Community National News

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland will investigate the Louisville Metro Police Department and Metro government to see whether the LMPD has a “pattern or practice” of using excessive force and violating constitutional rights.

The investigation will be led by the civil rights division of the U.S. Attorney General’s Office, and conducted in conjunction with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the western District of Kentucky.

It will include a comprehensive review of the department’s policies and training as well as assess the effectiveness of the supervision of officers — and accountability for their actions.

“If violations are found, the Justice Department will aim to work with the city and police department to arrive at a set of mutually agreeable steps that they can take to correct and prevent unlawful patterns or practices,” Garland said.

Garland said officials plan to assess whether LMPD engages in a practice of using unreasonable force against people who are involved in peaceful protests, unconstitutional stops and seizures, unlawfully executed search warrants, racial discrimination or failure to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Garland said the DOJ will issue a public report and will move forward with a civil lawsuit if violations are found and the city and the federal government can’t reach an agreement.

Louisville Metro police have faced increased scrutiny following an overnight raid last year during which officers shot and killed Breonna Taylor. LMPD used tear gas and pepper balls, and arrested hundreds, in the racial justice protests that followed, with protesters and advocates accusing LMPD of excessive force and retaliation.

Among those arrested was State Rep. Attica Scott, who was accused of rioting in September. She was livestreaming her walk downtown when she and others encountered police and were quickly arrested and charged with felonies. Those charges were later dropped.

Scott wrote Garland a letter last month asking for a full federal investigation into Taylor’s shooting death, saying state and local prosecutors “have all failed to adequately investigate and pursue the facts and circumstances of Breonna Taylor’s death at the hands of officers of the Louisville Metro Police Department.”

As recently as a week ago, cell phone video showed an LMPD officer taking a protester to the ground and repeatedly punching him in the face.

In September, Mayor Greg Fischer announced a historic $12 million settlement with Taylor’s family that included promises of several policing reforms. In the Monday announcement, Garland said he commends the city for those actions, and they’d be taken into account.

An independent review of the Louisville Metro Police Department from January found LMPD disproportionately stopped, cited and arrested Black people. It found Black people made up 41% of total arrests in Louisville in 2019 despite making up 21% of the city’s total population, according to the report.

The audit also found LMPD officers don’t always follow policies and protocols for search warrants.

The announcement is a departure from the U.S. Department of Justice under former President Donald Trump, which basically abandoned interventions against police misconduct.

Garland’s announcement could precede use of one of the most powerful tools for curbing police misconduct: consent decrees. The consent decree begins with the “pattern-or-practice” investigation, which will focus on broad, systemic problems within police departments.

Local Reaction

Fischer said in a press conference after Garland’s announcement that he welcomes the investigation.

Jess Clark | wfpl.org

Mayor Greg Fischer speaks after the announcement of a civil rights investigation into Louisville police and government.

Fischer said residents, including police, will benefit from the federal review, which he said will help make the city more just and equitable. 

“Good officers will welcome this announcement as an exciting time to be part of reform and transformation,”  Fischer said. To the people of Louisville, know that you are the ultimate winners of this review.”

Louisville Metro Police Chief Erika Shields said she was not surprised to learn of the investigation, and looks at it as an opportunity to be a flagship for change, to rebrand the department and move it in a new direction.  

“We have numerous self-inflicted wounds that have made our product unappealing,” Shields said. 

In a statement, the River City Fraternal Order of Police, which represents Louisville police officers, said the organization is “confident that at the conclusion of the investigation the division will find no systemic violations of constitutional or federal statutory rights by the officers of the LMPD.”

Instead, the FOP said the investigation “may reveal administration in leadership failures” that led to staffing shortages and record-level crime rates. In 2016, most FOP members voted no confidence in then-police chief Steve Conrad. Last year, they publicly criticized Fischer for decisions he made related to protest response and other issues.

Ted Shouse, a Louisville attorney who represented many arrested protesters last summer, said the investigation is “a long, long time coming.”

“I’m very grateful that it’s finally arrived. I think the Justice Department is doing exactly the right thing by launching this investigation. I think they will be surprised by what they uncover,” Shouse said.

Reaction From State Leaders

Gov. Andy Beshear said he’s spoken with DOJ and Louisville officials about the investigation.

Beshear said policing is an “almost sacred” responsibility in which the state conveys power and authority to officers to help keep the community safe. It’s because of that power that it’s important officers make just decisions, he said.

“We always need to be open about ensuring that we are doing things right and, in this instance, that we are ultimately building the confidence in every part of our population,” he said.

Beshear said he intends to fully cooperate with the investigation and that it can only be “helpful.”

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, whose office’s investigation into the Taylor killing produced wanton endangerment charges against one police officer for firing into a neighboring apartment and none for Taylor’s death, responded to the news in a statement shared on Twitter.

“It is my hope that the Department of Justice’s civil investigation into LMPD’s practices will assist LMPD in its mission to protect and serve the Louisville community,” he said.

Former State Rep. Charles Booker, who is exploring another run for U.S. Senate, released a statement saying he’s heartbroken that the DOJ needs to investigate LMPD, but it’s clear structural reforms are needed to ensure what happened to Taylor never happens again. 

“On the path to accountability and justice, I believe this step is necessary and important. I applaud Attorney General Garland for his leadership,” Booker said. 

Graham Ambrose contributed to this report.

This story has been updated. 

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.
Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.