U.S. Justice Dept probe shows Louisville police not accountable to community

Decision in the criminal case against police officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor, in Louisville
Louisville police cars stand guard outside the police station in an empty street, in Louisville, Kentucky September 26, 2020. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

March 20 (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department’s investigation of Louisville, Kentucky’s police force revealed shocking and pervasive misconduct that calls into question its ability to carry out its basic functions and raises even more profound questions about policing and democratic governance.

Louisville police supervisors routinely defend racist practices, abuse of people with disabilities, "obviously excessive force" and "search warrants clearly lacking probable cause," according to the Justice Department’s March 8 report.

The Louisville Metro Police Department has also targeted mostly-peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters unfairly, the Justice Department said. By contrast, supervisors told officers that a heavily-armed militia group was there “to help” the LMPD during a 2018 protest, the report said.

Interim LMPD chief Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroes and Mayor Craig Greenberg declined my requests for comment. Both officials took office in January.

The Justice Department also noted an underlying culture at the LMPD in its report, which focused on conduct and departmental records from 2016-2021.

“In addition to explicit racial bias, we identified instances of officers expressing disrespect, hostility, and contempt toward Louisville residents,” the Justice Department wrote.

One officer admitted that LMPD cops often threw garbage out of patrol cars in majority-Black neighborhoods because officers thought "if they're going to treat their part of town like trash, then we'll treat it like trash too." The DOJ also documented derogatory comments about Latino people and an incident when one officer told another “that’s why we killed all your people with the bomb back in Japan.” The offending officers weren’t subjected to meaningful discipline, the report said.

The Justice Department raised concerns about gender discrimination too, based on findings that LMPD routinely fails to investigate reports of domestic violence and rape.

Beyond the conscience-shocking misconduct, and more importantly, the report lays out a fact-based narrative that leads to an almost inescapable conclusion: police in Louisville are largely unaccountable to democratic processes and governance.

Indeed, police leaders and officers regularly neutralize internal and external mechanisms for accountability, thanks to a morass of state labor laws, court rulings and private union contracts that let cops police their own conduct, Reuters reported in November 2020.

Year after year, Louisville cops have disregarded calls for change — or simply to follow their own policies — from protesters and community members, the local press, the city council, Kentucky judges, successive mayors, and their own police chiefs, according to the Justice Department.

That defiance now seems directed toward the feds too: the River City Fraternal Order of Police, which represents LMPD's rank-and-file, has largely rejected the Justice Department’s findings, saying there are already “protocols in place” to address misconduct and casting blame on previous city leaders and police chiefs.

The union didn't respond to my questions. The Kentucky State FOP, which has backed the River City union, also did not respond to my inquiry.

The report highlights several examples of police impunity. Among them, Louisville police have consistently rejected efforts to document street and traffic stops in Black neighborhoods, failing to record basic information, like whether or not someone was issued a citation. Patrol divisions “covering majority-Black neighborhoods were the only divisions that consistently” failed to document their encounters, the Justice Department wrote.

The department's own data from 2013 to 2017 showed racial disparities in stops (that were actually recorded). Yet, in response, LMPD “rationalized the disparities” with racist tropes, “and failed to collect other important data about officers’ activities,” the DOJ said.

In late 2018, the LMPD rejected a state court's findings about its unlawful racial profiling, and in September last year, the department rejected the latest of several analyses by the Louisville Courier-Journal that showed its disparate enforcement, the DOJ wrote.

So, what now?

By all appearances, LMPD will sign an agreement requiring officers to document basic stop information, much like it has been required to under law, internal policies and best practices for decades. And, the city — tax-paying Louisvillians subject to the department's violence and disrespect — will be on the hook if LMPD violates that agreement, rather than officers or their leadership.

A similar pattern has played out regarding LMPD officers’ requirement to comply with investigations of citizen complaints by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) – which was created by a 2020 ordinance meant to improve police oversight.

The OIG, in its 2022 annual report, said that it couldn't complete a single investigation in its first year of operations because LMPD and its officers had refused to provide documents or show up for interviews.

In fact, a memorandum of understanding outlining requirements for cooperation was drawn up last year – but it sat unsigned until March 14, after the DOJ released its findings, a spokesperson for the Inspector General’s office told me.

The facts uncovered in the investigation are striking, but the LMPD may not be so different from other U.S. police departments — many of which also operate under longstanding legal protections that are difficult to justify.

The situation in Louisville and elsewhere involves questions of fundamental democratic accountability: whether and how are the police answerable to the voters they supposedly serve or the elected officials ostensibly in charge of their ranks. Addressing those issues requires much more than a memorandum of understanding or even a federal consent decree.

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.

Thomson Reuters

Hassan Kanu writes about access to justice, race, and equality under law. Kanu, who was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked in public interest law after graduating from Duke University School of Law. After that, he spent five years reporting on mostly employment law. He lives in Washington, D.C. Reach Kanu at hassan.kanu@thomsonreuters.com