What We Know About How JCPS Gathers Intelligence On Gangs Without SROs

Nov 9, 2021 at 4:28 pm
JCPS gathers intelligence on its students, but a spokesperson says the school system can't keep gang files.
JCPS gathers intelligence on its students, but a spokesperson says the school system can't keep gang files. Art by Talon Hampton

Hours after 16-year-old Tyree Smith was killed in a pre-dawn drive-by shooting at his school bus stop in Louisville’s West End on Sept. 22, LMPD Chief Erika Shields called for the Jefferson County Public Schools system to establish its own police department. Without one, she said, LMPD was lacking “critical intelligence” on gangs and conflicts needed to prevent tragedies like the one that brought her to the podium at Metro Hall that day. 

But, the nearly 100,000 student school district already gathers intelligence on gangs, with that task listed among the top responsibilities for one member of its 23-person security and investigations unit. And there are indications that LMPD has its own intelligence capabilities to track gangs within Louisville’s schools. 

Documents obtained by LEO Weekly show JCPS has an “intelligence analyst” whose role involves “information-gathering and producing intelligence” as well as collecting and analyzing information on “gangs” and “criminal groups.” They are also responsible for “gathering information from open sources” like social media and acting as a liaison with local law enforcement. 

The intelligence analyst position was described in several slideshows from the summer titled “SIU Applicant Orientation” that were obtained by LEO Weekly through an open records request for “security briefings” created by the JCPS security and investigations unit staff. 

A 2017 security and investigations unit slideshow publicly available on JCPS’s website described additional duties for the intelligence analyst, like installing and maintaining cameras for covert surveillance.

While JCPS gathers intelligence, exactly what kind of intelligence is gathered is difficult to pin down.

JCPS did not respond to LEO Weekly’s requests to interview security and investigations unit staff members but did reply to some written questions about intelligence gathering. 

In an email, JCPS spokesperson Renee Murphy said “intelligence analyst” is an assignment given to a security officer and that the role has existed since 2016. She said covert video and audio surveillance was not used on students, but rather in investigations of employee misconduct and after hours criminal activity. 

Additionally, while JCPS keeps track of gang activity, Murphy said they are prohibited from keeping “gang” files by federal regulations and state law and do not identify students who may be part of a criminal group when sharing intelligence.

“We report to schools, police and security the activity of groups believed to be criminal groups without identifying who belongs to those groups,” she wrote. “Therefore, we don’t falsely accuse a student of being involved.”

Asked about what the role of the intelligence analyst was, Murphy wrote: “The intelligence analyst is someone who gathers information from reports, crime and arrest data analysis, photo and video images from surveillance cameras, and open source intelligence (OSINT) and analyzes that information.”

In a phone interview in October, JCPS’s Chief Operating Officer Chris Perkins, who oversees the security and investigations unit, was vague when answering questions about intelligence gathering and sharing by JCPS, but said the school system had a “good relationship” with law enforcement.

He also said security staff was proactive in contacting law enforcement.

“Part of our purpose is to serve as liaison between schools and local law enforcement,” he said. “So there’s a lot of collaboration and communication that happens frequently and proactively.”

Asked in that same interview about what kinds of information JCPS shared with LMPD, Murphy, the JCPS spokesperson, answered: “Anything they hear at school that would rise to the level that we would want to make sure that local law enforcement had information on, that information would be shared.”

LMPD Has Some Capabilities In Place Already

In calling for a JCPS police force, Shields suggested that LMPD lacked intelligence capabilities across the county, including Eastern High School, where Tyree Smith was a student.

“Is there something afoot at Eastern High School? Yes. Do we owe it to the teachers and the students to know what is going on there? We have to empower [JCPS superintendent] Dr. [Marty] Pollio so he has a fighting chance,” she said.

But there are signs LMPD is not flying blind at Eastern or other high schools.

Documents obtained by LEO Weekly — notes from a Kentucky Law Enforcement Council instructor evaluation report of an LMPD Training Academy in-service class on gang identification in March of this year — show that police do have intelligence gathering capabilities at JCPS schools, despite the departure of school resource officers from the district two years ago. 

In the class observed by the KLEC monitor, several groups of officers were “assigned a known gang and their location in the Metro area. Their assignment was to identify the gang’s name, geographical area, colors, hand signals, means of raising revenue to support gang activity, and resources used to support the presentation.”

One group was assigned the “Eleven Hundred [Block] Group who attended Ballard and Eastern High Schools.” Listed resources for intelligence on the gang included “music/video, social media, school administrators, and apartment landlords.” 

The notes also listed details on gangs allegedly active in Western, Iroquois, Minor Daniels, Fairdale and Seneca high schools. The document showed a detailed level of familiarity with gangs and their operations, listing the areas where they were allegedly active and their alleged means of making money.

JCPS Already Shares Information With LMPD

James Craig, who represents Eastern High School’s District 3 on the Jefferson County Board of Education, stressed that the school system was already sharing information on threats with LMPD and that having armed police officers would not have saved Tyree Smith’s life.

“An SRO would not have changed that outcome. It was a bus stop [many] miles away from the school,” he said. “I understand that some will say we could have gathered intelligence via an SRO to prevent that situation. Well, in fact, there had been intelligence shared with LMPD about that situation already.”

As first reported by the Courier Journal, LMPD was notified in early September about a previous incident involving students witnessing gunfire near the bus stop where Smith was killed. An email written by Eastern High School's assistant principal first quoted by the Courier Journal and later obtained by LEO Weekly characterized students who witnessed the incident as “very reluctant to write statements” about what happened. 

While answering questions at a Metro Council meeting last month, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said he hoped that council members would be able to see the “synergy” between LMPD and JCPS on keeping students safe when he presented American Rescue Plan funding ideas at a later date.  

The mayor’s office did not respond to a LEO Weekly request for an elaboration on that synergy he described. LMPD referred requests for comment on its relationship with JCPS to the school district.

What kind of information JCPS shares with LMPD is unclear. 

While JCPS said it does not share personal information on students involved in gang activity with police, that is not the case everywhere. 

In Chicago, for example, ProPublica found that 700 public school students were called into interventions over a four year period after intelligence analysts determined that their social media activity showed potential gang involvement. Those interventions were sometimes conducted with an officer from the Chicago Police Department present. 

JCPS did not respond to questions about whether a specific software is used for social media monitoring and what kinds of things security staff are looking for when monitoring social media.

JCPS Already Has Security Staff

While LMPD has called for JCPS to establish its own police force, the school system already has its own law enforcement arm — albeit one that does not carry guns.

As of October, JCPS had a 23-member security and investigations unit with 11 sworn officers, according to Murphy. While officers have arresting powers on school property, local law enforcement is often called in for serious incidents (last month, for instance, it was LMPD that made arrests of students at Seneca High School and Stuart Academy who were found with loaded guns on campus.) Their ranks are made up of retired law enforcement personnel and persons who have completed training with Kentucky’s Department of Criminal Justice Training. While they do not carry firearms, they are equipped with collapsible batons and pepper spray.

Linda Duncan, who represents District 5 on the Jefferson County Board of Education, said she knew the school system monitored social media for threats, but was unaware of an intelligence analyst or information gathering being done on gangs. 

“We don't get much information from our security office,” she said. “They’re reluctant to tell us what they’re working on or any side that exposes the bad things that might be going on in JCPS.”

Ahead of the pandemic in early 2020, JCPS was exploring the creation of a “school safety officer” program, one that would see armed officers wearing khakis and blue blazers instead of police uniforms while keeping their weapons concealed and out of sight. Under the proposed plan, officer training would go beyond what is mandated by the Kentucky Law Enforcement Council and include classes on things like bullying, cross-cultural communication and trauma-informed care. The officers would be employed by the school district — not on loan from a law enforcement department — and answer to the district.

Craig said it would have been “a unique force in the United States” and appeased all parts of the community. He hopes that discussions about creating an internal security force can resume. But putting armed police officers in Louisville schools to gather intelligence is the wrong path to follow, he said.

“Think about for a moment what a Black or brown student, 16 years old, skeptical of the police department, what they think of when they listen to Chief Shields say that we need to be gathering intelligence from inside of high schools. Isn’t it a bit unnerving to think that as you’re sitting in Algebra II, as you’re sitting in Calculus class that there’s somebody walking up and down the hallway quote unquote “gathering intelligence” on you?” he said. “Those in our community, when they hear those words - gathering intelligence on our students — it reaffirms their concerns with policing in schools. It exacerbates it.”

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