DOJ report highlights Black youths’ harmful encounters with Louisville police
Police used excessive force against teenagers, verbally berated youth during traffic stops and subjected them to unreasonable and invasive searches, according to the report.
Growing up in Louisville’s West End, 20-year-old Kori Wheeler remembers being taught to “look down” and “stay away” when a police officer was around. She said that even seeing police lights stirred fear in her and other young Black people she grew up with because they knew “you can be completely in the right, and still, something bad happens.”
“We avoid them at all costs,” Wheeler said. “A police officer could be in a bad mood one day and ruin your life.”
A U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the Louisville Metro Police Department found that Black youth experience frequent and invasive encounters with police, which research shows can contribute to poor mental health and delinquency among youth. The DOJ released the findings from their probe last week in a 90-page reportthat concluded LMPD engaged in a pattern of discrimination and frequently violated people’s rights.
The report cites more than a dozen instances of alleged police abuse or misconduct involving a minor or young adult. Police used excessive force against teenagers, verbally berated youth during traffic stops and subjected them to unreasonable and invasive searches, according to the report. In one incident, an LMPD officer ordered his dog to bite a 14-year-old Black boy even though he was not resisting.
“Despite the teen staying prone and pleading, ‘Ok! Ok! Help! Get the dog please!’ officers stood over him shouting orders for nearly 30 seconds while the dog gnawed on his arm,” the report said.
The boy suffered serious injuries on his arm and back from the bites and was taken to a local children’s hospital.
Black youth in Louisville told DOJ investigators that interactions with LMPD made them feel “intimidated,” “mad,” “scared” and “panicked.” They described the police department as a “gang.”
A 21-year-old interviewed by the DOJ estimated that officers had stopped him on the street more than 50 times.
Between 2016 and 2021, nearly three-quarters of the young people arrested and brought to the juvenile detention center were Black, according to the report. However, Black youth comprise less than one-third of Louisville’s youth population.
The report cites research that shows a clear link between frequent and invasive stops and adverse health effects among young people, including trauma, anxiety, psychological distress and substance abuse. The psychological distress from police stops can also lead youth to disengage from school and engage in delinquent behavior, the report said.
‘This is what our young people were saying.’
On March 8, hours after the DOJ released the report, a group of elementary, middle and high school students gathered at the Shawnee Library in Louisville’s predominantly Black West End community.
Chanelle Helm, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Louisville, sat with them that evening to help unpack what the feds found in their investigation of the city’s police.
She’s working on creating programming and activities for the kids who go there after school. But she felt this discussion was important enough for the group to veer from their usual conversations about upgrading the library’s game room, spring break activities and potential field trips.
“What do you think the federal government said about our police?” she asked.
One boy yelled out, “that they were in the right.”
Another said, “that they were just trying to serve their community.”
Helm explained that their assumptions were wrong and that the feds determined LMPD showed a pattern of abuse, including against children.
“This is why the meetings we have here are important,” she told them. “Because we know that kids are being put in situations with police that are dangerous.”
One of the kids recalled a shooting in the Chickasaw neighborhood a few weeks ago, when officer Brendan Kaiser shot two unarmed teenagers who had allegedly broken into a detached garage.
“Those are my friends,” a boy said. “They got shot by the police.”
The teens were taken to a hospital with non-life-threatening injuries and released soon after. The department placed Kaiser on paid administrative leave following the incident, which the department claimed was an accident. Kaiser has a history of policy violations, including an incident in 2018 when he used “inappropriate force” against a child while responding to a break-in.
Gaberiel Jones, an assistant professor in the School of Public Health and Information Sciences at the University of Louisville, said he and his colleagues have been studying the impact of policing on youth for several years.
In one study, they interviewed more than 70 Black youth aged 10 to 24 residing in west Louisville about their community experiences and challenges. Jones, a Russell neighborhood resident, said they not only found that Black youth experienced profiling and harassment from police officers but also that they felt unsafe around police.
“They were telling us, ‘Hey, what they're doing to us is not right. They are harming us. They are killing us,’” Jones said. “This is what our young people were saying.”
The youth interviewed for the study also said police presence usually just escalates problems in their community.
“We had folks who said, ‘I literally called the police to tell them that [something] happened to me, and they ended up searching my house and trying to take me to jail,’” he said.
Looking for accountability
Negative and discriminatory interactions between police and youth can contribute to a lack of trust between officers and community members and impedes efforts to create safer neighborhoods, Jones said. The idea is that when community members don’t trust the police, they won’t feel comfortable going to them to solve conflicts and won’t want to work with them to prevent crime.
In fact, studies have shown that a lack of trust in the police likely leads to more crime and violence.
Jones said over-policing and discriminatory practices like those highlighted in the DOJ report have a lot to do with this.
“When you have all of these structural issues, and then you have the added component that calling the police to solve my problems is not an option for me, the community then takes these issues into their own hands,” he said. “And we have escalations of interpersonal violence in essentially every urban community in the United States.”
Violence among youth in Louisville has been on the rise. The homicide rate for young people tripled from 2018 to 2021, according to a report by the Greater Louisville Project. Of the 60 young people who were killed in 2021, 48 of them were Black.
Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg has already taken what he says are important steps to address violence within the city, including holding community conversations where citizens can share their thoughts on how the city can better protect people, especially youth.
When a KyCIR reporter asked Greenberg in an interview about the number of incidents in the DOJ’s investigation that involved youth, Greenberg called it “unacceptable” and said that they are working to ensure that LMPD is not adding to the problem of violence within the community.
“The chief of police and I are focused on that, whether it's through the police department or other investments that we're going to make outside of the police department into programs, people, institutions, that support our youth,” he said. “That's what our city needs. That's what our kids deserve.”
LMPD’s interim chief Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel told KyCIR the department is committed to building programs that focus on creating more positive interactions with Louisville’s youth.
“Any misconduct with any of our children will not be tolerated and shouldn't have been tolerated in the past,” she added.
Federal investigators listed 36 measures the city should take to address the problems they uncovered at the police department, including more effective de-escalation training, an overhaul of how officers obtain and execute search warrants and better community engagement efforts. There are no recommendations that specifically mention youth.
Kentucky Youth Advocates Executive Director Terry Brooks said youth-specific recommendations would have been a good idea. But he thinks the city is already on its way to creating better programs and policies around youth justice.
“I hope that the DOJ report only elevates the importance of doing juvenile justice differently,” he said. “I believe that the Greenberg team was already on that pathway.”
Louisville Metro Government and the police department have already agreed to negotiate a court-enforceable consent decree with the Department of Justice that the city will implement with oversight from an independent monitor, who will report progress back to the court. It’s unclear when the city will sign the agreement.
Jones said it seems like this is a good step forward, but all these changes must be permanently codified in city and state law for real change to happen. He said the black community had been asking for justice long before the DOJ began its investigation, and change is overdue.
“It wasn’t until Breonna Taylor was murdered that we started to acknowledge the experiences that people have been having the whole time,” he said. “We find this same concept over and over again, which is that black communities are forced to validate their experiences and their humanity with bloodshed.”
Wheeler said she isn’t sure if Black youth will ever fully trust the police but that they can begin to build a better relationship. For her, it all starts with accountability.
“They have to take accountability,” she said. “When I get pulled over, I shouldn't have to worry about if I’m going to die or not. I shouldn't have to pull my phone out because I don't know if you're going to shoot me.”
Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.