The Louisville Metro Police Department has a pattern of discriminating against Black people and violating their constitutional rights, the Justice Department announced on Wednesday.
In 2021, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division launched a nearly two-year investigation of the Louisville department following the March 2020 fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor.
Taylor was a 26-year-old Black woman and first responder who was shot to death by a group of Louisville police officers as they were executing a no-knock search warrant. The officers’ pounding on Taylor’s front door around midnight awoke her and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker. Walker, a legal gun owner, said he thought the knocks came from an intruder when he fired a warning shot. The officers opened fire through different sections of the apartment, killing Taylor. None of the officers who fired their weapons have been charged with causing Taylor’s death.
A portion of the 85-page report concluded that “for years, LMPD has practiced an aggressive style of policing that it deploys selectively, especially against Black people, but also against vulnerable people throughout the city” and “some officers have videotaped themselves throwing drinks at pedestrians from their cars; insulted people with disabilities; and called Black people ‘monkeys,’ ‘animal,’ and ‘boy.’”
“This pattern of racial discrimination fuels distrust and impedes the community’s confidence in the LMPD and their law enforcement,” Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said during a press conference about the report.
“LMPD charges Black people at higher rates than white people for the same misdemeanor offenses,” she said. “For example, LMPD charges Black people for loitering more than four times the rate of white people. For disorderly conduct, they are 2½ times the rate of white people, and for littering at three times the rate of white people.”
In response to the report, community organizer Christopher 2X told Capital B he was among the many Louisville residents interviewed by federal investigators. He wasn’t surprised by the findings, “especially as it relates to the Black community and the way they were feeling about the interactions with law enforcement.”
As the founder of Game Changers, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating children about violence in order to end violence in the long term, Christopher 2X says that for over 20 years he has heard from several members of the community about the unfair treatment by the LMPD.
“At the end of the day, I’m glad that at least on the federal level, this is being addressed. Now, will it have real teeth to make real change? That’s something that is still probably unfolding,” he said.
“The findings from their investigation into the Louisville Police Department provide clear evidence for what we’ve already known — we are dealing with a rotten tree, not a few bad apples,” said NAACP President Derrick Johnson in a statement. “Congress should take a page from their [the Justice Department’s] book, do their jobs, and pass the legislation necessary to save innocent lives.”
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said during the press conference that the city of Louisville and LMPD have agreed “in principle” to negotiate toward a consent decree with an independent monitor.
To date, “Louisville Metro and LMPD have already instituted a number of changes” that were a part of the $12 million settlement with Taylor’s family, such as banning no-knock warrants and a limited pilot program that sends “behavioral health professionals to certain 911 calls and expanded the city’s community-based violence prevention services,” he said.
During the press conference, LMPD Interim Chief Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel said the department is “committed to ensuring police practices not only reflect constitutional principles but the values of the communities served by LMPD.” Through reform efforts, Gwinn-Villaroel says it will make LMPD “the premiere police department in the country.”
Black drivers cited more
The LMPD officers also wrote citations for drivers for minor offenses such as “wide turns and broken tail lights, while serious crimes like sexual assault and homicide go unsolved,” according to the report.
“Black drivers were nearly twice as likely as white drivers to be cited for having one headlight out. Black drivers were nearly four times as likely as white drivers to be cited for improperly tinted windows, and Black drivers were nearly five times as likely as white drivers to be cited for improper tags,” Clarke said. “LMPD also disproportionately searches Black drivers who are stopped and cited. Even when comparing traffic stops where Black and white drivers were engaged in similar behavior before the stop, Black drivers were almost 50% more likely to be searched than whites.”
Investigators combed through the city’s and LMPD’s own data, thousands of documents, and hours of body-worn camera footage, as well as conducted conversations with hundreds of LMPD officers, Louisville Metro employees, and community members.
Clarke also pointed out that in some of the cases they investigated, there weren’t any policies to prevent the misconduct.
“In some instances, we saw policies but no training. In other instances, we found no accountability. I will also underscore that our investigation was not focused on isolated incidents; what we uncovered was a pattern, and practices that run afoul of the Constitution and federal law,” she said.
The Justice Department also found a litany of federal and constitutional violations, as well as “serious concerns” of how the LMPD investigates incidents where a woman may have been subjected to domestic violence or sexual assault.
Specialized police units under review
The Justice Department also announced Wednesday that its Community Oriented Policing Services, also known as the COPS Office, will be reviewing the Memphis, Tennessee, Police Department and all specialized police units across the country.
The review comes nearly two months after the death of Tyre Nichols. On Jan. 7, the 29-year-old was pepper sprayed, shocked with a stun gun, and beaten with batons by five Black cops in Memphis. The young father died three days later from his injuries.
The brutal encounter was captured from multiple angles on body cameras and security footage. Five members of the Memphis Police Department’s SCORPION (Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods) were seen repeatedly kicking, punching, and using their batons and stun guns on him.
Specialized police units are smaller teams of officers within a department that have a particular mission to reduce or eliminate specific crimes, such as gangs, illegal drugs, and gun activities in the community. In recent years, teams such as the now disbanded SCORPION unit have been connected to police misconduct and violence.
During the Justice Department’s investigation into the LMPD, they also found that the specialized police unit that was first called the VIPER unit “frequently made pretextual traffic stops in Black neighborhoods. Federal and state courts have found that officers in the unit violated residents’ Fourth Amendment rights,” Garland said.
The nationwide review of specialized police units by the COPS Office will result in “a guide for police chiefs and mayors across the country to help them assess the appropriateness of the use of specialized units,” the Justice Department said in a statement. The guide will also serve as a how-to “to ensure necessary management and oversight of such units, including review of policies, tactics, training, supervision, accountability, and transparency.”