River City Banana Republic: Chief Conrad’s ouster is an opportunity to reclaim the LMPD

May 29, 2020 at 11:53 am
Protesters and police officers faced off with each other during a protest in downtown Louisville in 2020.  | Photo by Kathryn Harrington.
Protesters and police officers faced off with each other during a protest in downtown Louisville in 2020. | Photo by Kathryn Harrington.

Last night's street protests and the “retirement” of Louisville police Chief Steve Conrad, in the wake of the killing of Breonna Walker, has highlighted ominous trends in policing In America.

Weeks of stories about the dysfunction of the department has only confirmed the impression.

Yet, it does bring a ray of hope. 

We can use this moment to reform the increasingly feral LMPD before it degenerates further into the type of predatory police force seen in 20th-century Latin American dictatorships and failed states.

While Conrad had survived many scandals, including other police-involved shootings and the Explorer Scout child sexual abuse scandal, it was finally clear that the LMPD was out of control. Conrad had proved himself powerless to curtail the “culture of impunity” of rank-and-file police officers. 

Breaking rules, stealing overtime, abusing the citizenry, withholding the whole truth — the LMPD has descended into near lawlessness. And, in its treatment of elected officials as well as its support of rightist political causes, such as Blue Lives Matter, the police have become overly politicized. 

As someone who has studied world history, I have been alarmed by these developments. While some commentators of our times look to parallels in 1930s Europe, my thoughts are drawn closer to home, not to Germany but Guatemala.

Highly politicized police forces operating with impunity are familiar to scholars of policing in other societies, especially those in 20th century Latin America and Central America. And the U.S. has a deep connection to them, having “trained” them since 1898 when the NYPD helped establish the Havana police in occupied Cuba. U.S. police liaisons were soon after established throughout the hemisphere, often in conjunction with U.S. supported regimes. Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Panama and Nicaragua saw both police-training and gunboat diplomacy starting in 1915. 

By the Cold War, U.S. advisers were distorting legal systems. In a 1987 article, Martha K. Huggins describes how a Venezuelan law requiring the arrest of a police officer for killing a suspect was changed in 1964 under U.S. pressure. “Under American tutelage, a police officer that killed a ‘terrorist’ would be examined in one day” by a review board and “quickly restored to duty.” Sound familiar?

Congress in 1974 eliminated formal training after human rights abuses by police came to light, but the CIA continued its contacts, even as police death squads were revealed. And, soon, training was restored under the aegis of the drug war.

Typically, the impunity culture in these police agencies arose as oligarchic democracies destabilized when the elites couldn’t hold together the clubby consensus that such systems require, and when governments were threatened by insurgencies. Police forces, designed to keep poor and indigenous communities in check, began to choose sides and politicize, evolving into independent political forces--typically, right-wing ones. 

As they did so, they moved beyond brutalizing minorities and leftists, to attacking their perceived opponents among the elites. Soon, they were courted by like-minded politicians who desired their ability to employ violence against political opponents, often extralegal acts through secret organizations whose tactics could range from menacing critics to assassinating political rivals.  

Hold on! Am I calling the LMPD a death-squad? Absolutely not. 

(Please don’t disappear me, the author jokes nervously to himself). 

I’m merely describing green shoots of a poisonous plant that we must weed while we have time. 

Think of what has happened in the last few weeks.

A botched raid to serve a questionable warrant based on half-truths and untruths led to the police-involved killing of an innocent EMT, Breonna Taylor

The case gained national attention when civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump was hired by Taylor's family, and when U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, a possible vice-presidential nominee, called for a federal investigation.  

Moreover, the collapse of the case against Taylor’s boyfriend Kenneth Walker, the focus of the warrant, led to allegations that the police had lied throughout the process. 

When Metro Councilwoman Jessica Green described Walker’s actions as a lawful assertion of his rights under the Second Amendment and Kentucky's statutory castle law, the police officers' union president Ryan Nichols, who is white, angrily chastised her and demanded that the African American elected official apologize to the police. (Nichols also trampled on Walker’s constitutional presumption of innocence, but the FOP has never been a big fan of the Bill of Rights).

And this was not the only LMPD scandal in the news. 

A lawsuit claimed that police had manhandled a local attorney during a traffic stop. As 17 police officers watched, two of LMPD’s finest allegedly pushed Donald Miller to the ground and beat him “with closed fists.” 

Even though the lawyer was white, the case evoked numerous stories of police officers harassing African Americans during police stops —including one of the city’s most prominent religious figures, the Rev. Dr. Kevin W. Cosby, the pastor of St. Stephen Church and the president of Simmons College. 

But that’s not all. 

Reports arose that an officer of the Audubon police department had been driving around with a bumper sticker supporting the white supremacist Three Percenters. (This is the group that lynched an effigy of Gov. Andy Beshear in a tree on Memorial Day weekend outside of the Governor’s Mansion). After first explaining it as a mistake, the chief later admitted that the officer and other members of the tiny suburban police force were “3%ers.”

This led Courier-Journal columnist Joe Gerth to wonder how many local officers also belong to the odious group. 

Enough is enough.

The culture of impunity fostered under Conrad’s hapless regime has raised a hundred red flags and sounded a chorus of alarm bells.

Louisville needs to decide whether it wants to change that course as it chooses a new police chief.

We should be able to have a say in how we are policed. 

Every police tactic and action should be subject to public scrutiny. We should never be at the mercy of police politicians and union leaders.

We need to understand that police actions are political actions. 

Our political actions.

When a judge grants a no-knock warrant, we are making a political statement that the privacy rights of citizens are granted only until a police-informer says otherwise.

When police beat up a lawyer because he challenges them during a roadside stop, we are saying that the rights of a citizen are inferior to the whims of a police officer.

And when the citizens of The West End endure entirely different police treatment than citizens of The East End, we are perpetuating white supremacy. 

A popular slogan says: “abolish the police.” Assuming we are still a free people, we should never dismiss this idea entirely. 

Certainly, there are functions that police serve that would need to be undertaken by new institutions. But the agency that enforces traffic violations need not be the same one that investigates crimes. A democracy should be able to redesign all functions of government. 

If we accept that the existing politicized police force that yells down the people’s representatives and flies its own flag is unchangeable, we are no longer a free people.

Kurt X. Metzmeier, is the author of “Writing the Legal Record: Law Reporters in Nineteenth-Century Kentucky” (University Press of Kentucky, 2016). Although he is a law librarian at the UofL, the opinions in this article are his own and do not represent those of the university or any of its institutions.