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Community Complaints Against Louisville Metro Police Decline Sharply

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As a national debate about law enforcement practices gripped the nation, formal complaints by community members against Louisville Metro Police were at a five-year low.

In 2014, 26 community complaints were filed against police—nearly 80 percent fewer than 2010, according to information provided by LMPD.

Two of 2014's 26 community complaints were "sustained," meaning police investigators found the complaints to be justified. The others are pending. Of the 355 cases filed since 2010, 22 percent have been substantiated, according to the data.

Why the decline? Police don't know.

Louisville Metro Police's Professional Standards Unit investigates internal and community allegations of violations of department rules. Major Don Burbrink, the unit's commander, said the decline in community complaints could be a result of an increase in "chief initiations"—complaints that come from within the department and are backed by Chief Steve Conrad.

"Basically, when the chief gets wind of something that one of our officers may have done something, he may then initiate a complaint and, so, we would investigate that," Burbrink said in an interview with WFPL.

In fact, professional standards complaints issued by the chief have increased steadily—32 percent—since 2012, according to a recent report from the unit.

These complaints from within the department can stem from an officer improperly filing a report, an officer being involved in a vehicle accident as a result of unsafe driving by the officer, or a simple phone call from a concerned community member, Burbrink said.

Cameras have also made investigating complaints, both internal and external, much more efficient, he said.

He said it's becoming common for residents to report a problem with an officer's division supervisor after an encounter with police via phone rather than filing a formal complaint.

"I don't know why that is—if it's more convenient," Burbrink said.

In other cases, a resident's attorney may advise them to hold on filing a complaint until pending litigation is resolved, he said.

The filing process has remained the same for nearly a decade, so no policy changes would have led to the fall in complaints, said Carolyn Miller-Cooper, executive director of the Louisville Metro Human Relations Commission.

Miller-Cooper said she doesn't have an answer for the drop in complaints, but she offered some thoughts.

"It could be that the police officers are doing a good job. It could be that people have no  reason to file a complaint. It could be that individuals choose not to, for whatever reason, engage the system," she said.

Not wanting to participate in the processes of government, though, is nothing unique to Louisville residents, she added.

People "throughout our community and throughout the nation" regularly opt out of jury processes and voting processes, Miller-Cooper said, adding that the complaint process isn't much different.

But filing a complaint is relatively simple, she said. There are two options.

Before the process begins, people mulling a complaint should have the facts in order regarding their encounter with LMPD, Miller-Cooper said.

The complaint should have "the specifics"—the date, time and location of the event and, if possible, the officer's name and badge number, she said.

A formal complaint may be filed with the city's ombudsman, or citizen advocate, Stella Dorsey. Complaints may also be filed directly at the Professional Standards Unit.

Either way, the complaint will eventually need to be formally entered at police headquarters.

"It's really less intimidating when you have the citizen advocate with you," she said.

Once filed, the Professional Standards Unit will investigate the complaint and "a determination is made and a finding is issued by the police chief," Miller-Cooper said.

A resident can appeal a decision to the Police Merit Board. Legal ramifications for non-sustained complaints against an officer are not a threat to residents, because there aren't any, she said.

But she quickly added that filing fallacious complaints is not recommended.

"Somebody cannot show up and just say an officer did X, Y and Z; I don't know when, I don't know location," she said. "Records can be checked."

Burbrink said the complaint process is important to the police department.

"It tells us how are officers are doing and how they treat people," he said. "It may alert us to a problem officer. It's important for us to listen to the people and hear what they are saying."

Last year, Professional Standard Unit investigations resulted in 14 officers being suspended, four received a written reprimand, three resigned, one directed to counseling and one officer losing the right to use a "take-home" vehicle, according to LMPD data.

In 2013, more than 30 officers received a written reprimand, 18 were suspended and four officers were terminated, according to the data.

Here are the most common allegations that lead to a Professional Standards Unit investigation of an officer:

  Kate Miller of the ACLU of Louisville encourages residents who believe they have been a victim of abuse or mistreatment by  police to record the facts of the event immediately so they can be accurately called upon later.

And then, go file a complaint.

"Outdated and abusive practices can continue just because no one has ever questioned them," she said.  "It's really an important responsibility of citizens to hold folks accountable and question those practices they have issues with."

Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.