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Amid Call For Outside Investigation Of Police Shooting, Broken Trust

A group of local activists is discrediting the ongoing investigation of a fatal police shooting that occurred in August of last year.

At a news conference Tuesday morning, about a dozen members of Showing Up For Racial Justice said they have little faith the police department will conduct a thorough, honest and transparent investigation into the August 2016 shooting that left 57-year-old Darnell Wicker dead. Two officers who shot Wicker remain on administrative leave.

"It is practically impossible for a police department to investigate its own member," said Bill Allison, a former member of the old city of Louisville's now disbanded Board of Alderman.

"This case begs for an independent investigation," he said.

This week's plea for an independent investigation is not the first time the group has made such a request. They sent a letter to Commonwealth's Attorney Tom Wine in the latter part of 2016 asking the same, according to a report from The Courier-Journal.

"Here we are, still waiting for an independent panel to be put in place," said Carla Wallace, who organized Tuesday's rally on the steps of the Douglass Boulevard Christian Church in the Highlands-Douglass neighborhood.

The request for an independent investigation comes as police departments across the country face intense scrutiny for the use of deadly force.

The Department of Justice earlier this month released a scathing review of accountability measures within the Chicago Police Department, noting how investigations into police shootings can come with cursory questioning "aimed at eliciting favorable statements justifying the officer's actions rather than seeking truth."

And the final report from the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing -- which Louisville Metro Police Department officials have praised and publicly adopted -- encourages "external and independent criminal investigations in cases of police use of force resulting in death."

Such investigations "will demonstrate the transparency to the public that can lead to mutual trust between community and law enforcement," the report states.

Low Confidence in Police Investigation

Despite these findings and recommendations, it's unclear if activists in Louisville will get what they want: the Commonwealth's Attorney to appoint a special panel to conduct an investigation separate from the police department's investigation.

A spokesman for the Commonwealth's Attorney said the office is reviewing the results of the police department's investigation. The office is presented with evidence gathered by the police department in the course of its own internal investigation, according to police procedure.

The Commonwealth's Attorney decides whether to pursue criminal charges against the officers involved, according to the procedure.

Wallace said "the problem" is depending on evidence gathered and presented by the police department.

"I have very little confidence that the police department investigating itself will come out with something we can trust," she said.

Justin Nix, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Louisville, said dismissing the police department's investigation prior to its public release can send a message "that the investigation that was conducted by LMPD is not to be trusted."

"Which is unfortunate," he said.

Nix pointed to an eroding willingness among residents to accept police investigations at face value. He said if an independent investigation is commissioned and its findings are at odds with the results of the police investigation "it could really impact public trust."

Police officers in Louisville have shot 26 people since 2011, department data show. Of those shootings, nine are listed as fatal.

A police department spokesman said "there are multiple layers of an officer-involved shooting investigation, including both internal and external investigators and reviews to ensure a thorough, accountable investigation is conducted."

Councilman: 'Worth Entertaining' Outside Investigation

The shooting of Darnell Wicker is the only police shooting reported last year by Louisville Metro Police. The shooting occurred in the early morning hours in August, outside an apartment complex in southwest Louisville. The officers at the scene were responding to an emergency call for an alleged domestic violence situation.

Wicker was black, the officers who shot him are white.

Metro Councilman David James, a former police officer and chair of the council's public safety committee, said an independent review by an outside agency -- such as the Kentucky State Police or the state's Attorney General -- could be "worth entertaining."

"I'm not going to say that every police agency in every instance does the right thing when it comes to police-involved shootings," he said. "I don't think there's always enough veracity and scrutiny put upon the shooting."

In Louisville, officers are permitted to review body camera footage prior to making an official statement regarding a critical incident, according the department's standard operating procedure.

Chanelle Helm, an activist with the group Stand Up Louisville, praised Wallace's group for demanding the independent investigation. She said investigations of police, by police, demand a second, independent look.

"We have to be intentional in how we address our government or our law enforcement," she said. "Whatever our thoughts are, they have to be respected by law enforcement."

A spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky did not return multiple requests for comment on the request for an independent review. A spokesman for the mayor's office also did not respond to a request for comment.

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.