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Louisville officials slam Fischer’s decision to disband LMPD’s homeless outreach unit

Photo by J. Tyler Franklin

Earlier this month, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer shut down a police unit focused on providing outreach to people experiencing homelessness. Its two members have been reassigned.

Some Metro Council members are concerned the move could have a detrimental impact on the city’s most vulnerable residents. 

The Louisville Metro Police Department’s Mobile Outreach Unit’s two officers formed strong relationships with unsheltered residents and earned their trust since 2017. The officers  — Jessica Morrison and Robert Yoshioka, also known as Yoshi — did that by building a rapport with residents through near-daily visits to encampments and working to understand their needs.

In September, ahead of a multi-camp eviction that the city commissioned, both Morrison and Yoshi ensured people had all their belongings and supplied them with items like new tents, toiletries and changes of clothes. They also made sure residents and their valuables made it safely to their next destination. 

“Basically, our homeless population are going to have to fend for themselves,” Council President David James said.

James, a Democrat who represents District 6, said he and three other council members met with Fischer and LMPD Chief Erika Shields on the day the decision went into effect to discuss the drive behind it. 

“The reason that we were told is because the Department of Justice is looking at Metro Government, and the mayor didn't want the face of homeless outreach to be the police department, which makes absolutely zero sense to me,” James said. “[The two officers] were the best thing we had going for helping homeless people in this community and now we have nothing.”

The outreach officers wore plain clothes, drove unmarked vehicles, often helped unsheltered people get to their appointments — and sometimes helped them relocate after encampment evictions.

The officers declined requests for comment.

Jessica Wethington, a spokesperson for the mayor, said the change was intended to better align outreach work with the city’s homeless services division, which is part of the Office of Resilience and Community Services. But James said he suspects it’s because the two officers didn’t filter information through official channels.

“Officers Morrison and Yoshi have very close ties and relationships with the community of homeless people, also the council members,” James said. “There are people in the chain of command and the administration who don't like the fact that officers [Yoshioka] and Morrison had direct contact with other people, including council members, and were able to have direct conversations with them as opposed to having filtered information come to us.”

Last October, in an email discussion between homeless services providers and city officials about shelter admission and bed availability, Morrison relayed some unsheltered residents’ concerns to the group. The people she spoke with said they were having trouble finding a place to stay after having previously been barred from entering several shelters over non-violent infractions. Morrison was reprimanded for breaking the chain of command and violating standard operating procedures, according to documents obtained by WFPL News. 

Going forward, uniformed officers will assist outreach workers. They’ll also respond to calls regarding risks facing people who are homeless as well as resident complaints. Those are all things the Mobile Outreach Unit specialized in.

“Uniformed officers that are not familiar with the individuals, with the population, will be
asked to come in and assist outreach workers. I have very little faith that that's going to turn out to be a positive situation,” James said. “The mayor's actions have really left our most vulnerable populations at risk.”

Democratic District 21 Council Member Nicole George, who has a background in social work, echoed James’ concerns. 

“There's no question that people in the community want to see a response from LMPD that is specifically trained to that, understands the needs of the service population, and also has rapport and credibility within the community,” George said. 

Fischer’s spokesperson said Susan Buchino, who directs the city’s Homeless Services Department, has been meeting with District Resource Officers from each division to “ensure a smooth transition of services.”

“All of [the DROs] are great, they all have different kinds of expertise, whether it's youth focus or community outreach, but that's not homelessness,” George said. “The homelessness issue can't be everyone's thing, right? When it's everyone's responsibility, it's no one's responsibility.”

George criticized LMPD’s Crisis Intervention Training Program and said, while it’s good for officers to go through it, it’s “disingenuous” to imply everyone who completes the program would put the lessons into practice. 

James said there’s nothing Metro Council or even the state legislature can do to reinstate the Mobile Outreach Unit.

“It's gut-wrenching,” James said. “I never thought I would see a police unit disbanded because they were actually practicing community-oriented policing.”

This story has been updated to clarify the officers from the Mobile Outreach Unit declined to comment for this story.