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Police Chief Takes Criticism, Questions From Council In Year-End Review

The list of the dead went out just after noon Wednesday.

It's a regular update sent to media outlets from the police department's public information office. It notes the name, age, date and general location of each criminal homicide recorded by Louisville Metro Police this calendar year.

This week's update is the last of 2016 and paints a remarkable picture of the violent crime that's plagued the city since January.

The 113 names stretch five pages. It's the longest list of criminal homicide victims ever compiled in Louisville's history. The surge in shootings and killings has troubled city leaders and police since the first body fell six days into 2016.

The deadliest day to-date came on Jan. 20, when Louisville Metro Police recorded four slayings. Each victim was younger than 35 years old. By mid-April, the homicide tally stretched to 30 with the death of Lavonte Swain. He was 2 years old.

Victims in eight of the 11 murders in May were less than 30 years old. Police recorded 17 killings in August, making it the year's deadliest month to-date.

October ended with the killing of two young men less than a mile apart. They were both in their twenties.

On the Thanksgiving holiday, a shooting erupted in Shawnee Park during an annual football tournament, leaving two people dead. The cases remain open; no arrests have been made.

Council Responds

These facts led to a dour and, at times, contentious Metro Council meeting Wednesday evening as police officials gave their year-end report to the public safety committee.

Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad fielded a barrage of questions from council members for more than two hours. More than a dozen uniformed members of the agency's administration sat behind him for the duration of the meeting.

"I think there is real value in regular communications," Conrad told reporters after the meeting. "We get a chance to provide them with the most recent numbers we have, the most recent updates we have."

Those numbers are grim and are headlined by the 113 criminal homicides and 491 recorded shootings Conrad reported to the council. Shortly after his presentation concluded, however, another shooting sent a teen to the hospital, according to reports from The Courier-Journal.

Council members took the opportunity to pepper Conrad with a broad scope of questions ranging from the ideal size of the police force to the department's effort to monitor social media and the incentives being offered to prospective recruits.

In addition to questioning, Conrad faced tough criticism from some council members about claims of low officer morale and a recent agency reorganization that disbanded division level flex platoons.

"You've taken the resources out of my community and I'm just not happy about that," said Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton, a District 5 Democrat, who has been critical of the reorganization since it was enacted in early November.

Councilwoman Julie Denton, a District 19 Republican, laid into Conrad about what she characterized as his lack of support for officers on the street.

Denton, vice chair of the public safety committee, said her husband is a retired police officer and former head of the local police foundation and added that she "sees a lot of police officers on a fairly regular basis and Facebook them and know them personally."

"And morale is horrible," she said. "You need to accept that that is the reality."

Conrad told reporters his biggest takeaway from the committee hearing is the need for him to spend more time in police divisions meeting with officers.

Meanwhile, the local police union held a vote this week to gauge officer confidence in department leadership and more than 98 percent of the 600 members who voted said they do not have confidence in Conrad, according to a post on the union's Facebook page.

Councilman David James, a District 6 Democrat and chair of the public safety committee, said updates from Conrad are needed throughout the year, not only when homicide tallies surge.

"It's something we need to pay attention to constantly," he said.

James said his biggest takeaway from Wednesday's meeting is the need for more police officers. His biggest disappointment came when Conrad was asked to put a number on how many gangs are in Louisville -- to which he responded "as many as 30."

James, a former police officer and head of the local police union, said the public deserves more elaboration and specificity. He said gangs and drugs are a key driver in rising rates of violent crime and murder.

"We need to focus on those two particular issues if we're going to drive down numbers," he said.

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.