Louisville Was Supposed To Reform Its Policing. What Went Wrong?

Oct 22, 2021 at 12:36 pm
A police line during the 2020 Louisville protests.  |  Photo by Kathryn Harrington
A police line during the 2020 Louisville protests. | Photo by Kathryn Harrington

This story was produced by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit newsroom by Louisville Public Media, in collaboration with Newsy. For more, visit KyCIR.org.

When hundreds of people took to the streets in Louisville, Kentucky, in May 2020, they were protesting the police killing of Breonna Taylor — and a police department they felt unfairly targeted and mistreated Black residents.

The protests stretched for months and helped launch a national reckoning about race, policing and public safety in America.

This wasn’t supposed to happen in Louisville.

These protests reflected the chasm of distrust between the Louisville Metro Police Department and the people they police, and followed five years of broken promises, unheeded warnings, and failed efforts to build a better relationship.

In 2015, Louisville embarked on an ambitious plan to reform its police department. The Department of Justice offered Louisville concrete recommendations, grants and coaching. The LMPD said it had overhauled training, changed policies and completed hundreds of reform initiatives. City leaders were honored at the White House in 2016 for these efforts.

Louisville portrayed itself as a model city that would show the rest of the nation how to maintain public safety while building community relationships and trust.

In May 2020, that facade came crumbling down as the nation learned what many in Louisville already knew: LMPD had not meaningfully changed how it policed the city.

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and Newsy spent the last year reviewing thousands of pages of documents and interviewing dozens of people to understand how Louisville went from a national leader in policing reform to the face of a national movement protesting the police.

The investigation found that Louisville took a “checkbox” approach to reform, focusing on attainable or easily documented reforms rather than actually changing how they policed. The LMPD claimed to have implemented some changes that never happened, or made little difference. At the same time, the department invested in controversial violent crime units and encouraged officers to aggressively patrol certain Black neighborhoods.

When demonstrations broke out last May, the department relied on tactics that they’d specifically been warned against using. By the end of that first weekend of protests, another Black person was dead after a shooting involving LMPD and the National Guard.

Longtime LMPD Chief Steve Conrad was fired after that shooting in June 2020 when it came to light that the LMPD officers who fired their weapons hadn’t activated their body cameras. Conrad did not respond to requests for comment and LMPD did not make current department leadership available for an interview. In a statement, they said the department successfully implemented reforms in some areas but faced challenges in others, due to changing demands from the community, economic issues and evolving technology.

LMPD spokesperson Beth Ruoff noted the department’s current command staff is “committed to evolving and improving in those areas where it readily acknowledges improvement is needed.”

Checked Boxes, But Little Change

More than a month after a grand jury decided not to indict the Ferguson, Missouri police officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, President Barack Obama spoke about the need for change.

“Ferguson laid bare a problem that is not unique to St. Louis or that area, and is not unique to our time,” Obama said in December 2014. “That is a simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color.”

In Louisville, that tension was felt most acutely in the city’s West End. The West End is predominately Black, and after decades of segregation and disinvestment, parts of it are extremely poor — about 40% of people in the West End live below the poverty line, compared to just 14% in the whole county.

LMPD data show that parts of the West End have high rates of violent crime, and the police department has admitted to targeting some of these neighborhoods with aggressive patrols.

Black residents are more likely to be stopped, cited and arrested citywide than white residents, according to a January 2021 audit from consulting firm Hillard Heintze commissioned by the city in the wake of the protests.

Nearly half of all Black respondents surveyed for the audit said they don’t trust LMPD.

This was the sort of “simmering distrust” that Obama had hoped to help cities address. His administration put together a policing reform task force, which consulted experts, activists, community leaders and law enforcement across the country to produce a 116-page guidebook on “21st Century Policing.” The report detailed how local police departments could build community relationships, gain legitimacy in the eyes of the people they serve and fight crime without burning trust.

Louisville city and department officials were immediately on board. In 2016, they were invited to the White House as one of 15 cities that were going to model 21st Century Policing to the rest of the nation.

In Louisville, Conrad called the 21st Century Policing report a “gift of best practices” that could change the way LMPD operated.

“My hope is that together we will not only make our communities safer, but we will improve the relationships between police and the community we serve moving forward,” Conrad said in 2016.

Over a series of community forums hosted by the department, Conrad acknowledged his department’s role in the broken relationship between the police and Louisville’s Black community. He said things would be different going forward: everyone in Louisville would be treated with dignity, respect and fairness by the police, no matter who they were or what neighborhood they lived in.

Officers were going to be trained on having a “guardian,” rather than a “warrior” mindset, and seeking to build relationships. LMPD was going to focus on community policing — identifying problems and implementing solutions alongside the people most affected.

“When I heard it, it was like a breath of fresh air,” said Bishop Dennis V. Lyons, a pastor at Gospel Missionary Church in the West End. “We [are] now going to get some justice with the police.”

Lyons, a longtime civil rights leader, used his church bus to bring people to one of these forums. He even got his own copy of the task force report, which he still has, as tattered and torn as a well-loved teddy bear.

By the time LMPD hosted these forums in 2016, the department had already overhauled its training curriculum and revised policies and procedures to better align with 21st Century Policing values. The department created a community policing unit, and started posting crime data online as part of their transparency efforts.

Lyons felt like they’d just hosted those forums so they could document their community involvement efforts. He has come to see that this was indicative of the department’s whole approach to reform.

“The police were always ready…for us to attend their seminars, but they were never willing to attend our seminars,” Lyons said. “It became one-sided, still, became that same mentality of master-slave.”

Bishop Dennis V. Lyons
Bishop Dennis V. Lyons

Lyons also felt the department focused on good PR. An example was the Clergy Police Academy, a one-day workshop the department started hosting in 2016 to educate religious leaders about LMPD. Lyons signed up pastors hoping the police would call on them to help build community relationships.

“Never one time [did they] call that team together,” he said.

In a recent statement to KyCIR and Newsy, an LMPD spokesperson said they did call on the clergy on different occasions, and hoped to reinvigorate that effort going forward.

By February 2017, less than two years after the 21st Century Policing report was released, Louisville claimed in internal documents that they had completed 351 different reform initiatives.

The department did make some meaningful changes: they equipped most officers with body cameras, and according to a 2020 study from the University of Cincinnati and the International Association of Chief of Police, officer use-of-force reports have declined since 2015.

But many of the promised reforms never happened. Several people with knowledge of LMPD’s reform efforts, including Lyons, described LMPD’s approach to 21st Century Policing the same way — checkbox reform.

“They checked a bunch of boxes to say that they were 21st Century, and they put it on a wall, and the mayor had a big ceremony,” said Metro Council President and former LMPD detective David James. “And we hadn’t changed anything.”

In its 21st Century Policing documentation, LMPD claimed to have an early warning system, a tool experts say can be one of the most important parts of a police department’s accountability system. But KyCIR/Newsy found that they never actually implemented it.

Additionally, 21st Century Policing said law enforcement should require that a third party investigate police shootings.

LMPD marked that recommendation as “already implemented,” even as the department’s internal investigative unit continued to handle those cases. They claimed that the unit’s capacity to adequately handle investigations was “greater than any external capacity.”

The checkbox mentality was felt inside the department, too, as officers say they struggled to keep up with the flurry of new initiatives, training requirements and policy changes.

“You can’t come into work and sit down at a computer for an hour and a half and fully read all of these policies…while runs are holding,” said Dave Mutchler, a retired LMPD sergeant and press secretary for the police union. “What you run into is [officers] click and move on. ‘I’ll look at it later.’”

LMPD changed its use of force policy 10 times in five years, according to a recent audit, and failed to properly train officers on these changes.

Former LMPD deputy chief Michael Sullivan, now a deputy commissioner at the Baltimore Police Department, helped oversee LMPD’s implementation of 21st Century Policing. He acknowledged in an interview with KyCIR/Newsy that the department didn’t do enough to determine whether new policies were translating into meaningful change.

“You can have the best policies in the world,” he said. “But if you don’t know and can’t say with confidence that this policy is being followed…you can’t honestly say that that policy has changed anything.”

‘The House Is On Fire’

While documenting hundreds of reforms on paper, the department continued to invest in a style of policing that had the potential to damage trust.

Back when Louisville was implementing 21st Century Policing, the department wasn’t just battling a crisis of legitimacy. They were also facing a homicide surge. Louisville had 117 homicides in 2016, the deadliest year they had seen in decades.

Sullivan conceded that this took the department’s eye off of reform.

“When the house is on fire, you have to put it out before you start rebuilding it,” Sullivan said.

In 2016, the department moved resources away from neighborhood beats and into citywide violent crime units. Even as homicides declined over the next few years, LMPD continued to aggressively patrol parts of the West End.

Sullivan said the department did see reductions in crime.

“With that, the next question is, in Louisville, what was the cost of that crime reduction?” Sullivan said. “Was there a loss of community trust?”

Tae-Ahn Lea was exactly the kind of person LMPD might have wanted to forge a relationship with.

In 2018, he was 18, a young Black man who grew up in the West End, had no criminal record, and said he had no issue with the police.

That changed when he left a gas station with a slushie — and was promptly pulled over by an LMPD officer for a wide turn.

LMPD detectives Kevin Crawford and Gabe Hellard got Lea out of the car and patted him down. When a detective said the police dog registered a positive indication on Lea’s car, they handcuffed him. The traffic stop took nearly half an hour and found no drugs.

During the stop, Hellard pointed out that Lea’s heart was racing and he’d gotten his mother on the phone.

“When you do all that, that’s the same thing people do when they’re trying to hide something from the police,” Hellard said.

click to enlarge Tae-Ahn Lea (right) with his mother, Tija Jackson.  |  Photo by Zed Saeed - Zed Saeed
Zed Saeed
Tae-Ahn Lea (right) with his mother, Tija Jackson. | Photo by Zed Saeed

Lea later testified to Metro Council that he was scared and just trying to follow the precautions his mother had taught him “due to recent videos and encounters with other Black men and officers, shootings and everything like that.”

Hellard described the stop as a small inconvenience for Lea — and just another day at work for these officers.

“We deal with violent crime all day every day,” Hellard said. “We’re going to stop 30 more people after you.”

Crawford and Hellard did not respond to requests for comment. But Crawford later said in a deposition that he believed Lea was involved in criminal activity because he was slow to pull over and when asked if he had any weapons, he didn’t tell the officers there was a baseball bat in the car. Body camera footage shows Lea putting on his blinker to pull over immediately after the sirens start.

Hellard told LMPD investigators that Lea was “verbally aggressive” and created a safety issue for the officers when he answered the phone call from his mother.

The detectives that stopped Lea were with the 9th Mobile Division, a citywide violent crime unit created in 2015. This unit became known for aggressive traffic stops, some of which generated lawsuits or resulted in evidence being thrown out by judges after the searches were ruled unconstitutional.

KyCIR and Newsy found that 9th Mobile officers were at least 2.9 times as likely to be investigated for policy violations as the rest of the force.

According to documentation of LMPD’s 21st Century Policing efforts, 9th Mobile was going to gain the community’s trust by issuing citations rather than making arrests “whenever possible.”

But 9th Mobile was charged with making the city safer by getting the most violent criminals off the streets, Sullivan said.

“That doesn’t include…throwing a wide net and scooping up people that don’t need to be scooped up and brought into the criminal justice system on low-level offenses,” Sullivan said. “That’s the one thing that doesn’t build trust.”

But the LMPD was relying on this type of policing amid the homicide surge. Conrad called 9th Mobile the “the tip of the spear” of the LMPD’s crime fighting strategy.

These tactics weren’t limited to this one unit. At a 2019 Metro Council hearing, Councilmember Bill Hollander read aloud from an email he’d received from LMPD Major Eric Johnson. Hollander said Johnson wrote that he’d directed his officers in parts of the West End to “take as much enforcement as possible” and “aggressively patrol” those neighborhoods.

Three years before this hearing, Johnson had gone to the White House as part of the team that implemented 21st Century Policing in Louisville. And now, he was defending policing tactics the department knew had the potential to violate trust.

That’s what happened with Tae-Ahn Lea, who left that traffic stop with a citation that was dismissed in court. He has a federal civil rights lawsuit pending against LMPD leadership and the officers who pulled him over. He declined an interview request through his lawyer.

Lea told the Metro Council in 2019 that he’d grown up believing that if you don’t do anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about with the police.

“This experience has definitely changed my view,” he said. “That’s obviously not true in this situation.”

After that hearing, Conrad changed LMPD’s traffic stop policy, specifying that merely being nervous or in a high-crime area did not justify getting drivers out of their car or handcuffing them.

Understaffing Leaves Little Time For Community Policing

While aggressively combatting the homicide surge, LMPD continued to promote its commitment to 21st Century Policing.

In 2016, the department used a federal grant to hire 10 officers to create a Community Policing Unit.

These officers handed out Christmas presents and books to kids, created a mentorship program for young girls and brought “DJ Justice” — an LMPD officer who moonlighted as a DJ — out to community events.

Laurie O. Robinson, professor emerita at George Mason University and co-chair of the 21st Century Policing task force, said creating a community policing unit contradicts the report, which intentionally notes that the responsibility of community policing should not be placed on one designated unit.

“Community policing has to be…the culture of the entire department,” she said. “It’s not setting up one unit that has five people on bicycles riding around.”

LMPD leadership was portraying this community policing effort as a full-time, full-department initiative. Conrad said in July 2016 that the department had documented more than a thousand times that year that officers had gotten out of their cars to talk with community members. But that comes to about one interaction per officer.

click to enlarge Former LMPD Sgt. Kevin Trees  |  Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting
Former LMPD Sgt. Kevin Trees | Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting

Officers wanted to have the time to get out of their cars and build community relationships, according to former LMPD Sergeant Kevin Trees. A recent audit found that 70% of LMPD officers surveyed said they believe LMPD’s role should be to build and sustain collaborative community relationships.

But with low staffing and rising gun violence, Trees said the department didn’t make that possible.

“We simply do not have the manpower to be able to get out on the streets and make the runs and get with the community and just be available, for anything,” said Trees, who retired in 2019 after 20 years with LMPD, most of it in the West End. “We just don’t have the time anymore.”

For much of the last decade, LMPD has had around 1,200 sworn officers on staff — roughly the same number of officers as was budgeted for in 2004, even as homicides have surged and the city’s population has crept up.

Louisville has struggled to recruit and retain officers, due in part to low salaries. Last summer, officers were given a significant raise in a short term contract, bringing starting salaries to $49,000. Taking inflation into account, that’s roughly the same starting salary the department offered in 2004.

And starting salaries at LMPD are still much less than in similar sized cities. In Cincinnati, for example, officers start at just over $65,000 a year — a third more than in Louisville.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said in an interview earlier this year that Louisville’s budget is “lean” compared to comparable cities.

“I would always like to have more money,” Fischer said. “But so the question then becomes, how do you balance what you have with public safety, with libraries, with trash pickup, with economic development, and all these other activities?”

click to enlarge Greg Fischer during an interview with KyCIR/Newsy  |  Provided photo
Greg Fischer during an interview with KyCIR/Newsy | Provided photo

Officers and community members say these low salaries come at a real cost.

“I don’t have a problem with paying them well,” said Louisville civil rights activist and mayoral candidate Shameka Parrish-Wright. “I don’t want no officer who feels underpaid patrolling my communities, because you’re going to come with the attitude, you’re going to be upset…you need to know that your job matters.”

But Parrish-Wright said, in return, the department needs to hold all officers accountable when they engage in misconduct.

Without that, she said, Louisville has seen this chasm of mistrust between police and Black communities only grow.

LMPD’s legitimacy in the eyes of the community had been badly damaged in recent years. Three officers were convicted of various charges after being accused of sexually abusing minors in the department’s Youth Explorer program. Several traffic stops, including Tae-Ahn Lea’s, sparked outrage.

For several years, it felt like the kindling was piling up — and all it would take was a spark to set the city ablaze.

Protests Show LMPD Missed The Message

On March 13, 2020, in the middle of the night, a group of LMPD officers gathered to serve a no-knock search warrant on the apartment of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor. When they busted down her door, her boyfriend fired a shot at them and they returned fire, killing Taylor in her hallway.

Protests broke out more than two months later, hours after the Courier Journal released Taylor’s boyfriend’s 911 call and days after a Minneapolis Police officer murdered George Floyd. That night launched a months-long movement that showed the world just how far LMPD had fallen from the promises they’d made years prior.

Hundreds of people gathered downtown, chanting, singing and marching. As night fell, the police and protesters began to clash. Protesters surrounded police cars and the city later said it looked like they were trying to get the officers out of the cars. Police were in riot gear, using sticks and shields as they marched on the crowds.

Around 11:30 p.m., seven people were shot from within the crowd. In the chaos, someone set off fireworks. People were running and screaming. The police responded with flash-bangs, pepper balls and tear gas.

This incident seemed to set the stage for the rest of the weekend. The vast majority of protesters were just peacefully trying to have their voices heard. But each night, some took things a step further — shattering windows, lighting trash cans on fire, and throwing fireworks. Someone threw a Molotov cocktail that caught an officers’ pant leg on fire. The city said police officers were shot at several times. There was vandalism and burglary at stores downtown.

LMPD wore riot gear as they faced protesters on Thursday night. - KATHRYN HARRINGTON
LMPD wore riot gear as they faced protesters on Thursday night.

As the protests overwhelmed the police, they relied on crowd control techniques that 21st Century Policing specifically warned against using.

21st Century Policing emphasizes taking a demilitarized approach to mass demonstrations. Experts who testified to the task force cautioned against using tear gas or bringing rifles or armored vehicles to protests, all things LMPD did that first weekend.

LMPD received some of this advice firsthand when Ron Davis, the executive director of the 21st Century Policing task force, visited in 2016. Davis declined an interview request. But Rashaad Abdur-Rahman, then-executive director of the Office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods, remembers Davis’s warning.

“What stuck out to me and I’ll probably never forget, is that he specifically spoke about … protests, and how police need to stop using tanks and tear gas and rubber bullets and riot shields and billy clubs,” Abdur-Rahman said. “He was like, ‘You’ve got to stop doing that stuff. Because we have seen in Ferguson how this escalated situations and makes things worse.’”

LMPD used tear gas every night for the first five nights; two weeks into the protests, the department changed its policy to require the chief or his designee to approve use of tear gas.

The Kentucky State Police and National Guard came to assist LMPD, and the Mayor instituted a citywide curfew.

Officers were armed with pepper ball guns, which LMPD policy says should be fired at the ground or above the crowd, rather than directly at people. But officers were seen shooting people with the less-than-lethal munitions at close range, from vantage points above the crowd, and at identified members of the media.

LMPD Officer Katie Crews shared on Facebook a photo from the Courier Journal of a young woman offering her a flower the first night of protests; Crews wrote in a Facebook post that the girl was “doing a lot more than offering flowers.”

“I hope the pepper balls that she got lit up with a little later on hurt,” Crews wrote. “Come back and get ya some more ole girl, I’ll be on the line again tonight.”

Crews did not respond to a request for comment.

On the fourth night of protests, after another night of tear gas, pepper balls and mass arrests by LMPD, downtown was mostly quiet. LMPD officials later said they got intelligence that protesters may have been planning to regroup in the West End.

Crews was part of a group of LMPD officers and Guardsmen who went to 26th and Broadway, a well-known and rowdy intersection featuring a nightclub, a gas station and a barbecue restaurant called Yaya’s, owned by David McAtee.

It wasn’t a protest, but it was a curfew violation, so the police started ordering people to leave. Some people ran into Yaya’s Barbecue, and Crews approached the restaurant. She fired pepper balls, at least one of which hit McAtee’s niece, who was standing in the doorway of the restaurant.

“She was standing — I don’t wanna say in an aggressive manner, but as a manner that she was not gonna go inside,” Crews later told investigators. “After giving verbal commands, I did shoot more balls in her direction.””

Amid the chaos, McAtee leaned out the door and fired two shots. Crews, another officer and two Guardsmen fired back.

McAtee, 53, was struck once in the chest and killed by a Guardsman’s bullet.

McAtee’s death was a shock to the city. He had been known for feeding the police for free, in an effort to do exactly what the city had said for years they wanted to do — build a relationship between the police and the West End.

click to enlarge David McAtee
Walt and Marshae Smith
David McAtee. | Photo by Walt and Marshae Smith.

Crews, another LMPD officer and two Guardsmen who fired their weapons were cleared of criminal wrongdoing.

Bishop Dennis V. Lyons’ funeral home prepared McAtee’s body for the funeral, dressing him in a crisp, white suit, laying him in a black coffin, tucking his long braids neatly under his head.

Just five years after he’d optimistically attended those 21st Century Policing forums, Lyons stood behind a pulpit during McAtee’s service, trying to put into words the human toll of this city’s broken promises.

He harkened back to 2015, when the newspaper proudly touted LMPD’s commitment to reform.

“Here we are five years later with the same caption: ‘Police call for reform of the police department,’” he said.

Lyons offered a grim warning to the city.

“As long as we keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll keep getting what we’re getting.”

The Answer Is Still 21st Century Policing

Louisville today is facing even greater challenges than what the city experienced in 2016.

In 2020, the city had 173 homicides, a nearly 50% increase from the previous high. This year is on track to surpass 2020. A recent audit called LMPD a “department in crisis” and found that 75% of officers would leave if they could.

And the chasm between the police and the community seems wider than ever.

Despite all this, Mayor Fischer says he has “never been more optimistic” about the city’s future.

“The opportunity coming out of this is to be a model city in terms of police reform, police community legitimacy, co-production of safety with the police and the community, and then racial equity as well,” Fischer said. “That’s our goal. That’s what I’m going to continue to work on until my last day in office.”

Fischer said he regretted not auditing the department’s reform efforts more closely. But he doesn’t see the events of 2020 as an indictment of the city’s past attempts at reform.

“Things happen in life, no matter how perfect you are,” he said. “No matter how hard you try, it’s things outside of your control.”

Fischer, a term-limited Democrat, will leave office in early January 2023. His pick to lead the police department, former Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields, is a strong indication that he hopes the city will remain committed to 21st Century Policing.

louisville violence
LMPD Police Chief Erika Shields

Back in 2016, Atlanta was also chosen by the Obama Department of Justice to model 21st Century Policing for the rest of the country.

LMPD did not make Shields available for an interview, but she spoke with a reporter briefly after a recent event. She said she thinks Atlanta had success with 21st Century Policing, and proposed a greater focus going forward on use-of-force training and transparency.

“It was fantastic,” she said. “They need to come out with a 2.0…A lot has changed in the last six years.”

Both Fischer and Shields have pointed to the numerous promises Louisville has made in the wake of the Breonna Taylor shooting as evidence of the city’s progress.

But KyCIR and Newsy found that LMPD considered many of these reforms back when they were first rolling out 21st Century Policing.

The city has now asked the Kentucky State Police to investigate LMPD shootings, and created a more significant civilian review apparatus. As part of a $12 million settlement with Taylor’s family, Fischer also agreed to finally activate the early warning system for officers and offer housing credits to encourage officers to live in low-income areas of the city, mostly in the West End.

But even now, years after they were first considered, these more recent promises are falling short. The state police investigations have proven less transparent than LMPD’s. The state legislature didn’t grant the civilian review board subpoena power, so it’s not as strong as initially hoped. No officers have taken advantage of the housing credits, and the early warning system still hasn’t been activated.

There is one notable difference now. In April 2021, five years after Louisville city officials were lauded by the Department of Justice for their policing reform efforts, the same federal agency opened a civil rights investigation into the city government and police department.

If that investigation concludes that LMPD has engaged in a pattern or practice of violating its citizens’ civil rights, the city would likely be put under a consent decree — a legally binding reform plan that would require Louisville to meaningfully change how the department polices.

Federal intervention may force Louisville to become the kind of police department it claimed for years to be.

You can listen to KYCIR and Newsy's podcast on this story below.

Contact the reporters: [email protected] | [email protected] | [email protected]