negatively impact negotiations.

“It’s difficult to identify all the ramifications. It could extend the process. It could engender strong resistance from the FOP, which I think is something that we would have to anticipate,” he said.

Kaplan went on to say the contract negotiation process is “pretty transparent, I don’t think you can dispute that” and that the city was “bending over backwards to receive as much community input as possible.”

In the audio file given to LEO, the gag order described in the ground rules appeared to be in effect already, with the city’s chief negotiator, Geoffrey Stanfield, saying he was uncomfortable discussing any details of the upcoming negotiations on the call given the rules he had signed.

Although Louisville continues to push back against opening contract negotiations to the press and members of the public, other cities have more transparent processes.

Sukyi McMahon, director of the Collaborative on Reckoning and Justice at The Square One Project at Columbia University’s Justice Lab, was formerly founding chairwoman of the board of the Austin Justice Coalition. In Austin, her group led an effort to show up to already open-door negotiations with the police union in 2017 and 2018. She believes their presence had a major impact. 

“We were told by folks on the city side it was the first time, at least in a very long time, that they felt they weren’t being railroaded by the union, and that they were having real discussions,” McMahon told LEO. “Because there was an audience in that room, they felt that there was pressure — at least to be performative, at least that’s how it seemed at first.”

While Louisville city officials warned the public could derail negotiations if doors were opened, McMahon said that did not happen in Austin.

“The sky didn’t fall because we were in that room,” she said.

In an interview last August, LEO asked then-candidate Greenberg what he would want to change in a new contract with the FOP.

“Well, I mean, there’s going to be plenty of time to deal with that,” Greenberg said, before describing how he would want the Louisville Metro Police Department to have the “people and resources” to confront crime.

He added: “That’s going to be my focus in the negotiations with the FOP contract.”

In its statement to LEO on Monday, the Mayor’s Office did respond to an inquiry about their priorities in the upcoming negotiations with the FOP.