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Gangs Are Behind Louisville’s Growing Homicides, Study Says

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A 17-year-old has been charged as an adult for attempted murder after police say he fired shots at Clarksville Police Chief Mark Palmer's home in September.

As Louisville's homicide count continues to rise, a new study says gang violence is mostly to blame.

The study, by right-leaning Louisville-based think-tank Pegasus Institute, was released Wednesday. It compares rates of homicide and violent crime between cities similar to Louisville's size and population.

Josh Crawford, the co-executive director for the Pegasus Institute, said Louisville’s homicide rates defy the national trend.

"Even as two-thirds of major American cities have had homicide spikes, Louisville's is much worse than most of them," Crawford said. "And it's relatively unique in that it's been a two-year spike. Some cities have had one-year spikes, but for the spike to be as large as it has been, and for the spike to have occurred year after year is relatively unique to Louisville."

Citing police department sources, the study says 84 percent of LMPD homicide cases last year were gang-related and often not motivated by drugs. According to police data, LMPD disrupted drug trafficking between 2015 and 2016 without much change to homicide rates.

Similar data were found in Nashville, Tennessee. Efforts by city leaders there weakened drug trades in 2010, but that did not change violent crime rates there.

Crawford acknowledges that police have their hands full with the heroin epidemic and other problems, but he said they should crack down on gang activity.

“While we certainly have a drug problem, we’re absolutely in the midst of an opioid crisis, simply trying to address the illicit drug market through law-enforcement efforts is not going to address the problem — the violence — the way we need it to in the city,” he said.

Gang violence is suspected in one of two shootings at Waterfront Park on Monday. LMPD Chief Steve Conrad said the victim of the first shooting, who later died of injuries, may have been connected to a gang.

“We do not believe last night’s homicide was a random act," Conrad said during a news briefing Tuesday. "We believe that the victim of that shooting had a connection to a gang, and we are considering this to be a gang-involved homicide. At this point, we have yet to prove anything. But we do believe the homicide was gang-involved.”

During Tuesday's news briefing, police said because the public doesn't come forward with information, it makes pursuing these cases difficult.

The number of homicides in Louisville this year could outpace last year's 117 homicide investigations, a record for the city.

So far this year, Louisville police are investigating 52 homicide cases.

The Pegasus Institute is recommending the Louisville Initiative for Violence Eradication, or LIVE, crime-deterring policies and procedures based on other states' initiatives.

The initiative recommends focused policing on individuals and groups, tearing down abandoned buildings and improving lighting in troubled areas across Louisville. LIVE also recommends officials work to pass “gang enhancement” laws, which essentially bring harsher punishments to gang members and affiliates.

Crawford, with the Pegasus Institute, hopes the study helps shift conversation on deterring homicide from addressing drugs, to gang violence. He said he's hopeful the data spurs legislation which would address gangs in Kentucky.

“We have had a number of conversations with Metro police officers, but we plan to work with Metro government, the Metro Council, LMPD and some state legislators to get the LIVE program enacted,” Crawford said.

LMPD spokesman Dwight Mitchell said the department is in the process of starting focused deterrence strategies. As to LIVE's other strategies, Mitchell said the department has similar resources. He said they've also testified in support of gang enhancement laws before, pointing to a measure that failed the most recent session of the Kentucky General Assembly.

"The bill would have changed the statutory definition for gangs and gang members and would allow enhanced sentences for those involved in gang activity," Mitchell said in a statement.

Councilwoman Angela Leet, a District 7 Republican, endorsed the LIVE initiative Wednesday, and urged Mayor Greg Fischer and the LMPD to endorse the think-tank’s proposals as well.

“We know what we are doing now isn’t working, and the failed approach has been to move resources around with no clear strategy," Leet said in a statement. "The Pegasus Institute’s proposed initiative is backed by extensive research and data, thorough analysis, and proven solutions."

Leet said she worked with the group for months and was impressed by their approach.

Kentucky’s next regular legislative session, where LIVE’s initiatives could be discussed, begins in January 2018.

This story has been updated to include the study's sourcing of information on how police categorize homicides. 

Kyeland Jackson is an Associate Producer for WFPL News.

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