Metro Louisville

Two hours before curfew last Friday, as a group of protesters marching east on Main Street approached an intersection, they suddenly found lines of Louisville Metro Police officers in riot gear on three sides.

Videos from the moment show protesters at the front of the group responding to being boxed in and scrambling to decide which way to go. Some shouted for fellow demonstrators to help remove children from the area as officers in riot gear approached from Hancock Street. Police declared an unlawful assembly from so far away that protesters couldn’t hear it, and they were firing flashbangs “to gain the attention of all involved” before the recorded message to disperse was over.

The use of non-lethal crowd-control weapons by law enforcement during protests in Louisville and across the nation has prompted discussions over the ethics and appropriateness of utilizing such tactics. Some experts say their use might be warranted, while others argue it’s unlikely to be the most effective way to de-escalate and prevent violence.

Louisville Metro Police officers have deployed tear gas, pepper balls and flashbangs – or stun grenades – on protesters since demonstrations over the killing of Breonna Taylor began in late May. 

LMPD’s Standard Operating Procedures state that officers should “utilize the lowest level of force reasonable” when it comes to crowd control, and that force should not be resorted to “unless other reasonable alternatives have been exhausted or would reasonably be ineffective under the particular circumstances.”

Once a “civil disturbance” or “disorderly crowd” is identified, the guidelines state that officers will attempt to verbally disperse the crowd if the “incident is minor and resources permit,” and that the commanding officer should “allow a reasonable amount of time” for the crowd to disperse.

Protesters at the scene said they do not believe they did anything to prompt such a response, and that they did not hear police declare an unlawful assembly or order to disperse prior to the flashbangs being fired. Later, an LMPD spokesperson said that the assembly was unlawful because the protesters were in the street, as they had been for months prior.

LMPD spokesperson Lamont Washington told WFPL that “several notices” were announced over police vehicle PA systems on Friday, and that the use of flashbangs was in line with LMPD policy.

“Due to the extreme noise of the crowd, some may not have heard the announcements being given,” Washington said. “Two aerial ‘flash bangs’ were deployed above the crowd in an attempt to gain the attention of all involved so they could clearly hear the order to disperse.”

LMPD’s livestream from Friday does show officers giving an order to disperse, but the flashbangs were fired concurrently with the announcement being made. Washington said police are not required to give a warning to disperse before using crowd-control devices.

Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska Omaha who has studied policing and criminal justice for over 40 years, said police could have used alternatives to the flashbangs and use of force. He pointed to a report from the Police Executive Research Forum on how to best mitigate responses to mass demonstrations.

“The recommendations are for the police to be flexible to avoid provoking confrontations and not insist on a strict reading of the law in terms of marching in the street as opposed to on the sidewalks,” Walker said. “And if there isn’t that much business and traffic in the downtown area, there’s plenty of opportunity to be more flexible and accommodate. So I think there’s probably a bad judgment there [in deploying the flashbangs].”

But Brian Higgins, an adjunct faculty member at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former chief of the Bergen County Police in New Jersey, said he considers LMPD’s justification of using the flashbangs to get the attention of the crowd to be valid.

Higgins said flashbangs are a preferred alternative to “direct impact” devices like pepper balls and rubber bullets that are more likely to cause injuries. He said he believes that it is sometimes necessary for police to preemptively use such less-than-lethal force to prevent a protest from becoming violent. 

“What the police could do is just not use those and let [the protest] continue, and then they have to use a different level of force,” he said. “So it sounds as if [LMPD] is using this as the first step. The goal of using this type of ammunition and equipment is to avoid the use of a greater level of force.”

While protests are often peaceful and nonviolent, Higgins said it is not uncommon for people to take advantage of the gatherings to commit violence. The night before police used the flashbangs in NuLu, two LMPD officers were shot near a downtown march. Both survived their injuries, and one suspect was arrested in connection with the shooting.

Moving forward, Higgins said it’s important that police work on improving community relations. But he added while some police tactics should be scrutinized, he advised against cities and police departments moving away from certain crowd-control capabilities entirely.

“I’ve seen a few cities that say the police can’t use any of this equipment right now,” he said. “That’s an overreaction… Taking away that use of force from law enforcement is now going to get them a step closer to the use of deadly force.”

Walker acknowledged that some people join protests to create confrontation. But he said police have at times overreacted to this type of behavior and used it as a reason to crack down on all types of protests, not just those associated with violence.

Walker said crowd-control devices and a “militarized” presence can further alienate citizens from police.

“It has blurred the line, but it’s the responsibility of the police to be able to distinguish between who are peaceful protesters and people who are, in fact, breaking the law and have some intent to do so,” he said.

Walker said this year’s protests differ from violent demonstrations like those seen across the country in the 1960s. Many riots in years past have erupted quickly from a single event, whereas demonstrations in 2020 started as organized, peaceful protests.

Because of that, Walker believes police departments can and should do more to train and prepare officers on how to respond to mass demonstrations in a way that doesn’t exacerbate tensions.

“This is a very different situation where you begin with peaceful protests, and then it, for various reasons, degenerates into violence,” Walker said. “And I think the police tactics have encouraged that and contributed to that. That’s the problem. Again, the major focus is, was the Louisville Police Department prepared for this kind of a situation?”

Mayor Greg Fischer did not directly say whether his office supports the way LMPD has used the crowd-control weapons during a Tuesday press conference.

“As it relates to flashbangs, obviously try to minimize the use of those whenever possible,” Fischer said. “When the police feel like it’s necessary to do that to get the attention of the crowd, that’s when they are deployed.”

John Boyle covers southern Indiana communities and health for WFPL News. He is a Report for America Corps member.