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City audit finds failures in Louisville police’s oversight of public records, investigative files

 Two Louisville Metro Police Department cruisers are parked under an overpass in Louisville.
J. Tyler Franklin
/
LPM
The Louisville Metro Police Department and Mayor Craig Greenberg's administration say they'll address records issues by late next year.

An internal audit of the Louisville Metro Police Department revealed flaws in how it manages officer personnel files, investigative documents and other records. Auditors expressed concerns these flaws could impact the department’s operations and its ability to respond to public records requests.

The city’s Office of Internal Audit conducted the review of LMPD’s record keeping practices at the request of Metro Council. It follows a lawsuit by the nonprofit police accountability group The 490 Project, which alleged the department was illegally withholding records of resident complaints against officers and destroying those complaints too quickly. LMPD settled that lawsuit this spring, handing over hundreds of complaints and internal investigations.

While the audit found no indication of illegal acts, it did find that LMPD’s collective bargaining agreement with the police union allowed for some records about individual officers to be destroyed sooner than was allowed under the city’s own policies.

It also found that, across Metro Government, all local agencies did not have someone in charge of records management, which is required by Kentucky law.

“Without proper oversight there is an increased risk that records will not be available for use by LMPD or for open records requests,” auditors warned.

The combination of poor oversight and faulty record-keeping could result in less accountability and transparency from local government, experts and advocates said.

The findings

The audit confirmed some of what activists with The 490 Project warned about LMPD’s records management: that the union contract was not in line with the city’s own policies.

Specifically, auditors identified two issues with the collective bargaining agreement.

First, the agreement says files LMPD supervisors keep on the officers they manage must be destroyed a year after they’re created. Louisville Metro’s records retention schedule, however, requires those files to be kept for an officer’s entire career at LMPD, plus one year after employment. Supervisory files contain feedback on an officer's performance, including conduct concerns.

Also, the collective bargaining agreement allows for documentation of a drug test, or an officer’s refusal to submit to a drug test, to be destroyed after the “final disposition of any grievance or appeal.” But the city’s records policy requires those documents to be permanently maintained in an officer’s personnel file.

In addition to concerns around the union contract, auditors also took issue with the security of LMPD’s investigative files. They found two instances where “records were either stored in an unlocked cabinet or in an area that was not properly restricted.”

“In one instance, closed investigation case files were stored in a file cabinet that was kept unlocked, and badge access to the area containing the storage cabinet was not restricted to only the officers in the unit,” auditors wrote.

In an emailed statement Tuesday, a spokesperson for LMPD said the department “routinely and consistently seeks to identify potential deficiencies.”

“We appreciate the Office of Internal Audit as it helps identify and provides guidance on areas within our operations that need to be addressed,” they said. “We will continue to work towards implementing measures that ensure best practices within the agency.”

LMPD officials told auditors they plan to address most of the identified flaws in their records management by August of next year.

The most widespread problem identified by the auditors was that there is no designated person in charge of overseeing LMPD’s record-keeping practices and ensuring they’re in line with the city’s records retention schedule. That schedule must be approved by Kentucky’s State Libraries, Archives, and Records Commission.

Auditors said the problem wasn’t limited to LMPD.

“There is a lack of oversight for record retention organization-wide at [Louisville Metro Government],” they concluded.

It’s a violation of state law for city government agencies to operate without a point person for maintaining official records.

Why it matters

Amye Bensenhaver, a former assistant attorney general and co-founder of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition, said poor record-keeping makes it harder for government agencies to respond to open records requests by residents and journalists.

“We know that to be able to hold our public servants accountable to us, the people they serve, we have to be able to access their records,” Bensenhaver said. “Same with open meetings. We hold our public servants accountable through the requirement that they admit us to their public meetings.”

She said if an agency is destroying public records before they’re allowed, it’s possible nothing will turn up when members of the public start poking around at a problem. On the flip side, if the records are held for too long, it may make it difficult or impossible for an agency to wade through the mass of files to find what’s being requested.

Bensenhaver said she thought the scope of the audit was too limited. She would have liked to see auditors look back at the LMPD Explorer Scouts scandal, in which the department lied to keep more than 700,000 documents detailing sexual abuse from the public.

“I think they missed a few salient points, but, in all, it does represent at least an acknowledgement that there’s a problem that needs to be corrected,” Bensenhaver said.

The police accountability group The 490 Project requested the audit of LMPD’s records management almost a year ago, when they contacted Metro Council’s Government Oversight and Audit Committee. They pointed out a number of issues that were ultimately substantiated by the final report.

Toland Lacey, a 490 Project member, said the conflict between the police union contract — which requires destruction of an officer’s supervisory file after one year — and Metro’s policy of retaining those files until a year after employment is particularly concerning. Lacey said it seems “designed to protect bad apples.”

“A police officer who might have done some pretty heinous things, or have been suspected of doing pretty heinous things, after a short period of time, can go over to some other police department and just continue it on,” he said.

Abby Long, another member, said she’d like to see Mayor Craig Greenberg’s administration address the conflicting requirements of the collective bargaining agreement and city policy in the ongoing negotiations for a new contract.

“That’s one thing that could be solved right now,” Long said. “That’s something they could check off their list.”

LPM News asked Greenberg’s office whether those changes to the contract could be worked out before negotiations end, which is expected this week. Kevin Trager, Greenberg’s press secretary, did not respond directly to that question. Instead, he provided a statement saying Louisville Metro and LMPD “accept the audit’s findings.”

“Our administration is already working to fully implement the recommendations,” Trager said. “We greatly appreciate the Office of Internal Audit’s guidance as we strive to improve the delivery of services to the people of Louisville.”

According to the final report, the Greenberg administration told auditors it will bring city government into compliance with the oversight requirements in state law by the end of November.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.