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Louisville Civilian Review Board Subpoena Bill Stalls In Legislature

Police in riot gear arrive in downtown Louisville after militia-style counter-protesters leave, while Black Lives Matter protesters remain.
Police in riot gear arrive in downtown Louisville after militia-style counter-protesters leave, while Black Lives Matter protesters remain.

Kentucky lawmakers did not act to formalize an arrangement between Louisville’s new civilian police oversight board and the city’s Metro Council for issuing subpoenas before the legislative session ended.

With the session ending Tuesday at midnight, and a spate of other bills to work through, House Bill 309 was left to wither after being sent back to committee. 

The civilian review board is responsible for investigating the Louisville Metro Police Department. The city has repeatedly created such boards after police killings of Black people but, so far, none have had subpoena power.

Mayor Greg Fischer, who proposed the board last summer following outrage over the police killing of Breonna Taylor, issued a statement saying he was “sorely disappointed” the legislature would conclude without passing the bill.

“House Bill 309 initially was a potential avenue to build transparency and reimagine public safety, but it was almost immediately sabotaged with partisan politics that had nothing to do with public safety,” he said in the statement.

The measure would have addressed the civilian review board’s subpoena power, but it would have also affected other aspects of governance in Louisville. 

It proposed limiting Louisville’s mayors to two terms, rather than the current three, and amending rules related to small cities annexing parts of Louisville Metro. And a previous version proposed making Louisville’s mayoral race nonpartisan, a measure seen by some as an attempt for Republicans to gain power in the heavily Democratic city.

Louisville Metro Council member Bill Hollander, a Democrat representing District 9, said he was not surprised the bill stalled. But he hopes state legislators will reconsider in the future.

“I’m disappointed that the civilian review system is not being given the subpoena power that the community has been asking for,” he said. “But I’m confident that the civilian review system will be effective without that subpoena power. I’m looking forward to hiring an inspector general and moving forward with much-needed civilian oversight of LMPD.”

Council members can issue subpoenas through the Government Oversight and Audit Committee, but without authorization from Kentucky lawmakers, Louisville’s independent police review board cannot do the same on its own.

Hollander said city officials who created Louisville’s review board looked at how other cities with similar boards, like Atlanta, defined their powers. They found Atlanta’s board rarely uses subpoenas. Instead, it relies on provisions that already exist in the Louisville ordinance, through the Office of Inspector General, which was created along with the civilian review board, Hollander said.

But should Louisville’s board need to take such action, it could do so by going through the council.

One version of the bill would have had the Government Oversight and Accountability Committee issue subpoenas on behalf of the review board and turn over the findings. 

“To the extent that subpoenas are needed, the Government Oversight and Accountability committee can exercise its subpoena power,” Hollander said. “That’s still there. The bill that was moving through Frankfort didn’t give us anything more than that.”

Hollander wants state lawmakers to reconsider, and grant subpoena power to the review board and Office of Inspector General in the future.

“But I don’t think that it’s correct to say that the civilian oversight system is toothless,” he said.

The council approved all 11 nominees to the civilian review board last week.

Another measure, Senate Bill 247, would have allowed the board to issue subpoenas with the approval of a local judge. It passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in early March, but was later recommitted there and did not advance.

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

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