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Merger-era decisions set the stage for Louisville police’s later missteps

A graphic that says "How merger reshaped Louisville" and shows a map of Louisville
Mindy Fulner
LMPD, the department that is now the focus of an impending consent decree, was created at the time of merger.

The city-county merger created the Louisville Metro Police Department. But merger-era leaders' focus on getting the department up and running left gaps in accountability policies — and foreshadowed later patterns of misconduct.

Before the city and county merged in 2003, each of them had their own police force. Blending the two — and their cultures — came with a mountain of big and small tasks: big-picture decisions like policies and best practices, and mundane ones, like what color patrol cars would be.

The two departments had different policies around use of force, for example, and each seemed to see the other’s approach as lacking.

Jerry Abramson, Louisville’s mayor at the time, said there was competition between city and county officers. They were concerned about the possibility of one department being elevated over the other.

“It was crimefighters versus traffic. And the county would say we’re crimefighters too, and the city would say we’re traffic too,” he said in August, reflecting on the early days of the department.

To diffuse some of those tensions, Abramson appointed a police chief from the outside: Robert. C. White. He was Louisville’s first Black police chief.

White came from the Greensboro, North Carolina, police department where he served as police chief for five years. He was one of three candidates for the job, and Abramson said he was the right fit.

“I think it’s important for people to understand, at least from my perspective and certainly from the Mayor’s perspective, I was hired because I was the best qualified, and I just happen to be an African American,” White said, speaking in a media interview in 2003, early in his tenure. He declined to comment for this story.

A 1999 story in Greensboro’s State & Record quoted officers who called him “fast-moving and thunderous” and said that he “makes changes very quickly, then evaluates whether or not they work.”

When the departments merged, administrative committees got bogged down by small details. But Abramson said the rank-and-file officers had bigger things at the front of their minds, like what their new boss was doing.

“They weren’t watching very much about the new color of the cars, or the new badge. They were watching in terms of how he reorganized the department and delivered the services,” Abramson said.

As LMPD’s first chief, White had a tough job ahead of him. Coming in from the outside meant he had to establish trust with the officers on his force. He was responsible for implementing all those big and small decisions city leaders were making about how the department would operate.

He also needed to rebuild trust with the community. In the five years before he took the job, Louisville police had shot and killed six Black men.

Activists were calling for accountability, and consequences.

K.A. Owens, a veteran community leader and co-chair of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Oppression, said he saw something different about White. He was more approachable than police chiefs before and didn’t shun activists who were calling for change.

He remembers White’s reaction to protesters breaking his office window.

“He would come right down…and calm not only the citizens but his own police officers down,” Owens said.

But even though the person at the top of the department seemed to be doing things in a new way, policies weren’t getting as much attention.

Barry Madden was a sergeant at the time, and he was on the committee that drew division boundaries for the brand new LMPD. He now works at the Southern Police Institute at the University of Louisville

“I don’t recall anything to do with use of force or complaints that was substantially changed to make it stronger or make it weaker,” he said.

It fell on White to work with officers, educate them about misconduct and enforce discipline.

According to a 2011 Courier Journal article, White disciplined 755 officers during his eight years as chief, most of the time issuing written reprimands. It also said White was open to giving officers second chances depending on the nature of misconduct, but had little tolerance for officers who lied.

Jessie Halladay, who covered LMPD as a reporter for the Courier Journal during White’s tenure and later became an LMPD spokesperson, said White spent a lot of time and energy on holding officers accountable.

“He was very confident in himself. Chief White didn’t care if his disciplinary actions towards officers would be overturned by merit boards, and he tried to make sure they were upheld, wherever the cards may fall,” she said.

Police chief appointments can also get caught up in politics, because the chief reports to the mayor, who appoints them.

But former Mayor Abramson said he gave White autonomy to make key decisions on policing because of how capable he was in building community trust, especially among Black Louisvillians.

“Every Wednesday, he went to a different church, met different communities, and people really liked him. When a situation arose, he was able to draw on that bank account of trust, and reach into the community and say, ‘We're gonna take care of this,’” he said.

Ricky Jones, professor and chair of the Pan-African Studies department at the University of Louisville, said White knew what the consequence of not holding an officer accountable would be.

“Normally Robert White and other good police chiefs have to be disciplinarians because they understand a fundamental fact: Not only do these people have the power…but they have the power to injure and kill people,” he said.

Jones said White was the kind of chief who called out racism and over-policing and took responsibility for police shootings.

But White was only one police chief. And without strong policies about discipline and accountability, his approach did not last.

After White, LMPD grappled with unclear policies

Early this year, the U.S. Department of Justice released the results of an investigation into LMPD that looked at policing in Louisville from 2016 to 2021.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said LMPD officers had engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution.

“Unclear… deficient… boilerplate… racially disparate… a failure."

Those are some of the words in the report that described LMPD's policies around search warrants, officer misconduct, supervision and discipline. And “boilerplate” couldn’t be closer to the truth, going all the way back to 2003.

LMPD has, since White’s tenure, made changes to its policies as policing evolved. But those changes, the DOJ found, weren’t enough and were not followed up by training and oversight on their implementation or lack thereof.

Former Sgt. Madden said there wasn’t much attention on framing clear, city-specific policies when the department was created.

“What they usually did in writing policies…we would get policies from agencies such as Lexington, Cincinnati or Nashville,” he said. You write policies in general terms and then try to be as specific as you can.”

For example, the DOJ report stated LMPD does not consistently investigate potential misconduct, and that failure was due to deficient policy.

“Only the police chief may initiate an administrative investigation. LMPD does not authorize any other official to open investigations, and LMPD policy does not specify when the chief should or must open an investigation,” the report said.

The DOJ is now negotiating with Louisville officials about what changes the department has to make. And the city can be held accountable by a judge if they don't make a good faith effort to implement reforms.

It could be a turning point for LMPD. The department is facing some of the same issues as when White took over twenty years ago: problems with officer discipline and accountability.

There’s also a lack of community trust, especially following the police killing of Breonna Taylor in her home in 2020.

The issues are the same, but Louisville is different now. The city has cycled through police chiefs following Taylor's death, which sparked a prolonged period of protest and closer examination of LMPD’s practices.

When LMPD got started, a strong leader inspired some hope, but that wasn’t back up by official policies. Now, a new police chief is at the helm.

In August, LMPD got its first Black woman as the permanent police chief: Jackie Gwinn-Villaroel.

“Divisive ideologies such as ‘us and them’ cannot stand, such as ‘a blue wall should come down,’ because we are a community,” Villaroel said at her inauguration.

Now just two months into her tenure as chief, Gwinn-Villaroel has to decide how she’ll approach community trust, discipline and accountability.

We asked for an interview with her for this story, but LMPD declined.

Mary Haberfield is chair of the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She’s studied police departments across the country.

She said the culture of police chiefs trying to win favor with their officers by brushing discipline aside needs to change, and they shouldn’t wait to act until after community members call out abuses of power.

“Messages that are external to the organization are not taken as seriously as the one coming from within…and the only person who can influence the behavior of employees is the chief of police,” she said.

Twenty years after merger, a lesson from White’s tenure repeats itself over and over as the LMPD grapples with its legacy: Building community trust can’t happen without holding police accountable for misconduct.

We examined the ways the city-county merger affects Louisvillians’ lives now. Explore more stories from our series, “How merger reshaped Louisville.”

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.

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