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Investigator: No Cover-Up In LMPD Explorer Sex Abuse Investigation

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A special investigator found that misconduct in the Louisville Metro Police Department Youth Explorer program was “disturbing and unacceptable,” but said he found no evidence of a cover-up of sexual abuse accusations.

The special report was released Wednesday by Kerry Harvey of the law firm Dickinson Wright. Harvey determined after a 15-month investigation that police made mistakes while investigating allegations that the program’s supervisors sexually assaulted participants.

But there was no effort by police commanders to “cover up” the allegations, according to Harvey’s report.

“While we do not believe that there was, as some have asserted, a massive cover up of misconduct in the senior ranks of the LMPD, there are lessons to be learned from this episode,” Harvey wrote.

The police department’s Explorer program for young people interested in law enforcement careers was suspended last March after a former participant filed a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by officers leading the program. More alleged victims came forward, and at least six lawsuits are now pending in U.S. District Court.

Mayor Greg Fischer said in an emailed statement that he is “deeply angry about the disturbing allegations” outlined in the report.

“It is also clear that mistakes were made and must be addressed,” Fischer said.

The council met in executive session for more than two hours to review redactions before the report’s release. Council leaders offered little reaction to the report Wednesday evening.

Council president David James said he’d not read the report.

“I don’t know the validity of the report and what was investigated and what wasn’t investigated and who was spoke to and who wasn’t,” he said.

Councilwoman Jessica Green, chair of the council’s public safety committee, said she has scheduled a public hearing to discuss the report in greater detail. Harvey will attend that hearing to review the report with committee members.

“I anticipate that we will probably not get through everything...but it will be a start,” she said. “We wanted to release the document as soon as we received it.”

Green said it was “shameful it took us so long to get to this point.”

'Better choices could have been made'

Former officer Kenneth Betts, who resigned in 2014, was charged last year with two counts of sodomy. Brandon Wood was charged with seven counts of sexual abuse and fired from the LMPD last year.

Harvey’s investigation cost $140,000, and included interviews with more than 40 individuals, including Fischer and his chief of staff, Ellen Hesen; police chief Steve Conrad; and other police commanders. Betts and Wood did not cooperate. Neither did the active-duty police officers Harvey sought to interview: the Fraternal Order of Police filed suit to prevent the interviews, and Harvey’s team withdrew the requests.

The report noted that the investigation was hampered by a lack of subpoena power, a parallel investigation by the FBI and no access to any of the evidence seized by LMPD via search warrants in the investigation.

“There was other information that would have perhaps further informed our conclusions that simply was not available to us, and could change our conclusions, but that is true in any investigation,” Harvey said Wednesday at the meeting.

Harvey, who is a former U.S. Attorney for the eastern district of Kentucky, concluded that LMPD's 2013 probe was deficient, and that “better choices could have been made.”

“Mistakes and errors in judgment are qualitatively distinct from a criminal coverup,” the report said.

At the time, police investigators with the department’s Public Integrity Unit failed to record an interview with the alleged victim and conducted the interview in the presence of her parents. Harvey said that interview should have been in private.

Public Integrity Unit investigators also failed to formally open a case for the examination, despite such practices being “standard procedure,” Harvey found. That’s done in part to avoid making “quickly disproven” allegations available through an open records request, according to the report.

The investigators also failed to examine an alleged victim’s phone.

Had that phone been examined, investigators would have seen “nude self-photographs and sexually explicit text conversations” and then should have determined the identity of the recipient of those messages, Harvey found.

“Because of her age, texting nude photographs of herself was a distribution of child pornography, and the recipient possessed child pornography,” the report states. “These are potential criminal violations.”

Further, Harvey found those nude images were ultimately destroyed by LMPD -- a move he determined to be a mistake. The sergeant told investigators he was worried the pictures would get released, or the teenager’s parents would learn they exist. His major decided to destroy it.

Harvey said the phone, or copies of the images, should have been placed in evidence storage.

Police investigators also failed to interview additional Explorer participants, despite evidence Betts had attempted to engage in sexual activity with numerous participants.

The lead investigator of the probe, Major Curtis Flaherty, a former commander of the Explorer program, should have recused himself due to “his long-standing relationship” with the program and the accused officer, Harvey said in the report.

Following that 2013 investigation, former police commander Ozzie Gibson recommended to Chief Conrad that Betts be fired. Conrad, however, allowed Betts to resign several months later to keep his health insurance, according to Harvey’s report. The case was closed “by exception.”

Harvey and his team also dispelled what they considered “false rumors” about the Explorer program. For instance, he found no evidence that Betts and Wood “acted together in furtherance of their alleged sexual misconduct.”

“The facts indicate that Betts and Wood do not like each other,” according to the report.

He also determined that Chief Conrad did not prematurely end the 2013 investigation by the department’s Professional Standards Unit of Betts. And Fischer’s office did not interfere with the ongoing investigation, according to the report.

Police in 2016 opened an additional investigation into the allegations involving the Explorer program, after allegations against Wood surfaced. That investigation is currently ongoing and involves the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney and the United States Attorney for the western district of Kentucky.

Recommendations: Clearer Boundaries, Better Policies

Harvey’s report also includes eight recommendations that he said would strengthen safeguards for future Explorer participants.

Among them:

The police department’s special investigation units should adopt rigorous policies to guide conflicts of interest. The department's current policy, which was adopted in August 2017, fails to establish a “sufficient process to insure compliance,” Harvey said.

Advisors to the Explorer program should be required to be no younger than 30 years old and assigned, he said, and selected by police department command staff instead of volunteering. Its leaders should be rotated out of the program on a regular basis. In the past, advisors could volunteer for the position.

“While the overwhelming majority of Explorer advisors undoubtedly volunteer for the right reasons and render admirable service, allegations of sexual abuse across the country indicate that there are those who participate in order to be close to young people for their own nefarious purposes,” Harvey wrote.

Further, the chief advisor to the Explorer program should be a senior police officer, according to Harvey.

Parents should be encouraged to participate, and and no one older than 18 would join. Ride-alongs should be eliminated altogether to avoid inappropriate conduct and “the possibility of false accusations.”

Doing so, Harvey determined, “draws a bright line” between the program and social relationships.

Read the investigation here.

 This story will be updated.

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.

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