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Retiring Louisville Police Chief Faces Council Questions On Protest Response

Interim Chief Schroeder speaks to media after two police officers were wounded on Sept. 24, 2020.
Interim Chief Schroeder speaks to media after two police officers were wounded on Sept. 24, 2020.

In about four hours of open testimony to the Metro Council's government oversight committee, outgoing Interim Louisville Police Chief Robert Schroeder painted a picture of stress and confusion that marked his brief tenure at the top of the department.

Schroeder, who has avoided speaking publicly to council under oath since early August, conceded Monday after an appeals court denial earlier in the day. Last week, a circuit court judge ruled he could have been held in contempt if he did not testify by Monday. He is set to retire Thursday.

Committee members say they intend to focus future investigative efforts on the shooting deaths of Breonna Taylor, killed by police, and David McAtee, killed by members of the National Guard. For now, the committee is focusing on the official response to protests following the deaths of Taylor and McAtee. After Schroeder retires, it is unlikely he will return since committee subpoenas may only apply to active city employees.

Schroeder is a defendant in a federal civil rights lawsuit that alleges LMPD used excessive force against protesters.

During his testimony Monday, Schroeder acknowledged that the Louisville Metro Police Department's response to protests could have been better at times. He took over the top position on June 1, after Mayor Greg Fischer fired then-Police Chief Steve Conrad because officers involved in the operation that led to McAtee's death did not use their body cameras.

"Our response was not always perfect. We are not perfect people," Schroeder told council members. "What you also saw was that we responded in a manner that was the best we could reasonably do under the unprecedented circumstances that we face, combined with our limited staffing resources."

Protests in Louisville started on May 28. The next night, some protesters set fires and broke windows downtown.

Schroeder called May 29 — three days before he would become interim chief, though he did not know so at the time — "a bad day."

He described that time as a "blur," marked by lack of sleep and high levels of activity in the city. Protesters were using a tactic of going to different locations and drawing different parts of the police force after them, he said.

"We were simply overwhelmed," Schroeder said.

He said he remembers that day as the worst in his more than two decades service as a Louisville police officer.

"We had just lost the city," Schroeder said. "And it was a crushing day for me."

Relationship With The Administration

Schroeder also said he felt micromanaged by Fischer and his staff. He said earlier this month, Fischer asked him if rumors that LMPD had "doctored" a video of protesters overturning tables on Fourth Street were true. Schroeder said that was not the case.

"He replied to me that he was having difficulty trusting the police at that point," Schroeder said.

He addressed a June 16 meeting during which city and police leadership discussed what public safety chief Amy Hess described during her testimony this month as miscommunication and confusion. Schroeder said officers did not know if questions from administration members were to be interpreted as orders.

That was "creating a lot of confusion, and a lot of chaos," he said. The meeting helped clarify some things, but questions remained.

Schroeder said some issues are under the purview of the police department, even individual officers. But some issues "are bigger than that."

As an example, he brought up the late June decision to tear down protesters' tents at Jefferson Square Park — known as Injustice Square to some — which was cleared after the fatal shooting of Tyler Gerth there. Authorities removed personal belongings and dumped them at the city's bulk waste drop-off center. Officials including Fischer later apologized for how that property was treated.

Schroeder said the police would have "loved" to take action on the tents occupying the park, but believed it was bigger than the police department so it was something that "needs to be part of a broader city conversation."

After A Lull, Protests Revived

As the weeks went on, downtown protesters still gathered at the square, though there were often fewer of them and marches were smaller.

Then came the announcement by a grand jury that had considered evidence from Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron's office. They indicted one former officer, Brett Hankison, for shooting bullets into an apartment adjacent to Breonna Taylor's. No officers were indicted related to her killing on March 13.

The police department started preparing for protests days before the announcement, despite Schroeder saying he didn't know what that announcement would be. Fischer instituted a curfew, which expired Monday morning.

In the five days since the announcement, protest activity picked up, with participation reaching numbers not seen for months. An individual now in custody shot two police officers. Protesters sought refuge in a church to avoid arrest for breaking curfew. And State Rep. Attica Scott was arrested on felony riot charges for allegedly being in a group of individuals who caused damage to the main library, an accusation she denies.

Schroeder said he had not seen video Scott livestreamed leading up to her arrest, that appears to show her walking and not engaging in any illegal activity. He deferred to the Jefferson County Attorney's office regarding the "appropriateness of any charges and prosecution of any charges." And he said that office would review body camera footage from officers on the scene.

Pressed again to answer how LMPD separates "protesters from agitators," Schroeder said an individual does not need to take specific action to be charged with riot. That requires an individual to be in a group with individuals doing unlawful acts, he said.

"I would say you would certainly, in general terms, need to be in very close proximity to what is happening," he said, though he did not specify what distance that would be.

Looking Ahead

When Schroeder retires on Thursday, Yvette Gentry will step into the role of interim police chief.

In the final minutes of his testimony, Schroeder offered his insight into issues facing the force.

He asked for understanding that officers are going through a difficult time, following an incident that's garnered national attention and a top-to-bottom review of the department ordered by Fischer.

Schroeder also described his concern that a perceived shift in public opinion was affecting officers, who he said were until recently believed to be heroes in the community.

"They're still heroes, but they're not perceived oftentimes in the community as heroes these days, so much that a TV show like 'PAW Patrol' was taken off the air," Schroeder said, repeating a false claim by White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. "And that has had a tremendous effect on the psyche of the police officers, on the morale of the police officers."

As for the department itself, Schroeder referred to what he called a "slow creep" of a lack of accountability.

"Over the years, the sort of things that we would be accountable for have sort of slipped," he said.

For example, before the city and county governments and police departments merged to become the Louisville Metro Police Department, officers would fill out routine forms even if they felt irrelevant to them.

"It's something that will not be fixed overnight but it is something that we need to push back in the direction," Schroeder said.

He encouraged Gentry and the future permanent chief, who city officials hope to select by the end of the year, to work on that issue.

Amina Elahi is LPM's City Editor. Email Amina at aelahi@lpm.org.

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