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Police solved a third of Louisville’s record homicides in 2021. They say ‘snitching’ could help clear the backlog

 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.

There are family members of more than 100 homicide victims across the city who are still waiting for justice in their loved ones’ cases, including AunDrea Anderson. 

Tragedy struck last year when she lost both her son and nephew to gun violence. Since then, she’s been on a mission to encourage community cooperation with police so that families like hers can get a sense of closure. 

“I know what the capability is for justice, I know there are people who are capable of trying to help us get it,” Anderson said. “It's in the hands of other people. I've told the detective before, I wish I had a position like he does to try to help people find the murderer of their loved ones.”

89.3 WFPL News Louisville · Police solved a third of Louisville’s 2021 homicides. They say ‘snitching’ could help

Louisville had a record-breaking number of criminal homicides in 2021. Police had only solved 64 of more than 180 killings by mid-December, according to the most recent available weekly homicide report. That’s a case clearance rate of around 35% — about half of the national average, according to FBI data from 2019. 

In 2020, there were 165 criminal homicides, according to the Louisville Metro Police Department’s open data crime reports. That was a record of its own.

LMPD blames the backlog of unsolved cases partly on a lack of assistance from community members. But residents and experts argue that several factors can affect whether or not people decide to share information with police: fear of retaliation, self-preservation and, what it really comes down to — trust.

A dwindling police force and shifted blame

Lt. Donny Burbrink, commander of LMPD's homicide unit, said last summer on the department’s podcast that several factors contribute to the low case clearance rate, including a rising number of homicides and a shrinking police force.

When he started overseeing the homicide unit in 2019, there were 31 detectives on staff, he said. Each of them was assigned to about four cases at a time. By the end of 2020, the unit was down to 22 detectives, but the murder rate kept climbing and their caseloads doubled. 

“If I pick up a homicide today, at the rate we’re [at] right now, in two weeks I will be picking up another homicide,” Burbrink said. “In between those two weeks, I still have to go out and help other detectives in my group. It’s just a nonstop thing.” 

Burbrink said, in addition to an overwhelming amount of work, people aren’t willing to help the police. He said calls to the department’s anonymous tip decreased significantly between 2020 and 2021. That was after the police killing of Breonna Taylor and protests for racial justice.

“2020 happened. And it started out with COVID and then we had the civil unrest,” Burbrink said. “During that time, our numbers skyrocketed and my personnel started to diminish.”

Following the killing of 16-year-old Tyree Smith at his school bus stop last September, LMPD Chief Erika Shields said a stigma against working with police has stalled the department’s ability to solve violent crimes. 

“This space that we’re operating in of not snitching and not cooperating with police when homicides occur has got to end,” Shields said at a press conference. “We’re better than this, and this isn’t the first time we’ve run into this.” 

In an interview last month, Mayor Greg Fischer acknowledged a detective shortage and overwhelming caseloads were influencing LMPD’s low homicide clearance rate. 

Still, he said residents have a role to play. 

“Some of the community is less prone to providing a tip and, behind almost every murder, somebody knows what took place, besides the shooter,” Fischer said. “I just continue to ask families in the community whose young adults or youth are involved with violent crime that we need their help, too.”

LMPD spokesperson Beth Ruoff said residents are the eyes and ears of a community, and their input is valuable.

“Residents see and hear things that an officer may not. Often, residents have the missing piece that our investigators need to solve a crime and bring justice to those harming others,” Ruoff wrote in an email. “Community trust and having residents working with officers is critical to realizing our shared goal of having safe neighborhoods.”

Participating and beyond

AunDrea Anderson’s son Darius and nephew LaTroy Hornbeak, both 22, were working security for a private party at the Unity Palace in Newburg last October when they were shot while trying to break up a fight outside the venue. They later died at the University of Louisville Hospital. 

While Anderson wanted to take time to mourn, she was also scared the media and police would portray these two young Black men as deserving to die. She arranged a press conference a few days after their deaths to get ahead of that narrative.

“They were good boys, they were working and, from what I’m getting, those bullets were not for them,” Anderson said. 

Progress in her son and nephew’s case has been slow, and Anderson said she thinks that’s because people with information that could help move the investigation forward aren’t willing to share it with police. 

In an effort to encourage cooperation, Anderson carries around a poster memorializing Darius and LaTroy to all her public appearances. 

“They worked together, they partied together. They loved their family together. And for them to have passed, doing the same thing together. It only meant that they were there for each other in death like they were in life,” Anderson said. 

The sign is plastered with photos of them at weddings and on family vacations — and an important message to community members:

“All we want is justice. It’s not snitching, it’s helping,” Anderson said.  

Krista Gwynn’s son, Christian, was killed in a 2019 shooting in Shawnee. She cooperated with detectives, worked to keep her son’s case in the news and encouraged others to share what they know with police. 

“You can't expect for an already tired police force to give you magic and grow beans out of nowhere. You have to give them the information,” Gwynn said. “I have been on every news station, me and my husband and my children … so there's no way the police can say we're not participating. We participate and beyond.”

Despite the family’s cooperation, detectives didn’t make any arrests for her son’s killing until spring of 2021. She said the first detective overseeing her son’s case dismissed witness statements.

“Someone came to us and told us that they knew who [the shooter] was. We took this person to the first detective, he took her statement and told us ‘Oh, that wasn't good enough,’” Gwynn said. “The second detective came to our case, looked at the evidence and said ‘You know what? This is good enough.’”

Gwynn said there was a period of limbo when she and her family didn’t get any updates about the investigation. She eventually found out the first detective quit the force, leaving her son’s case unattended. 

Last summer, Gwynn’s daughter Victoria and her friend, DaJuan Coward, were shot in Smoketown’s Ballard Park. The bullets injured Victoria, but killed Coward. 

“My daughter [identified] one of the six people that jumped out — she told the police who this person was and their response to my daughter was ‘Are you sure?’” Gwynn said. 

Police haven’t charged anyone for that shooting. Gwynn said, despite her family’s experience with LMPD, she still believes it’s important for people with information to speak up.

Bradley Campbell, a criminal justice professor and researcher at the University of Louisville, said police’s ability to keep families apprised of updates, changes and even lulls in an investigation can shape its trajectory.

“They can say, 'Here's what we're working on. And here's why nothing's progressed yet’...Keeping that kind of communication line open, and doing it in an empathetic and trauma-informed manner can really help folks process what happened,” Campbell said. “Procedural justice — where officers are required to kind of engage in a procedurally fair manner — essentially follows kind of the golden rule, right? Treat people how you want to be treated.”

The U.S. Department of Justice recommends police implement procedural justice to improve community relationships. 

The DOJ is currently investigating LMPD for potential civil rights violations. A third-party firm, Hillard Heintze, released an audit of LMPD last year. It concluded the law enforcement agency’s relationship with the Black community was “deeply strained,” and that the city doesn't have a plan in place to fix it.

“If the community doesn't trust [police], then they're not going to provide the needed information for officers to do their job more effectively,” Campbell said. “As long as there's transparent and clear communication with citizens, that usually improves perception as well.”

Trust is key

There are different reasons people hesitate to share crime-related information with police, according to Christopher 2X, an anti-violence activist and head of the nonprofit Game Changers. 

“Violent crime is an ugly, ugly deal. And some citizens, even though they might feel the right thing to do is to try to help with an investigation, just have too much fear and are not comfortable in that space,” 2X said. “Whether that retaliation fear is real or not, you know, it's a perception that sometimes becomes real for some people, simple as that.”

2X said one factor holding people back from engaging with police is trust — or lack thereof. He said while law enforcement should make an effort to get to know the communities they’re serving, he’s skeptical it’ll make much of a difference when it comes to cases where trust in police is completely eroded. 

“In communities of color… you've always had this struggle of some feeling that they will never be in any kind of partnership with law enforcement because of a history over time with them, and not a pleasant and meaningful way in their interactions with law enforcement,” 2X said.

Community trust in law enforcement has declined, with fewer Americans saying they feel police do a good job. A recent poll from the Pew Research Center found that, between 2016 and 2020, the share of people who thought law enforcement members treat all racial and ethnic groups equally dropped 11%. The percent of respondents who felt police hold other officers accountable in instances of misconduct dropped 10 points. 

This lack of trust has been an issue for some time, but became a focal point over the last two years, following the police killings of Black people across the country, including George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville. 

Law enforcement agencies’ responses to the ensuing protests in support of Black lives further affected some people's confidence in police and led to amplified calls for reform. And a recent Gallup poll found Black Americans were about half as likely as white Americans to say they had confidence in the police.

Campbell with U of L said trust between police and community members can make or break a case. He added that the responsibility for repairing or building trust within a community shouldn’t fall on residents, but on police departments. 

AunDrea Anderson also believes improving trust is in the police’s hands. In her view, city officials seemingly lack genuine regard for human lives — and lives lost — within certain communities. She said it takes work to build and strengthen trust, but it’s possible. 

“[Mayor Greg Fischer] will still kiss babies and shake hands and make sure his position is secure. But he has yet to come out to check on the people in the community that's actually being affected by the gun violence,” Anderson said. “We are the community. This is where you should start.”