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2016 Brought More Crime But Fewer Arrests In Louisville

Blue light atop a law enforcement vehicle
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Nearly 200 pedestrians have been struck and killed by drivers along Louisville's roadways since 2014.

Surging crime in 2016 did not lead to more arrests from Louisville Metro Police officers.

In fact, data reported by the city's police department through November show the year will likely conclude with the fewest number of arrests since 2013. Amid that drop, crime reports have steadily increased year over year, according to the data.

The police department makes adult arrest data available on its website. From January to November of last year, officers arrested just more than 24,600 people. That's about 20 percent fewer arrests compared with 2013, the data show. And each year in between yielded fewer arrests than the one prior.

At the same time, according to crime data from the city's open data portal, from January to the end of October of 2016, there were more than 65,390 individual criminal incidents in the city. That's up about 7 percent from 2013. And the totals have increased steadily year over year, the data show.

It's not entirely clear why officers are making fewer arrests in Louisville. A spokesman for the mayor's office deferred questions to the police department.

An emailed statement from the department's public information office noted "there could be a myriad of factors contributing to this issue."

"A true analysis should be comprehensive and include a larger dataset. Any other commentary at this point would be limited to speculation," the statement read.

Examining the 'Ferguson Effect'

Surging crime has been a focal point in Louisville. Last year brought a record high number of homicides and a stark increase in shootings.

City leaders responded by boosting the police agency's budget for more officer overtime and equipment. But that effort came too late, according to the head of the city's police union.

Sgt. David Mutchler, president of the River City Fraternal Order of Police, said numerous factors contribute to the steady decline in arrests, including that there are simply too few officers to keep up with increases in crime.

Mutchler said many police officers here also consider the judicial system "a dismal failure."

"They think that sometimes arresting people is not going to have any effect at all, and the judicial system is going to let us and the public down and put them back on the street," he said. "What's the point?"

Local jails in Louisville and across the state are at or beyond capacity, leading some charged with crimes to be released, Mutchler said.

But beyond such longstanding issues, the FOP leader said recent societal shifts in thinking are discouraging aggressive policing and can leave officers worried about the fallout from a conduct review.

Mutchler pointed to the so-called "Ferguson Effect," a term used to describe the idea that proactive policing declined in the wake of the highly publicized and criticized fatal police shooting of Missouri teenager Michael Brown in 2014. He said officers are always aware that their actions can be tried in the public and media, and that can discourage arrests or confrontations.

"I think that's always going to be in the back of a police officer's mind when they're doing their job," he said.

Justin Nix, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Louisville, co-authored a study published last year by the American Psychological Association that examines the Ferguson Effect.

He said in an email that the drop in arrests locally is "suggestive of a Ferguson Effect, but it’s hard to say."

Police officers are also realizing the regularity with which their actions may be recorded, and this can lead to hesitation, said Eugene O'Donnell, a professor of law and police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

"(It's) much easier to ignore or to not solve crime than to go out to pull a killer out of bed at 4 a.m. and be in an officer-involved shooting that leads the 6 o'clock news and will undoubtedly be racialized or at least sensationalized in social and traditional media,"  said O'Donnell, who is also a former officer on the New York Police Department and a former prosecutor.

"Policing has been irreparably damaged," he said.

Louisville Metro Councilman David James, a former police officer and chair of the council's public safety committee, sees a simpler cause for the drop in arrests.

"It's all about leadership," he said.

James pointed to a recent vote held by the police union in which some 600 voting members overwhelmingly expressed a lack of confidence in Louisville Metro Police Department Chief Steve Conrad.

James agreed with Mutchler, the union head, that the police department needs more officers and struggles with retention. But he seems more concerned with fading morale among police officers.

"Morale is horrible at the police department," James said.

Solving that, he said, is the job of Conrad and Mayor Fischer, both of whom James considers "disconnected" from officers working on the city's streets.

"That leads to a lot of frustration," 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.