Metro Council looks to audit LMPD records policies following lawsuit
Louisville Metro Council members are pushing for an audit of the police department’s record-keeping practices, two months after a local police watchdog group filed a lawsuit against the agency claiming it improperly destroyed complaints against officers.
A resolution asking the city’s Office of Internal Audit to look at how the Louisville Metro Police Department handles records regarding its day-to-day operations was approved unanimously by the Metro Council Government Oversight and Audit Committee Tuesday night. It’s sponsored by District 26 Council Member Brent Ackerson and Council President David James, both Democrats.
The 490 Project, a local activist group focused on police accountability, filed a lawsuit against LMPD in October. They allege that LMPD violated state law and the city’s own records retention policy related to residents’ informal complaints against officers.
Ariana Levinson, a member of the group and a University of Louisville professor of law, said proper record-keeping and providing open records is essential for members of the public to hold their government officials accountable.
“The way that we have learned about significant failures in our Metro Government is through the media making open records requests,” Levinson said. “But if Metro Government isn’t retaining records to begin with, like informal complaints, then there will be nothing for the government to provide when the request is made. We’ll be unable to tell if discipline or other action is needed before something like the death of Breonna Taylor occurs.”
Levinson said The 490 Project hopes the audit will highlight the inadequacies of the current records retention system, and will ultimately lead Louisville Metro to retain formal and informal complaints beyond the end of an officer's career, a reform they’ve been advocating for since last year.
An email provided to WFPL News shows the 490 Project first asked Metro Council to request an internal audit of LMPD’s record keeping in early October. In the email to Ackerson, they claim that months of back-and-forth communications with city officials lead them to believe Louisville Metro is not reviewing its record retention policies annually, which is required under state law. They also allege that LMPD does not have a records coordinator, in violation of city law.
James, who announced last week he wouldn’t seek a sixth term as Metro Council president, said he’s sponsoring the resolution to ensure Louisville is in compliance with the law and best practices. James said even council members have had a difficult time getting access to public records.
“It creates a lot of frustration on our part, creates a lot of frustration on citizens’ behalf,” he said. “We felt this was a good place to start, with record retention as it relates to LMPD, and then that could be used as a roadmap to go into other areas.”
James said he’s hopeful mayor-elect Craig Greenberg will focus on being more transparent and providing public records in accordance with the law when he takes office next month.
The full Council is expected to approve the audit at its next meeting on Dec. 15.
The resolution asks the Office of Internal Audit to look at the chain of custody for records generated by LMPD, how the department reviews and makes changes to its record retention schedules and who oversees retention policies and responds to open records requests. The audit would go back as far as 2018.
In the lawsuit, the 490 Project claims that between 2018 and December 2021 the collective bargaining agreement between the city and the union representing LMPD officers stated informal resident complaints could be destroyed after 90 days. But the city’s own record retention policies required the documentation be kept for two years.
Cara Tobe, a 490 Project member, said at the time the lawsuit was filed that community members need 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.”
The group’s lawsuit centers around a complaint by one of its own members, which was made during the racial justice protests in August 2020. LMPD claimed to have no record of the complaint when an open records request was filed in May of this year.
In addition to destroying informal complaints in violation of city records policy, the 490 Project alleges that LMPD did not respond to four open records requests, in violation of the Kentucky Open Records Act.
A spokesperson for LMPD previously said that as of February 2022, the department no longer handles its own public records requests. Instead, requests go through a central online portal handled by a different city agency within the Office of Management and Budget.
Members of the 490 Project have argued that LMPD’s handling of records has implications for the usefulness of the department’s “early warning detection system.” LMPD announced earlier this year it had rolled out the system with the goal of identifying officers who may go on to commit misconduct. But if informal complaints against individual officers are being destroyed prematurely, the 490 Project says it may be hard to identify problem employees.
Speaking before the Metro Council committee Tuesday, 490 Project member Nancy Cavalcante said she’d like to see a government-wide audit of Louisville Metro’s records retention policies.
“We discovered that the city government and the police department were not in alignment with state law and Metro Council’s ordinance regarding records retention,” Cavalcant said. “We are very happy that you have agreed to audit LMPD, but I think it’s a narrow focus and it needs to be broader than that.”
Ackerson, one of the sponsors of the resolution, responded that he sees the LMPD audit as “a starting point, not an ending point.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated how long the 490 Projects wants LMPD to retain informal complaints.