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Metro Council promises oversight ahead of police contract vote

 Two Louisville Metro Police Department cruisers are parked under an overpass in Louisville.
J. Tyler Franklin
Louisville Public Media
Two Louisville Metro Police Department cruisers are parked under an overpass in Louisville.

Louisville Metro Council will vote Thursday night on whether to approve a new union contract for police department leadership that includes pay raises and a handful of accountability reforms.

While some activists and community leaders have said the reforms included in the new collective bargaining agreement for police lieutenants and captains are inadequate, a bi-partisan group of Metro Council members unanimously approved the contract at a committee meeting last week. A number of those in attendance, including Metro Council President David James, argued the problems within the Louisville Metro Police Department are a result of bad leadership in the past, not union contracts.

“It was just announced that we’re paying $3.65 million because children were molested by a small group of bad police officers,” James said. “I just want people to know that there are provisions available for people to be fired when they need to be fired. The issue isn’t the contract in that regard, the issue is piss-poor leadership.”

Mayor Greg Fischer and the River City Fraternal Order of Police announced they reached a deal on new contracts in August. Both parties praised what they say is the largest one-time raise for LMPD employees in the department's history. The proposed contract would guarantee raises every two years and increase the starting salary for a lieutenant from $98,000 to $123,100 by 2023.

The tentative agreement also includes a set of new reforms, such as making previous findings of bias, untruthfulness and excessive use of force part of an officer’s permanent record, and mandatory drug testing after a critical incident, like a shooting or serious car accident. If an officer refuses, they can be fired. Other reforms are expected to come down from the U.S. Department of Justice, which is currently investigating whether LMPD has a pattern or practice of biased policing.

Rank-and-file police officers voted to reject their negotiated contract in September. But LMPD lieutenants and captains, who negotiate a separate contract, voted overwhelmingly to approve theirs. 

District 9 Metro Council Member Bill Hollander said last week he is skeptical of moving one contract forward while the other is still being re-negotiated, echoing similar concerns raised by activists. 

“I don’t know what will end up in the officers’ contract, it may have different disciplinary procedures, it may have different wages,” he said. “We’re being asked here to approve one contract while the whole other contract for subordinates is being negotiated.”

Hollander also questioned why provisions in the proposed contract allow the chief of police to issue an unpaid suspension during an investigation “only under extraordinary circumstances.” The proposed agreement also limits unpaid suspensions to 30 work days or less.

“This is what members of the public see and they ask, ‘How does this happen? How is this required?’” he said. “Business people say to me, ‘I wouldn’t run my business like this.’”

District 3 Council Member Keisha Dorsey, a Democrat, ended last week’s meeting by saying Metro Council plans to hold LMPD accountable to reforming.

“As Councilman Hollander said: You pay for what you get,” Dorsey said. “So what this council, this community is saying today is we are willing to pay for it, but we are going to hold you accountable every step of the way.”

Police union hopes for final approval, activists want to send it back

Following last week’s committee meeting, FOP President Ryan Nichols told WFPL News that he was happy to see Metro Council members “fully support” the new contract for lieutenants and captains.

“We were very appreciative of the council members that have recognized the need for the city to take these steps to allow us to retain future leaders of our department, and men and women who are in key leadership roles,” he said.

Nichols said the proposed contract, as well as the other one currently being negotiated for rank-and-file officers, could help LMPD relieve a shortage of nearly 300 sworn officers.

But activists with The 490 Project, a grassroots group that’s been following the contract negotiations, are continuing to push the council to vote down the contract. 

The group’s members attended the committee meeting holding signs that read “Vote no” and “Send it back.” If Metro Council does not approve the agreement at its meeting on Thursday, Louisville and the police union would have to go back to the negotiating table.

The 490 Project has criticized many of the reforms in the proposed union contract, including a vague clause that would allow LMPD officers and command-level staff to volunteer for “an organization in the community they serve” during their normal shift.

The group has also demanded stricter changes to the way LMPD operates. They’ve asked for supervisors’ notes about an officer’s performance and conduct to be part of their permanent personnel file and the removal of a “no layoffs” clause from the contract.

Activists have received support from community leaders like Sadiqa Reynolds, CEO of the Louisville Urban League. At a September public hearing on the contract, Reynolds stood alongside organizers asking for the contract to be sent back.

“No one has asked you for anything that is outside of the realm of possibility,” Reynolds said to Metro Council. “If we want to be the city that we’re supposed to be, if we are really about possibilities, then we need to lead the country in reform.”

While council members have vowed to hold LMPD accountable, many activists say they don’t trust representatives to follow through. Nancy Cavalcante, a member of the 490 Project, said the council hasn’t demonstrated an ability to perform real oversight.

“In that past they’ve called [Chief Erika Shields] in or other chiefs to say, ‘Well why did this incident happen,’ but they don’t do anything about that. It’s usually just brushed aside,” she said. “I think they see a lack of power and don’t realize the power they have in voting no.”

Activists say they are planning to show up to Thursday’s meeting to ask Metro Council to vote down the union contract. They are also demanding Fischer open up the ongoing negotiations over the collective bargaining agreement for rank-and-file officers to public scrutiny and outside observers.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.

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