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What's Under Scrutiny In LMPD Investigation? Basically Everything

LMPD police cars
Michelle Hanks
LMPD police cars

Federal investigators are collecting a catalogue of internal documents and records that would detail virtually every recorded interaction between Louisville Metro Police officers and citizens as they set the stage for a deep examination of the beleaguered agency.  

The day after U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the investigation last month, attorneys with the United States Department of Justice and the local United States Attorney’s Office asked the city for particulars about police databases and files that detail when officers stop and search residents, when they use force, disciplinary measures and policy documents — including those “not presently made available to the public,” according to documents obtained by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting through an open records request. 

Investigators will be examining union contracts, agreements with other government agencies and behavioral health providers, organizational charts, employee rosters, pay scales, training documents, and detailed descriptions of each division and specialized unit within the department, according to the DOJ’s request.

They also asked for a list of all paper documents and recordings “typically stored” at LMPD.

The request by the Department of Justice last month is an indication of how quickly the agency’s civil rights investigation into LMPD began, and shows just how deep investigators will look to assess whether the agency has a pattern or practice of civil rights violations in policing.

As a recipient of federal funding, LMPD is required to provide records to the Department of Justice. In a letter dated April 27, investigators made 19 specific requests for information. City officials have provided responses to 13 of the requests, adhering to a May 11 deadline set by the federal investigators, according to a spokesperson for Jefferson County Mike O’Connell. The remaining six troves of records will be due to federal investigators next week, according to the DOJ’s request.

The wide scope of the request is typical of a Department of Justice pattern and practice investigation, which are known for scrutinizing police departments at an organizational level, said Samuel Walker, emeritus professor at University of Nebraska Omaha’s school of criminology and criminal justice. Walker who has studied DOJ investigations and reviewed the DOJ request to Louisville officials on KyCIR’s behalf.

“They don’t do piecemeal reform,” he said.

The investigation seeks to determine if the police department engages in a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing that violates the Constitution or federal law, particularly in how it executes search warrants, uses force and polices protests. The investigation comes in the wake of a flurry of scandals and controversies stemming from LMPD, including the police killing of Breonna Taylor and the months of protests that followed.

Investigators will look beyond the actions of individual officers to pinpoint the system that perpetuates harmful, dangerous, and bad policing, Walker said. The records obtained by federal investigators will show how officers are trained, and how they’re expected to interact with the public and respond to a range of situations — from protests, to emergencies and critical calls for help.

“They’re focused on, ‘Where are the failures,’” he said. “Inadequate policies, inadequate supervision and discipline.”

In fact, in previous similar investigations of police departments conducted by the Department of Justice officers have been key sources of information that can help pinpoint problematic policies and other departmental shortcomings by giving interviews with investigators and taking investigators on ride-alongs during patrol shifts, said Walker.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who oversaw the police department that made more than 800 arrests during the protests last year, said the investigation is “an opportunity and a privilege.” 

Spokespeople for the mayor’s office and LMPD did not immediately respond to questions about the records provided.

Officers, Citizens Both Sought As Sources

Somelocal activists and politicians are cautiously optimistic about the federal investigation, noting that its outcome will depend on how thorough investigators are in their examination of the department. 

Metro Councilman Jecorey Arthur, who represents the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods, said it’s clear that LMPD needs serious intervention and reform — for proof he pointed to a recent audit of the agency that found it was a department “in crisis.”

As part of their request to the city for records, federal investigators are also seeking any documents obtained by the private firm that conducted that audit.

Arthur said community engagement, and how the investigators respond to the community and shares findings with the community, is critical for getting a full understanding of how LMPD operates in the city and what needs to change.

“We know there are problems,” he said. “We want transparency out of this investigation.”

Federal investigators, however, made it clear in their request for records that certain information obtained in the course of the investigation will be kept confidential and excluded from public release, including names of individual officers or other witnesses or anything not used to support investigative findings.

Days after the investigation was announced, a team of investigators met with community members, including Arthur, for an introductory discussion.

Shameka Parrish-Wright, a local activist and mayoral candidate, also participated in the meeting. She said it “shows something is happening” and is a reason for people to have some hope that changes will come to how police operate in Louisville.

Investigators have also been in contact with the local police union, according to Dave Mutchler, the union’s spokesperson.

Mutchler said the investigators want to use the union as a “conduit” to encourage officers to speak openly about the department and how it operates.

“They're not really focusing in on any individuals right now,” he said. “They want to see how this department operates, what we do, what our policies and procedures are, and how they dictate how we deal with the public.” 

Mutchler said the investigation is still getting started, and because of that the union has yet to take a stance on if they “like or dislike how it’s going, yet.”

“So far, it just is what it is.”

Correction: Merrick Garland is the U.S. Attorney General. His title was incorrect in a previous version of this story.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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