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Here’s what the DOJ report says about bad practices within LMPD

Two Louisville police in riot gear. The one in the background is giving a thumbs up.
J. Tyler Franklin
/
LPM

A nearly two-year investigation by the United States Department of Justice shows Louisville police have a history of excessive force, constitutional violations, under-reported incidents, invalid warrants and systemic racist practices.

The 90-page report released Wednesday sheds light on what federal investigators called a pattern of abuses. It also makes recommendations for reforms, which could be adopted as part of a consent decree, which is a legally-enforced agreement. U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said city officials committed to working with the DOJ toward that agreement.

Here are the top findings and suggestions from the report.

Varied, inappropriate uses of force

Investigators found the department’s “unreasonable force is widespread and extends to both lethal and less-lethal force. It is not limited to any one weapon or tactic.”

The report shows officers repeatedly used dangerous neck restraints and police dogs against people who posed no threat. They also unsafely and unreasonably used tasers. They were also found to escalate encounters.

Investigators looked into 2,217 reports for “less-lethal” force submitted by supervisors between Jan. 1, 2016 and Oct. 9, 2021. Of these, there were nearly 2,000 instances of police taking down or striking civilians.

The investigation shows the incidents were under-reported and, in many cases, unwarranted.

“We found that officers routinely use force disproportionate to the threat or resistance posed,” according to the report. “Officers use force simply because people do not immediately follow their orders, even when those people are not physically resisting officers or posing a threat to anyone.”

Even if incidents were reported, supervisors didn’t always take them further for review.

In one case, the report describes an officer responding to the scene of an intoxicated white woman crying on her friend’s lawn. He did nothing for more than a minute until she began to fight with her friends. After that he kicked the woman down, saying “I’ve had enough of you, OK?’” When the woman bit the officer’s shoe, he hit her in the face repeatedly with his flashlight, later telling his supervisor he “beat the s--- out of [the woman]…as soon as she put her mouth on me.” He couldn’t say how many times he’d hit her.

The supervisor didn’t press the officer on why he used force, and didn't report it to internal affairs, but chuckled when asking if the woman broke his skin.

Police used neck restraints, which are considered deadly force, in incidents including a traffic stop and a report of an elderly Black man “dancing in the street.” In that case, officers grabbed the man by his neck within seconds of arriving. One officer sat on his head and neck while trying to handcuff him, and a second held his knee on the man's neck for nearly two minutes.

A supervisor who reviewed the incident noted one of the officers “broke a fingernail” but said nothing about the violation of the neck restraint policy.

The report shows police used canines to attack people without cause or warning, including in confined spaces. In one case they sent a dog to a basement after a white man was accused of a probation violation. In another, they commanded a dog to attack a Black 14-year-old who was lying on the ground. The officer shouted “stop fighting my dog!” despite videos showing the teen lying with one arm behind his back and the other in the dog’s mouth.

They used tasers on people, including a man accused of not paying his bar tab and another not accused of any crime but simply “dancing around his home.”

‘Flawed’ internal investigations

The DOJ found LMPD’s response to shootings by officers “flawed,” and that prior to 2020, both criminal and administrative investigations into the incidents were conducted by the department itself.

They found LMPD investigators asking leading questions, “at times suggesting possible justifications for the officers’ use of force to interviewees.” Internal investigators also “failed to resolve discrepancies between officer or witness statements.”

Responding to a domestic violence call in which a Black man was reported to have a knife, officers rushed out of the car shouting for the man to drop the weapon, which was a tree saw, then shot him 13 times within seconds of giving the commands, killing him. Officers at the scene admitted “that went from zero to sixty fast,” according to the report. Louisville Metro settled with the man’s estate for $1.25 million.

‘Significant’ invalid search warrants

The report found a “significant number of search warrants failed to satisfy the constitutional requirement for showing probable cause. A sample of warrant applications from Jan. 1, 2016 to Oct. 31, 2021 showed 41% were sought by narcotics detectives."

The DOJ charged three former LMPD officers last summer for issues related to the warrant application for the home of Breonna Taylor, who officers killed at home in March 2020.

The report also said police “regularly fail to knock and announce their presence. These unlawful practices endanger both officers and members of the public.”

The report said police executed no-knock warrants far more often than they applied for them. In some cases they whispered or quietly announced their presence before shouting, “Police! Search warrant!” and entering the property.

Officers also rarely recorded warrant executions on their body-worn cameras, and any available videos are difficult to find because the department allows officers to categorize the files themselves, with “no quality assurance in place to assess whether officers are doing so accurately or, in fact, at all.”

There’s also a history of “unnecessarily intrusive traffic stops,” which include officers threatening to use canines if the occupants don't consent to a search, and stopping and frisking pedestrians without reasonable cause.

Discrimination prevalent

The Department of Justice found Louisville police have historically discriminated against Black people, in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Safe Streets Act.

Investigators cited “significant racial disparities across documented enforcement actions,” but the number is likely much higher since LMPD has failed to properly document tens of thousands of encounters in Black neighborhoods.

“In multiple areas, LMPD treats Black people differently from white people who engage in similar behavior,” according to the report.

Annual reports from 2013 to 2019 showed Louisville police were 54-95% more likely to search Black drivers than white drivers during traffic stops.

Black drivers were almost twice as likely to be cited for minor traffic violations than white drivers.

The DOJ also found officers far underreported traffic stops in majority-Black neighborhoods. Officers reported to Metro dispatchers at least 5,500 more stops per year in these neighborhoods than were accounted for in LMPD’s internal traffic stop databases.

The report also shows the department failed to respond appropriately to allegations of racial bias, like when officers used racist slurs like “monkey” or “boy.”

Officer reported that at a 2019 in-service training, a white officer said there was a “Black and white issue in this city,” and that “the minorities are in the majority and they're the ones…committing all the violent crime.”

The DOJ also found that Louisville and its police department violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by unnecessarily sending officers to behavioral health calls.

Inadequate handling of sexual misconduct

The DOJ cited “serious concerns” about how LMPD handles reports about sexual assault and domestic violence, including allegations involving its own staff.

Federal officials found the department didn’t adequately investigate officers accused of such crimes.

They also identified various problems with how LMPD patrol officers respond to calls about sexual assault or domestic violence in the broader Louisville community — including engaging in “gender stereotyping” — and said detectives “routinely fail to sufficiently investigate” those crimes.

First Amendment violations

The department is accused of First Amendment violations and retaliation against people who challenge their authority — both within and outside of the 2020 demonstrations following the police killing of Breonna Taylor. There are reports of officers putting nonviolent residents in squad cars and spraying them with pepper spray, tackling a teen filming an arrest and punching a man who was peacefully protesting police violence by holding a large cross.

Recommended reforms

The DOJ recommended LMPD take action on more than 30 “remedial measures” to address the numerous problems its investigators documented. Federal officials also indicated they plan to negotiate a legally binding consent decree that would require certain reforms.

Louisville started implementing some changes in anticipation of the DOJ report, following a third-party audit of the department ordered by former Mayor Greg Fischer.

Here’s a rundown of key recommendations the DOJ released Wednesday.

Since it identified widespread problems with officers using “unreasonable force” on people, the government recommended:

  • LMPD revise its policies to “require officers to consider less-intrusive alternatives before employing force;”
  • Provide training to officers that discusses the dangers of using neck restraints, police dogs or tasers;
  • Ensure any potential misconduct is quickly and appropriately investigated and, if warranted, disciplined.

Several suggested reforms would address how LMPD officers handle search warrants, including telling the department to:

The DOJ suggested LMPD change how it handles incidents where officers pull over someone who’s driving or stop them when they’re walking down a street, including by:

  • Ensuring officers are trained on and comply with the constitutional limits they must respect when doing “stops, searches, frisks and arrests;”
  • Requiring close supervision and documentation of all traffic and pedestrian-related stops.

Concerning LMPD’s handling of protests, federal officials recommended the department:

  • Revise existing policy to emphasize journalists’ and other community members’ First Amendment freedoms and require daily reports that detail officers’ use of force during demonstrations;
  • Develop new training on how officers should handle protests that includes de-escalation strategies and “incorporates community voices.”

The DOJ also recommended several changes to LMPD’s internal affairs operation, including requiring investigators to get training on “basic investigative practices” and ensuring its IA units are fully staffed with qualified investigators.

And it suggested LMPD make broad improvements to its policies and training on how officers should handle reports of domestic violence or sexual assault. Another key recommendation is to establish an external review panel of “qualified representatives” to monitor Louisville police’s sexual assault investigations.

Aprile Rickert is LPM's Southern Indiana reporter. Email Aprile at arickert@lpm.org.
Morgan is LPM's health reporter. Email Morgan at mwatkins@lpm.org.