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Despite pushback, Metro Council approves new contract for police leadership

J. Tyler Franklin

In its third-to-last meeting of 2021, the Louisville Metro Council acted on a number of contested measures. 

On Thursday night, members passed cuts to Mayor Greg Fischer’s spending plan for much of the city’s federal relief funds, authorized redrawn political boundaries and approved a new union contract for high-ranking police.

They also unanimously voted to support Fischer’s appointment of Ed Harness as the city’s first inspector general for police oversight. He will answer to the civilian review board, which investigates complaints against police officers.

One police union contract approved

Eighteen of 26 Metro Council members voted in favor of the collective bargaining agreement for Louisville Metro Police Department lieutenants and captains. 

The contract outlines pay raises and some reforms including cementing findings of bias, untruthfulness and use of excessive force into an officer’s permanent record. It also requires 40 hours of internal policy training for special investigators looking into issues such as shootings by officers.

Mayor Greg Fischer thanked council members for passing the contract, saying in a tweet that it will “help us retain and attract the best and brightest police force.”

The River City Fraternal Order of Police and Fischer previously touted the proposed contracts for both police leadership and rank-and-file officers for having the largest one-time employee pay increases in LMPD history. While lieutenants and captains accepted their contract, officers and sergeants — who operate under a separate agreement — rejected theirs. 

The FOP also praised council members’ support of the contract, and said in a statement the agreement is crucial to ensuring LMPD’s retention of adequate leadership. 

“Our work is not done,” it said. “The goal now is to work diligently to negotiate a contract that is acceptable to our officers and sergeants.”

Taylor U’Sellis, an organizer with the grassroots 490 Project, hoped the council would send the contract back for more work.

The group has criticized the union contract for including a clause that will allow some LMPD staff to volunteer for organizations within their own communities during work hours. U’Sellis suggested that vague language could lead to problems.

“I think the intention behind that was to encourage officers to get to know their community,” U’Sellis said. “It does not specify where they can volunteer, so they could literally volunteer with the KKK and that would fulfill that requirement.”

Advocates have raised concerns since the contract was announced in August. They said it lacks meaningful reforms — like one provision that permits the erasure of civilian or informal complaints from officers’ records after two years.

Ahead of Thursday’s vote, council members met with LMPD Chief Erika Shields to discuss the contract. District 8 Council Member Cassie Chambers Armstrong, a Democrat, said destroying complaints impedes transparency and accountability.

“If we are truly interested in intervening, supporting, training officers and providing them with resources, we would always want more information around what has happened — informal complaints, training history — just to give us a complete picture,” Chambers Armstrong said. “What would the policy reasons be for destroying those after two years?”

Shields said formalizing every complaint received could create a backlog for department leaders and potentially weed out solid police officers over inconsequential errors. 

“The idea is you’re allowed to be human and you're allowed to make a mistake. And you're not going to have hanging over your head for your entire career, a courtesy complaint that never was a formal complaint,” Shields said. 

Chambers Armstrong said even relatively small complaints could help illustrate officers’ patterns of behavior and prevent serious incidents like police shootings. She voted against the contract’s approval, saying it could get in the way of expected reforms from the U.S. Department of Justice, which is still investigating whether the department has a pattern or practice of biased policing.

Advocates with the 490 Project said they were disappointed by the vote. Those who attended the meeting in person left the gallery chanting “Shame on you”. While some council members have stipulated their support with promises of increased oversight and accountability, U’Sellis said she doesn’t trust they’ll follow through.

“Metro Council specifically had a lot of power to make a change and did not do it,” U’Sellis said. “When their elections come up again, we’ll remember ‘Okay, these people were not in support of the changes that we wanted to see in LMPD.’”

Relief funding, redistricting and more

Metro Council members approved about $80 million in cuts to Mayor Fischer’s spending plan for federal COVID-19 relief dollars. The move allocates money from the Louisville’s pot of American Rescue Plan funds to address community needs including affordable housing, initiatives to support unsheltered residents and to ensure sufficient funding for pending public health and workforce development proposals. The vote was unanimous.

In a 19-7 vote, the body also approved new Metro Council districts that shift existing lines. The changes follow the release of new United States Census data this year that showed an eastward shift in the city’s population. Districts that lost residents had to expand into neighboring areas — and those that grew over the last decade had to be redrawn smaller. By law, each political district must have a similar number of residents. 

Democratic Council Member Brent Ackerson of District 26 responded to residents concerned about their neighborhoods being split in the process

“This whole idea of a neighborhood has to be in one particular district, to me, doesn’t make any sense,” Ackerson said. “All we're doing there is segregating. Are you in District 1? Are you District 26? Are you in District 5? The reality is this is all one Louisville.”

Council also passed an ordinance that aims to codify the process for assessing Louisville’s unsheltered encampments before evicting those who live in them. The vote followed a lengthy debate over requiring a shorter response time to complaints about camps. 

District 4 Council Member Jecorey Arthur, a Democrat, cosponsored the measure. He criticized some council members’ comments as inappropriate for portraying unsheltered people as inherently dangerous.

“We're talking about people who do not have housing, and they are not all the same. Some of them are struggling with mental illness — some of them are not,” Arthur said. “We cannot assume what someone is going through just because they are poor, the poorest and they are living outside.”

The measure stemmed from public concerns about a lack of transparency and oversight of the city’s existing protocols around clearing encampments. It designates specific agencies as responsibile for conducting risk assessments and relocating residents. And it outlines specific criteria for making those considerations.

The ordinance also tasks the city’s Office of Resilience and Community Services with submitting an annual report based on data collected during the risk assessments. Metro Council will use that to review the assessment process in an effort to see how well it’s working.  

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