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Louisville police use excessive force, invalid warrants and discriminatory stops, DOJ review finds


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US Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks during a press conference on the Justice Departments findings of the civil rights investigation into the Louisville Metro Police Department and Louisville Metro Government on March 8, 2023, in Louisville, Kentucky.

Luke Sharrett | Afp | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Louisville Metro Police Department and the Louisville/Jefferson County Metro government engaged in a pattern of unconstitutional behavior by routinely using excessive force, conducting searches based on invalid warrants and unlawfully discriminating against Black people in enforcement activities, a wide-ranging federal investigation found.

The review, conducted by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, also found that police violate the rights of those “engaged in protected speech critical of policing” and that some officers used racial slurs about Black citizens. The city has reached an agreement in principle to resolve the constitutional violations found by federal investigators, the Justice Department said.

The report is similar to those issued in several other cities, including Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown in 2014. The Trump administration backed away from federal investigations into unconstitutional policing, and the investigation into Louisville was announced early in the Biden administration, in 2021.

The Louisville investigation came in the aftermath of the botched police raid that led to the death of Breonna Taylor in March 2020. Four Louisville officers were federally charged in August in connection with Taylor’s death. DOJ’s pattern-and-practice investigation was not a criminal probe, but rather looked at broader, systemic issues in the police department.

“Breonna Taylor was a symptom of problems that we have had for years,” one Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD) leader told federal investigators. The report said that police officers’ actions “do not happen in a vacuum” and noted that “segregation, poverty, and violence” affected policing in the racially segregated city. The police department, which is 81% white, was charged with patrolling neighborhoods that were predominately Black.

The report notes that officers “have difficult jobs” and said that the LMPD and Louisville/Jefferson County Metro government “have not given officers and other employees the support and resources they need to do their jobs effectively and lawfully,” and that they had “deficient training, substandard facilities and equipment, and inadequate support for mental health and wellness.”

“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,” the report states. “LMPD cites people for minor offenses, like wide turns and broken taillights, while serious crimes like sexual assault and homicide go unsolved.”

A demonstrator holds a sign with the image of Breonna Taylor, a black woman who was fatally shot by Louisville Metro Police Department officers, during a protest against the death George Floyd in Minneapolis, in Denver, Colorado on June 3, 2020.

Jason Connolly | AFP | Getty Images

“Some officers demonstrate disrespect for the people they are sworn to protect,” the report continues. “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 conduct erodes community trust, and the unlawful practices of LMPD and Louisville Metro undermine public safety.”

Political bias was baked into LMPD, the report found. One July 2018 department document said the extremist Three Percenters group “believe law enforcement has been handcuffed by politics and want to help us do what they think is right,” and adopted the Three Percenters’ description of themselves as “patriotic citizens who love their country, their freedoms, and their liberty.”

In a press conference Wednesday morning, Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg said he and Louisville Metro Police interim Chief Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel “are taking action to reform and improve how our police department operates.”

“The U.S. Department of Justice is demanding that we take action. The people of Louisville are demanding that we take action,” said Greenberg, who along with Gwinn-Villaroel was sworn-in in January 2023.

Kentucky state Rep. Keturah Herron, a Democrat who pushed for Breonna’s Law, which restricts the use of no-knock warrants in the state said a review of Louisville police practices was a long time coming.

“The things that are found in this investigation are things that the community has been saying not since Breonna Taylor, but for decades in Louisville,” Herron said. “To be able to finally get some type of acknowledgment that LMPD has been terrorizing the black community specifically but then also those with disabilities … it’s a relief. But this is really now where the work starts over again.”

— Chloe Atkins contributed.

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