Louisville’s top cop will follow through with a plan to dismantle the department’s flex platoons despite heavy criticism from city legislators.
Police Chief Steve Conrad endured more than three hours of questioning and censure from a Louisville Metro Council committee Wednesday evening while defending his strategy to establish a full-time SWAT team and beef up the Narcotics Unit by stripping police divisions of flex platoons — supplemental officers tasked with specifically-targeted crime reduction details.
Conrad justified his move by pointing to the city’s surge of violent crime.
“What we’re doing today isn’t working,” he said.
This year’s homicide tally continues to climb at a near record pace. The 86 killings as of Wednesday evening mark a 56 percent increase from last year, Conrad said, which ended with the highest homicide total in nearly four decades.
Shootings are also up by nearly 40 percent and some 150 reported overdose deaths are about 52 percent compared with last year, he said.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said Conrad’s scheme is part of the city’s plan to combat violent crime.
“We’re taking short- and long-term steps to reduce violent crime, and these changes are part of that,” he said.
Under than plan, 16 officers and four supervisors will be added to a full-time SWAT unit and 27 detectives will be assigned to the expanded Narcotics Unit.
Flex platoons will be dismantled to make room for the reorganization. Each division is assigned a flex unit. The units consist of a handful of officers and supervisors who sometimes patrol in plain clothes and investigate drug and alcohol complaints, develop neighborhood sources and respond to residents’ complaints.
Nearly two dozen such officers attended the committee meeting Wednesday. Many shook their heads in disagreement as Conrad outlined his plan.
Many council members consider the flex unit detectives as a key neighborhood presence.
At one point, Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton pointed to a group of officers in attendance and said, “I know these guys, my community knows these guys, they trust these guys.”
“They are my eyes and ears,” she said.
Hamilton is a Democrat from District 5. Her district consists of neighborhoods pocked with poverty and crime. She said the flex unit officers develop valuable insight of a neighborhood’s criminal network, they provide their cell phone numbers to residents and build relationships by embedding in concentrated geographic areas.
Councilwoman Jessica Green, a District 1 Democrat, also represents an area that experiences higher than average crime rates. She echoed Hamilton, calling flex platoons “vital and critical” to keeping violent crime down and drugs off the streets.
“I’ve got major concerns,” she said.
Council Feels Left Out
Conrad and Fischer presented the plan in tandem during a news conference last week. Criticism from some council members stems not only from the dismantling of flex platoons, but also from what some consider to be a lack of transparency,
“We feel sandbagged,” Green said.
And Sgt. David Mutchler, president of the local police union, agreed. He said officers are continually told and trained to be transparent with the public.
“Which I agree with,” he said. “But I’d like to see a little bit of that internalized.”
Conrad admitted the “deficiency” in his effort to communicate his plan. Yet he added that since becoming chief in 2012, he’s administered at least three major reorganization efforts, none of which included council discussion.
“I was hired to run the police department, I’m attempting to run the police department,” he said.
Root Cause Officer Shortage
As the committee meeting went on, Fischer’s office distributed an email announcing plans to hire 28 more officers this fiscal year.
Nearly $3 million will be set aside in next year’s budget to fill out recruit classes through the end of the year, according to a news release. Costs incurred this year will come through an end-of-year budget adjustment, according to the mayor’s office.
Conrad praised the plan. But Mutchler, the police union head, said it’s still not enough to meet the city’s needs. Attrition and special event demands stretch officers too thin across divisions year-round, he said.
Mutchler said Conrad should be able to boost rosters of specific units without having to disband others.
“I think if we had 200 more officers right now that we could have a bigger impact,” Mutchler said.
Currently, there are about 1,280 sworn officers in the Louisville Metro Police Department.
Conrad also acknowledged the need for more officers. He stressed that officer count is limited by city budgets, as well as the ongoing struggle to recruit, train and retain officers.
Still, he said the need for a full-time SWAT team cannot be ignored. He said “high-risk” warrants are becoming more commonplace, which can drain divisions of needed officers. Such a move would also lead to quicker response times to volatile situations, said Conrad.
Bolstering the city’s Narcotics Unit would also allow for a more concerted effort in combating the prevalence of drugs, he said. Some 4,000 drug tips are submitted annually to the police department.
And Conrad assured council members that the unit, which will be tasked with covering complaints city-wide, would still be able to develop street-level relationships, despite visible disagreement from the flex unit officers who attended the meeting.
Asked if the reorganization could be delayed as some council members want, Conrad pointed back to the city’s surging homicide tally.
“There are 86 people who are in the ground today that would not have been if we could have stopped those homicides,” he said. “I need additional resources today, not down the road.”