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Louisville Metro sues LPM to keep police files secret

A photo of Louisville Metro Hall obscured by a rain-covered window.
J. Tyler Franklin
A photo of Louisville Metro Hall obscured by a rain-covered window.

Local officials want a judge to reverse a Kentucky Attorney General decision that found Louisville Metro Police violated the state’s open records laws.

The Jefferson County Attorney argues in the lawsuit filed last week against Louisville Public Media that providing records detailing how local law enforcement use a controversial cell phone hacking tool would be too much work and put police investigations at risk.

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news team that’s part of Louisville Public Media, requested the records under the state’s open records act earlier this year. KyCIR found LMPD has spent more than $205,000 since 2020 on a cell phone hacking tool called Graykey. But city officials refused to provide copies of search warrants obtained by police to use the tool — records that could show how often the agency uses the tool, who it targets and why.

At a press briefing Tuesday morning, Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg said he didn’t know anything about the suit.

“This shouldn’t be the first time I’m hearing about that appeal,” he said.

Since taking office in January 2023, Greenberg has struggled to live up to his promise of transparency. The city’s open records request backlog doubled after he pledged to reduce it. And local news outlets, including LPM have turned to the courts to pry loose records from the Greenberg administration.

When city officials refused to provide search warrants to KyCIR earlier this year, they cited an exemption in the state’s open records laws that protects some police records from disclosure if their release could compromise investigations. But they did not explain how releasing the records would put police work at risk in this case.

KyCIR appealed the denial to the state’s attorney general, who agreed the city violated the state’s open records laws by failing to demonstrate a “concrete risk of harm” posed by providing the records.

“Instead, [LMPD] describes vague hypothetical scenarios that might result if it released “all search warrants,” assistant attorney general Matthew Ray wrote in the published opinion. “There is no evidence, based on [LMPD’s] statements, that it ever reviewed the records responsive to the [KyCIR’s] request to determine whether their release would pose a concrete risk of harm to any of its investigations.”

Now, local officials say the attorney general got it wrong and they want a judge to agree.

The Jefferson County Attorney also claims that sifting through the search warrants that are tied to more than 1,800 data extractions performed by local police since January 2022 would be “an unreasonable burden.”

Doing so would require LMPD’s Digital Forensic Unit to contact detectives for each case to determine which warrants were under court seal, which were tied to open cases and which needed redactions, according to the lawsuit.

A spokesperson for the Jefferson County Attorney directed a reporter to court filings.

Mike Abate, a First Amendment attorney representing LPM in this case, said it’s not uncommon for government agencies to file a lawsuit to keep records secret. In 2019, LMPD sued the Courier Journal to block the release of records tied to the police Explorer program sex scandal.

Abate said the city’s “blanket denial” to release records due to a potential risk to ongoing investigations has long been determined by the Kentucky Supreme Court to be “categorically inappropriate.”

“They misuse this exemption in this way all the time,” he said. “It shows their disdain for the public getting information about a pending investigation.”

And the work that comes with sifting through hundreds of records would be alleviated if the mayor adequately funded the city’s open records department, he said.

City officials could have prevented this entire dispute if they had conducted a thorough search of the records before they denied KyCIR’s initial request, said Amye Bensenhaver, co-director of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition.

“It's unfortunate that Louisville Metro did a half-assed job in responding to the original request,” she said. “This is not new. But it is unfortunate.”

This story has been updated.

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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