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DOJ report validates Louisville community members’ concerns. Will change follow?

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks from a lectern with the seal of Louisville Metro on it. He is standing inside Metro Hall, and Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke is standing in the background.
J. Tyler Franklin
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LPM
At a press conference today in Louisville, Attorney General Merrick Garland presented findings from the Department of Justice’s investigation into LMPD's pattern of civil rights violations.

For many, the findings of the U.S. Department of Justice report detailing a pattern of abuses by Louisville police are no surprise. Now, the focus turns to reform, but some are apprehensive about trusting the process.

Jess Clark reported this audio story.

Keturah Herron was driving to work nearly two decades ago when police lights flashed behind her in the Highlands neighborhood.

The officer asked Herron, a Black woman who was in her early 20s and dressed in all black for her job at a nearby restaurant, what she was doing in the mostly white enclave east of downtown Louisville.

She said he misgendered her, accused her of smoking weed and summoned a K-9 to search her vehicle. In the end, he arrested and charged her with reckless driving.

Looking back, Herron, a Democratic state Representative for the 42nd district in west Louisville, said the encounter was just one example of the abuses Louisville Metro police have been handing down for years. Those issues are detailed in a blistering report made public Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Justice that highlights a pattern of civil rights violations by local police.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland presented the report’s findings at a press conference in Louisville Wednesday morning. He said the investigation revealed a deeply flawed police department with much room for improvement.

To Herron, what investigators found wasn’t surprising.

“A lot of folks have personally dealt with some of the things that were shown within this report,” she said.

The DOJ report includes a long list of police wrongdoings and shortcomings, and it calls for an extensive overhaul of certain policies and protocols that observers have long said are problem areas for the department.

Federal investigators found police in Louisville discriminate against Black people, use excessive force, unlawfully search and detain people, and violate constitutionally protected rights of protesters. Police leaders also failed to hold officers accountable by ignoring or mischaracterizing misconduct, and they failed to adopt policies to prevent wrongdoing, according to the report.

Louisville Metro Council President Markus Winkler, a Democrat representing District 17 in the East End, said the findings show how certain groups in Louisville have been marginalized for years.

“I mean, you know that there are disparities in the way that people have been policed, but to actually see evidence of that and hear it called out — it’s sobering,” he said.

Winkler said city officials will now focus on fixing the issues highlighted in the report.

Federal investigators listed 36 remedial measures city and police officials in Louisville can take to address issues their probe uncovered. Among them: overhauling the way search warrants are obtained and executed, streamlining a path for citizen complaints, strengthening internal investigative systems and training officers to de-escalate situations before they use force.

DOJ officials will work with city officials on the next steps, Garland said. The result will be a legally binding agreement called a consent decree that forces certain changes within the police and city government.

Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg, a Democrat, said at the press conference he is ready and willing to work with federal officials to “correct the mistakes of the past and heal the wounds they've left in our community.”

But the promise feels a bit hollow to Herron. She said city officials haven’t done anything about police misconducts, misdeeds and abuse — despite years of calls from residents asking them to intervene.

“I don't know that I have the words to give to my community, to tell them to trust this process,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “Because we've seen it over and over again.”

Hannah Drake, a local poet and activist, feels the same way.

She said she’s skeptical the report will lead to noticeable change within the troubled LMPD.

“So what is going to change that all of a sudden this report comes out and the police magically say, ‘Oh, you know what, let's do the right thing, let's not call Black people ‘monkeys’ and ‘animals’ and ‘boy,’ let's not illegally enter people's homes without knocking,” she said. “It's not what you have on that paper that changes people.”

Validation at 'the Square' and beyond

Hours after the press conference, a small crowd gathered in downtown Louisville at Jefferson Square Park — which many dubbed “Injustice Square” during months of protests in 2020 after police killed Breonna Taylor, an unarmed Black woman, in her home.

There, Shameka Parrish-Wright, an activist who ran for mayor last year, said the report is a step in the right direction, and it wouldn’t have happened without the calls for change that rang throughout the 2020 protests.

“We were out there for something, it did mean something,” she said.

But there’s still work to be done, she said.

She’s looking forward to the community engagement process that is promised to follow the report’s release. Garland said a federal monitor will help shepherd the next phase of the project, which will include community members, police and city officials outlining the issues and what can be done to fix them.

Parrish-Wright already has several ideas: more police transparency, more civilian oversight and more follow-up to gauge if promises are being kept along the way.

“No consent decree can really heal us by itself,” she said. “The best way to show a true apology is changed behavior.”

Amber Duke, the interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, said the feeling of vindication in the report’s findings comes with a tinge of frustration, too.

The details in the report reflect decades of experiences that people across Louisville — oftentimes Black people — tried to call foul on.

“Why did it take this long? Why did it take the DOJ coming in for these investigations?” she said. “Why weren't people heard sooner?”

Officials with the Louisville branch of the NAACP echoed those concerns Wednesday afternoon.

The report represents a new beginning, NAACP officials said in a statement, but one that can only come with transparency from city officials.

Louisville NAACP president Raoul Cunningham said things have to change as a result of this report.

"If not, we'll keep our foot up someone's behind," he said. "We're serious. We're going to have to make sure. It's our job as an advocacy organization. It's our job as the NAACP."

A mother gets some justice

The DOJ report comes nearly three years to the day after Louisville Metro Police killed Breonna Taylor in her apartment in the city’s South End.

Sam Aguiar, an attorney for Taylor’s family, said problem officers need to be held accountable.

“I didn't see in [the report] that they need to get rid of everybody and upper command staff, and I didn't see anything in there that said that they need to go back and retroactively hold accountable some of these officers that were doing some of these things that are absolutely terrible,” he said. “So, no, it's not enough.”

Tamika Palmer, Taylor’s mother, said the report brought back the heartbreak of her daughter’s death — but provided a bit of comfort that some change could be on the horizon.

“It's heartbreaking to know that everything you've been saying from day one has to be said again,” she said. “That it took this to ever have somebody look into this department.”

Officials have not provided a timeline for when they expect the consent decree to be finalized. Only then will new reform efforts get underway.

Justin Hicks, Jacob Munoz, Roberto Roldan and Ryan Van Velzer contributed to this story

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.