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Louisville Metro Council OKs plan to spend police reform money on HQ, wellness center

Activists hold signs behind interim LMPD Chief Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel
Jacob Ryan
Activists hold signs in Metro Council chambers behind interim LMPD Chief Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel.

The council approved the plan as community members criticized it from the crowd.

Council members were about 30 minutes into a discussion Thursday night about the spending ordinance that would divert millions of COVID-19 relief dollars originally set aside for policing reforms to police amenities when Denorver “Dee” Garrett stood up and started shouting.

“You’re all washed up,” he told the council members, adding that he didn’t think the police would change.

Garrett went to the meeting to watch the council discuss and vote on the proposed spending plan that’s garnered criticism from activists and some council members since Mayor Craig Greenberg announced it last month.

The plan will take nearly all of the $17.5 million of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds that the council allocated in 2021 for police reforms and instead allow the money be used on improving police headquarters renovations and leasing a privately-owned officer wellness center. The original plan was to fund changes that would follow a pair of scathing reports about the state of the Louisville Metro Police Department.

Garrett’s been paying attention to local police issues for years. He was arrested several times during the protests that followed the 2020 police killing of Breonna Taylor. In April 2021, an officer punched him in the face multiple times while several others tackled him to the ground. He said the recent report from the Department of Justice that found widespread civil rights abuses and misconduct within LMPD should be a catalyst for change, but lawmakers seem reluctant to push for it.

Thursday’s vote was an example, he said. He got tired of hearing one council member after another explain why they wanted to give police money for amenities that he doesn’t think will lead to any meaningful change. So he got up, told them what he thought and walked out.

“It really hurts,” he said in an interview on the sidewalk outside City Hall.

The ‘no’ votes

The vote came nearly a month after Greenberg announced his plan to use the federal relief money on the building renovations and wellness center. His plan was quickly criticized by some council members, who said Greenberg was trying to bypass the legislative body and use the money in a way it was never intended.

Federal investigators with the DOJ released a long-anticipated report in March that included more than 30 recommended reforms for the police department — they did not include among them a new police headquarters or wellness center.

But Greenberg’s officials said in March the headquarters renovation and the officer wellness center are key pieces of a reform package that will help improve LMPD.

On Thursday, the ordinance passed with a vote of 20-5.

Council Member Paula McCraney, a District 7 Democrat and chair of the majority caucus, said both projects — the new headquarters and wellness center — are worthy of being funded, but not with the COVID-19 relief funds designated for police reforms. Instead, she said the projects should be funded through the city’s regular budget. She voted no.

“Let the community see some action, and then we can talk about a wellness center,” she said.

Council Member Jecorey Arthur, a Democrat from District 4 and leading critic of the spending plan, said he has little faith the new police amenities will actually help improve how the police department treats citizens.

He said city officials recently provided him with a report that shows the police department’s current headquarters building in downtown Louisville was constructed in the 1950s and was billed as the “finest police station in America.” Arthur said the building didn’t stop police in the decades that followed from brutally beating a real estate broker named Manfred Reid and a teacher named Charles Thomas in 1968, or from shooting a 17-year-old unarmed Black boy named John Lewis in 1989, or 19-year-old Desmond Rudolph in 1999, or another 19-year-old named Michael Newby in 2004, or 26-year-old Breonna Taylor in March 2020.

“This building will not change the culture of the police department,” he said. “None of this is right.”

He voted no, as did Democrats Tammy Hawkins from District 1, Kumar Rashad from District 3, Ben Reno-Weber from District 8 and McCraney from District 7.

Mixed feelings

Council Member Brent Ackerson, a Democrat from District 26, sponsored the spending plan for Greenberg. He said using the one-time injection of federal COVID-19 relief funds on the capital expenditures “just makes sense.”

Money for further police reforms can be hashed out in coming and future budget talks, he said.

“I don’t think anyone on this council doesn’t want to move toward police reforms, the DOJ is going to require us to move toward police reforms,” he said.

Council members are now tasked with amending a budget proposed by Greenberg on Thursday. His plan calls for an increase of about $4 million for LMPD, which would bring the department’s budget to more than $222 million. That would account for nearly a quarter of what Louisville Metro spends next fiscal year.

After the vote, Celine Mutuyemariya stood, shaking, in the lobby of City Hall.

Mutuyemariya is a community organizer with Black Leadership Action Coalition of Kentucky. She said she's tired of seeing local legislators prioritize police over the needs of people. She said libraries, parks, rent assistance and victim services need more funding.

“The police have enough money,” she said. “I’m pissed off, I’m tired, and I can’t wait for Election Day.”

Half of the 26 Metro Council seats will be up for election in 2024.

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.