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Saturday, June 15, 2024 | Back issues
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Post-Breonna Taylor probe finds pattern of police misconduct in Louisville

The investigation found that Louisville police have systematically discriminated against Black people and the city’s most vulnerable for more than a decade while avoiding accountability.

(CN) — The Louisville Metro Police Department systematically abused and used excessive force against Black people in the years leading up to the killing of Breonna Taylor in 2020, according to the findings of a Justice Department investigation published Wednesday.

The 90-page investigation report found that the police force in Kentucky's most populous city routinely uses excessive force, conducts unlawful searches and discriminates against Black people and disabled people in the course of its policing activities. It also found that the department systematically violated protesters’ First Amendment rights during the protests against police brutality that followed Taylor’s killing and that of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

“For years, LMPD has practiced an aggressive style of policing that it deploys selectively, especially against Black people, but also against vulnerable people across the city,” the report states. “LMPD cites people for minor offenses, like wide turns and broken taillights, while serious crimes like sexual assault and homicide go unsolved. Some officers demonstrate disrespect for the people they are sworn to protect. Some officers have videotaped themselves throwing drinks at pedestrians from their cars; insulted people with disabilities; and called Black people 'monkeys,' 'animal,' and 'boy.' This conduct erodes community trust.” 

Department leadership, according to the report, had allowed and even endorsed this conduct, and when Louisville saw widespread protests following Taylor’s killing the department unlawfully cracked down on lawful speech opposing its practices. 

“This conduct is unacceptable. It is heartbreaking. It erodes the community trust necessary for effective policing and it is an affront to the vast majority of officers who put their lives on the line every day to serve Louisville with honor,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a Wednesday press conference following the report’s release. “And it is an affront to the people of Louisville, who deserve better.” 

Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, was killed during a no-knock raid by Louisville police in March of 2020. Police had a search warrant, but found no evidence of a crime. Taylor, sleeping in bed, was killed when police opened fire at her boyfriend, who said he had not heard them announce they were police and fired a warning shot when they forced entry. Police dispute this account, saying that they had announced themselves. The boyfriend, unhurt, was charged with assault and attempted murder of a police officer, but all charges against him were dismissed.

After being shot six times, Taylor died on the scene. Four officers have been federally charged for violations of Taylor’s civil rights. one pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy in August. 

The investigation found particular issue with a unit within the department, called the Violent Incident Prevention, Enforcement and Response, or VIPER, Unit, which specifically concentrated such enforcement in neighborhoods with large Black populations. The unit, whose members were known by residents of those neighborhoods as “jump out boys,” operated from 2012 through 2015 until protesters demanded its end. It was “repeatedly rebranded, but never disbanded," the report states.

VIPER’s lieutenant during most of that period was well-known for making racist comments at the time he was appointed, including one occasion where he called another officer a “chink” and told him “that’s why we killed all your people with the bomb back in Japan.” The lieutenant resigned in 2014 after an internal investigation found that his officers routinely displayed pornographic material in the office and that he regularly exposed himself to other officers “as a joke.” 

Rather than disband the unit in 2015, the department’s then-Chief Steve Conrad rebranded it as the Ninth Mobile Division, which he described as “the next iteration” of VIPER. The new division, like its predecessor, was pressured to generate stop and arrest “stats” in Black neighborhoods and, like its predecessor, went almost completely unmonitored for signs of discrimination or unlawful conduct. Certain officers within the unit did not complete any documentation of their vehicle stops in 2018 – an oversight that earned 23 officers a written reprimand in February 2020. 

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“In other words,” the report states, “when LMPD leaders tried to figure out what one of their most active units was doing, they realized officers were not documenting their activities.” 

The report emphasized that its First Amendment findings were “narrow, tied to protected speech about policing,” and noted that while such speech could easily become heated and police presence could escalate protests, the department’s response to those protests was nevertheless discriminatorily excessive. 

“By using force against peaceful protesters without individualized and adequate justifications, LMPD repeatedly retaliated against speech, in violation of the First Amendment,” the report said. This practice, it noted, led to the fatal shooting of at least one apparent non-protester by the LMPD and National Guard and to several unlawful arrests and uses of force, including against credentialed members of the press, protesters who had surrendered to police and bystanders who dared to videotape them. 

The investigation is one of many announced by the Justice Department in the aftermath of the civil rights protests of 2020. Minneapolis’ police department is undergoing a similar pattern-or-practice investigation, announced shortly after veteran officer Derek Chauvin’s April 2021 murder conviction for the videotaped and widely shared killing of Floyd in May 2020. A state human rights department investigation found in April of 2022 that the Minneapolis Police Department disproportionately used force against and searched members of the city’s relatively small Black population, and that it was consistently lenient toward officers, including Chauvin, who violated Black residents’ civil rights. 

The Justice Department is also investigating departments in Worcester, Massachusetts; Phoenix; Mount Vernon, New York; and Kansas City, Missouri. On Tuesday morning it announced a new investigation into the police department of Memphis, Tennessee, in response to the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, during a traffic stop last month. 

Wednesday's report noted that LMPD was aware of, and attempted to paper over, racially discriminatory policing.

“Our statistical analysis and residents’ accounts are only the latest evidence of discriminatory policing in Louisville,” the report states. “Louisville Metro and LMPD knew of racial disparities from their own data, publicly available analyses, and complaints from community members.” 

It noted that between 2000 and 2008, at least five different reports, including three internal ones, showed racial disparities in enforcement. When the Louisville Courier Journal found that Black drivers were twice as likely as white ones to be pulled over, the police chief challenged its study’s validity. The department retained a University of Louisville professor to compile annual reports on its vehicle stops from 2004 to 2006, each of which showed that Black drivers were two to three times more likely than white drivers to be searched during a stop. The LMPD promptly stopped publishing vehicle stop reports at all, not to resume until 2013. 

The department’s practices, the report found, were not only unlawfully discriminatory but also limited the department’s ability to solve violent crimes. From 2016 to 2021, LMPD arrested a suspect in only 30-35% of homicides, far below the national average rate of 50-60%. The department was also 33% less likely to arrest a homicide suspect if the victim was Black than if the victim was white. 

“Community members, homicide detectives, and LMPD leaders attribute LMPD’s low clearance rates to a lack of trust in the police,” the report states. “LMPD’s pretextual traffic stops and other unnecessarily intrusive interactions erode trust in the police and may hamper LMPD’s ability to investigate and solve crimes. As one LMPD leader told us, emphasizing pretextual enforcement in certain ‘hot spot’ neighborhoods means that residents are ‘targeted twice:’ first by violent crime, and then by the police.” 

The report included 36 recommendations for improvements to LMPD, including a variety of changes to policy and training, an emphasis on documentation of all traffic stops and expansion of a pilot program that deploys “mobile crisis teams” to behavioral health calls that don’t require police responses. It also recommended that the department begin accepting and addressing all civilian complaints, which it had noted were difficult to make and often resulted in open retaliation against and intimidation of complainants by officers involved. 

Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg said Wednesday that his office has reached an “agreement in principle” with the federal government as to the department’s next steps. LMPD’s interim chief, Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel, said that while improvement “will not occur overnight,” her department would work toward the goals the report laid out.

Categories / Civil Rights, Government, Regional

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