Police accountability group suing LMPD over access to complaints against officers
The 490 Project, a grassroots group focused on police accountability, is suing the Louisville Metro Police Department over its failure to release misconduct complaints and other violations of public records laws.
In the lawsuit, filed in Jefferson County Circuit Court, The 490 Project alleges that LMPD has stonewalled their request for residents’ complaints. The group says it has not received any response to four open records requests filed in May and June, which is a clear violation of the Kentucky Open Records Act. That law requires public agencies like police departments to acknowledge a request within five days. If they are denying a request, they have to provide an explanation in writing.
Rick Adams, one of the attorneys representing The 490 Project in the suit, said the public’s access to police misconduct complaints is necessary to ensure taxpayers know how their money is being spent and that bad actors are held accountable.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen a pattern in Louisville, and specifically with LMPD, where they consider the Open Records Act more of a nuisance than a legal obligation,” Adams said. “But they’re a public agency doing public work and they need to be held accountable. The Open Records Act is the primary means to do that.”
Claims made in a lawsuit represent only one side of a case.
Beth Ruoff, a spokesperson for LMPD, did not respond to specific allegations, but said that as of February the agency stopped handling records requests. Instead, all requests to Louisville Metro Government and its agencies now go through a central online portal.
‘Destroying’ informal complaints
In addition to failing to hand over any complaints against its officers, The 490 Project claims in its lawsuit that LMPD had a policy of destroying residents’ complaints it deemed “informal” — after just 90 days. That practice violates the city’s records retention rules, which state “informal complaints” have to be held for two years.
Nancy Cavalcante, one of the group’s members, said she filed a complaint with LMPD during the summer of 2020, when racial justice protesters occupied Jefferson Square Park across from Metro Hall. Cavalcante said police had set up a loudspeaker in the park to issue warnings to protesters who stayed after its official closing time.
On August 15, Cavalcante said she was watching a protest livestream when she heard an officer say over the loudspeaker that LMPD officers were tired of cleaning up protesters’ mess and asked them to refrain from “outright stupidity.”
“I was highly offended as an activist in the city who had been participating in protests, that the police department thought they could come out and call the citizens that,” Cavalcante said.
Following the incident, Cavalcante filed a complaint via an online form the city had set up during the protests. She said an LMPD major spoke with her by phone and apologized for the officers’ behavior. Cavalcante said she declined to be interviewed by other officers and file a formal complaint.
After The 490 Project submitted a request in May 2022 for Cavalcante’s complaint, LMPD said they had no record of it.
Cavalcante said she’s left to believe that LMPD had destroyed any record of her complaint, despite being required by Louisville Metro’s current policy to retain informal complaints for two years. A follow-up request to LMPD for a certificate of destruction, which is also required, has gone unanswered, she said.
“It makes me very frustrated,” Cavalcante said. “It also makes me very concerned for all the citizens who file complaints about specific officers and their behavior. What happens to those people?”
Cara Tobe, another member of The 490 Project, said the group decided to file the lawsuit because the community needs to feel like their complaints are being taken seriously.
“It’s not acceptable for LMPD to just go around destroying public records,” Tobe said. “The ability for the public to see [these records] is so important to the accountability process.”
Between 2018 and December 2021 the collective bargaining agreement between city government and the union representing Louisville police officers explicitly stated that “informal complaints” could be destroyed after 90 days. That changed last December, when a new agreement was ratified saying that “informal complaints” have to be kept in accordance with the city’s records retention policy.
Lawyers representing The 490 Project, however, argue that categorizing complaints about police misconduct as “formal” or “informal” is itself unlawful.
“Since 1983, it’s been good law in Kentucky that an agency cannot avoid producing records of complaints against its employees by giving them some kind of ‘informal’ distinction,” Adams said. “It doesn’t matter what label the agency assigns to it. If it’s a complaint and it’s responsive to the records request, they’re going to have to produce it.”
The 490 Project’s lawsuit against LMPD asks the court to force the police department to release all the formal and informal complaints against officers requested by the group. It also asks the court to find LMPD has been violating the law by destroying complaints deemed “informal” much earlier than allowed.
If the court finds that LMPD willfully disregarded residents’ rights under the Kentucky Open Records law, the city could have to pay fines and attorneys’ fees.
Why does it matter?
Last month, LMPD officials told the Courier Journal that they were finally rolling out an “early intervention system” that is supposed to flag officers who may go on to have additional misconduct violations. Officials had told the public for years that such a system was in place, without actually activating it.
Tobe, from The 490 Project, said that if LMPD has been improperly destroying informal complaints, that would make it hard to identify patterns of officer behavior over the long term.
“How can a pattern be identified if there’s only a certain amount of data available and it gets deleted on a rolling basis?” she said. “I don’t understand how that can truly work for an intervention system. It’s mind-boggling to me.”
Outside of their current lawsuit, The 490 Project is lobbying Metro Council members and city officials to have LMPD retain formal and informal complaints against officers forever, along with including them as part of an officer’s personnel record.
Attorney Michael Abate, who is also representing The 490 Project, said misconduct complaints against police officers “are some of the very most important [records] we can obtain under the open records law.”
“We don’t have to look very far back in history to find problems and scandals within [LMPD], whether it's the police Explorer scandal or the Breonna Taylor scandal,” he said. “Police discipline cases have always been critical to the public.”
Abate has represented WFPL News in public records-related issues and conducted legal reviews of stories.
Access to these kinds of open records is necessary for the public to ensure that “the system is working properly” and allegations of misconduct are fairly investigated, he said.