In Louisville, only one person can discipline the police chief
Louisville's police chief gave false testimony in a recent civil trial over a 2021 police chase, which has raised questions about who can hold the city's top law enforcement officer accountable.
Earlier this month, Jackie Gwinn-Villaroel testified that she wasn’t wearing a body camera when she went to the scene of a fatal accident that resulted from a police pursuit in 2021.
Body cam footage from another officer at the scene showed Gwinn-Villaroel, who was a deputy chief at the time, actually did have her camera mounted to her chest. Not only did the chief’s testimony contradict reality, her failure to turn on her body cam was potentially a violation of the Louisville Metro Police Department’s standard operating procedures.
Asked by the plaintiff’s attorney whether she’d face disciplinary action, WDRB reported Gwinn-Villaroel responded: “Discipline myself?”
The simple question implied by Louisville’s top law enforcement officer — Who holds the police chief accountable? — has a complex answer.
Police chief faces little independent oversight
Only Louisville’s mayor can discipline the chief of police and agencies that are supposed to provide third-party oversight might not have any authority in this case.
In a statement following her testimony, Gwinn-Villaroel said she was speaking “to the best of my recollection” when she falsely claimed she was not wearing a body camera. She said it was not a lie, she “misspoke.”
Mayor Craig Greenberg also sent out a statement to the press following the chief’s testimony. He accused the lawyers representing the victims of the fatal 2021 crash of asking “gotcha” questions to "inflame the jury and drive up their own payday."
Greenberg said in an emailed statement on Thursday that he accepts Gwinn-Villaroel’s explanation and considers this matter closed.
One thing that the mayor doesn’t have control over is that this is all public now, the fact that Louisville’s police chief was untruthful under oath. Moving forward, any time she testifies in court, attorneys could bring up this incident and it could cast doubt on the trustworthiness of her testimony.
Both the mayor’s and the chief’s statements focused on whether Gwinn-Villaroel lied on the stand. Neither directly addressed the other issue: her potential violation of the department’s body camera policy.
According to LMPD’s standard operating procedures, all sworn staff must record “all calls for service and law enforcement activities/encounters” — including interviews, pursuits and collisions — with their body cams.
The department’s 918-page standard operating procedures do not specifically address body camera use by LMPD leadership.
Sworn LMPD staff must fill out a “failure to activate” form if they don’t record on scene. In response to an open records request, the city said it has no record of Gwinn-Villaroel filling out one of these forms in July 2021, the month the collision took place.
If an officer fails to turn on their body cam, that gets reported to their supervisor. The issue can be referred for further investigation to LMPD’s Professional Standards Unit and the police chief would ultimately decide whether discipline is warranted.
An LMPD spokesperson said this week that there is no internal process for disciplining the chief.
Louisville’s Office of the Inspector General and Civilian Review and Accountability Board, which conduct third-party investigations into officer misconduct, are also limited in what they can do.
Inspector General Ed Harness said his office and the review board operate in an advisory capacity. At most, they might be able to investigate a complaint against a police chief and make a recommendation to the mayor, he said.
As of Wednesday his office had not received any complaints against Gwinn-Villaroel. He said they haven’t investigated any police chiefs since the independent oversight agency was created in 2020.
“It’s nothing that we have any real guidance on,” he said.
It’s not clear whether the Louisville Metro Ethics Commission — another source of independent oversight of city employees, elected officials and people in appointed positions — would have any authority on this. The commission enforces the city’s Ethics Code, which doesn’t mention issues like making false statements. The Code mostly speaks to conflicts of interest.
Other accountability models
Policing expert Maria Haberfeld said she thinks Gwinn-Villaroel’s testimony in the recent civil trial is more concerning than her potential violation of LMPD’s body cam procedures.
Haberfeld, who is a professor and chair of the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College in New York, said police department SOPs are more like guidelines than hard-and-fast rules. But lying on the stand is a “completely different issue,” she said.
“This is real misconduct,” Haberfeld said. “There is nothing tricky about this, you either wore the camera or you didn’t wear the camera.”
The accountability structure for the police chief in Louisville is typical across the country, according to Haberfeld. She said the heads of police departments, whether sworn officers or civilians, usually serve at the pleasure of a mayor.
“[Gwinn-Villaroel] definitely has accountability to the people she serves and the accountability is directly to the person that appointed her,” she said.
That means the only way for residents to hold police chiefs responsible is to hold the mayor accountable, Haberfeld said.
“This is something to remember at the next election, that the mayor doesn’t consider lying a major misconduct on the part of the police chief,” she said.
There are more than 18,000 police departments in the United States and while Louisville’s structure may be common, there are other models.
In cities like Detroit and Los Angeles, the highest authority in the police department is not the chief but a board of commissioners. The board can set policies and, in most cases, remove the chief. But even then, the board’s decisions are usually subject to the mayor’s approval.
Haberfeld said she doesn't know of any police department where there are internal mechanisms for disciplining a chief.