In Louisville, Federal Report on Abusive Policing Comes as No Surprise

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When the Justice Department announced this week that its investigation into the Louisville Metro Police Department had revealed a pattern of abusive and discriminatory behavior, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland summarized the findings as “heartbreaking.” The city’s mayor, Craig Greenberg, called the police tactics described in the report a “betrayal” as he promised change.

Melvin Boyd, who has lived in Louisville most of his life, agreed. The findings from the nearly two-year investigation were painful and infuriating, he said. But they were also no surprise.

“We didn’t need the report,” said Mr. Boyd, a 34-year-old activist, referring to Black residents like himself, who make up about a quarter of the city’s population. “We lived it.”

The investigation was prompted by the death in March 2020 of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman who was fatally shot by Louisville police officers during a botched raid on her apartment — a case that sparked months of unrest. The findings capture a litany of police actions — unlawful stops, excessive force and the use of racial slurs — that contributed to a combustible environment in Louisville as trust in law enforcement eroded and anger simmered.

By delving into the department’s troubling history, the investigation has pushed Louisville to wrestle once again with its enduring struggles over policing, race and accountability. The conclusion of the inquiry — as well as the looming prospect of a federal consent decree — has forced a renewed debate about what it will ultimately take to solve the deep and seemingly intractable problems confronting the 1,000-member department, which is largely white.

“Now, the Department of Justice is essentially saying, ‘Yes, we hear you, and, in many cases, you were right,’” Mr. Greenberg, a Democrat who took office in January, said in an interview on Thursday of the complaints raised about the police. “It’s important and necessary for us to deal with the reality of what’s happened in the past so that we can move forward.”

Investigators found many instances of police officers subduing residents with neck restraints, choke holds and even dog attacks, employing excessive and escalating force. There were unlawful stops and searches based on invalid warrants. Officers also mocked and mistreated the mentally ill and used racist slurs, including referring to Black people as “monkeys,” “animal” and “boy.”

“It hurt me to my core,” Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel, the city’s interim police chief since January, said in an interview, referring to the investigation’s findings.

Some have looked at the federal investigation as a source of optimism, contending that it could lead to more accountability and, with it, a police force better equipped to serve the Black community.

The Killing of Breonna Taylor

The death of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman, in March 2020 fueled national protests over police brutality.

State Representative Beverly Chester-Burton, who represents a majority Black section of the city, called the report “a game changer.”

“I think people are totally awake now,” she said. “People are tired of just accepting things as they have been. This report is speaking volumes as to what the expectation will be for the future.”

Yet there is also ample exasperation in the city of about 630,000.

“How do you make it right?” said Barbara Boyd, a past chair of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Oppression, a decades-old advocacy group. “The damage has been done.”

Antonio Brown, who said that Ms. Taylor’s killing led him to become a political activist in the city’s Black community, scoffed at the idea that policing in Louisville would improve because of the report. He noted that the mayor allotted $15.6 million only last week to outfit a new Police Department headquarters and an officers’ wellness center, with exercise equipment and mental health counselors, even as the city was investigating what officers said was an accidental shooting of two Black teenagers.

“I have no faith in this system,” Mr. Brown said. “If we want something done, we’ve got to do it ourselves. My suggestion is for us to run for seats and join the police force.”

The River City Fraternal Order of Police, the union representing the city’s police officers, has criticized the report as an “unfair assessment” that does not account for the quality work done by many officers.

“Unfortunately, no law enforcement agency is without flaws,” the group said in a statement. “There have been instances where officers have acted in a manner that is not consistent with the values, ethics and morals of good policing. Some of those instances have been referenced in the D.O.J. report. However, there are protocols in place to address those transgressions and officers have been held accountable.”

Lt. Daniel Lewis, who serves on the Violent Crime Unit, said he believed the report inaccurately portrayed officers as biased and racist. “That is the way I read it,” he said.

“Obviously, there are issues in the city of Louisville,” said Lieutenant Lewis, who was supervising at the scene of an accident that resulted from a police chase on Wednesday. “We still have a way to go.”

The Police Department has struggled in recent years to retain officers and recruit new ones, leaving 300 vacancies and dimming morale among those still serving. Chief Gwinn-Villaroel, who joined as deputy chief in 2021, is the fifth person to lead the department since Ms. Taylor’s death.

“There’s much more work to be done,” said Chief Gwinn-Villaroel, who spent most of her career with the Atlanta Police Department, referring to the need to strengthen ties with the community but also to improve morale among officers. She cited the hiring of a department psychologist and chaplain as part of the work being done.

“The vast majority are doing it right,” she said. “As leader, as chief, I have to continuously acknowledge that and support that.”

The Justice Department report urged the police force to overhaul its training and improve civilian oversight. It acknowledged steps that had already been taken, such as banning no-knock warrants like the one officers used to charge into Ms. Taylor’s home in 2020, and starting a pilot program to deploy behavioral health experts, instead of officers, to respond to some mental health crisis calls. (Mr. Greenberg said expanding that program was a priority.)

Changing the department’s culture will be a yearslong process that effectively rebuilds the police force from scratch with each new recruit, much as changing a troubled school would start with a new crop of first graders, said David K. Karem, a former state senator and longtime civic leader.

The biggest challenge, he said, lies in simultaneously changing the approach of many current officers, whose careers are rooted in doing things the old way.

“It’s going to take a huge amount of time,” he said, “because I think there are some people within the organization who have a cultural disconnect to the times that we’re in.”

Markus Winkler, the president of the 26-member Louisville Metro Council, said the council would work to fulfill the consent decree’s recommended changes — some of which have already been made, he said — and to ensure they were properly funded. But the problems plaguing the Police Department were not unlike those seen in Minneapolis, Memphis and other bigger cities, he added, and rooting them out would be a “societal” task as much as an administrative one.

In the community, the prevailing skepticism among Black residents will be beyond difficult to overcome.

Douglas Bryant, 43, doesn’t think much will change.

“They’ll be more cautious after Breonna Taylor, but police are still going to do what police are going to do,” Mr. Bryant said.

Brandi Calhoun-Thomas, who is Black, said she had seen the uneven way the police operated in different neighborhoods of Louisville. Ms. Calhoun-Thomas lives in a largely white area in the eastern part of the city; her government job routinely takes her to the city’s west side, which is mostly Black.

As an example, she said, if a car alarm goes off in her largely white neighborhood on the city’s east side, there are “seven cop cars there within minutes.” But she has not seen them respond as quickly on the west side.

Still, she said she believed the Police Department was moving in an encouraging direction. “I think it will take years,” she said. “But I’m optimistic.”

Shameka Parrish-Wright, the director of the advocacy group Vocal Kentucky and a Democratic candidate in last year’s mayoral election, said she was reserving judgment on whether the Justice Department’s intervention would end what she described as the Police Department’s “corrupted reign.”

But she said the report validated concerns shared by many in the community, particularly on a lack of accountability for the department. “It was what we needed to hear,” she said, “the shot in the arm we needed.”

As long and arduous as the path has been in recent years, she said, activists and others in the community need to keep putting pressure on the Police Department.

“I want them to be challenged,” Ms. Parrish-Wright said. “They need to have young people who are part of the process. They need to have people who were directly impacted by the police.

“If not, it’s going to be like they are getting a slap on the wrist,” she added. “We’re going to always have to hold their feet to the fire.”

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