Investigations

The forthcoming, top-to-bottom audit of Louisville’s police department will look at everything from training to racial bias to community policing and police interactions with the public “in all scenarios,” according to the document provided to firms interested in performing the audit.

The city has issued a request for proposals, called an RFP, for companies that want to submit a bid to do the review. The deadline to submit those bids is today. The RFP shows that the winning firm will have to file a report to the Mayor’s Office and likely present those findings to the Metro Council. 

“We need to take a hard look at the policies and how they’re applied,” Mayor Greg Fischer said in a recent press conference. “Think about the procedures, the structures of our police department to ensure that they align with the goals and values of our community.” 

The Louisville Metro Police Department has been the subject of local and national criticism since the killing of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old healthcare worker, in her own home after a no-knock warrant on March 13. 

At the end of May, protests erupted across the city, demanding accountability for the officers and the department. Police Chief Steve Conrad, who had already agreed to retire at the end of June, was fired after police, along with Kentucky National Guard members, shot at and killed David McAtee. 

Two days later, Fischer said LMPD would undergo this top-to-bottom audit, while the department looked for a new police chief and undertook a deep-dive review of the Taylor case. 

There is no time frame for the audit listed in the RFP, but the scope of work is significant. The review is expected to cover: 

  • Patterns and practices related to police interactions with the public in all scenarios: traffic stops or investigative stops, searches and warrant executions, arrests, use of force and use of de-escalation tactics.
  • Policies that “contribute to or increase the likelihood of racial profiling, racial bias, and implicit bias.”
  • Current LMPD training policies: the type of training given, the implementation of training, and an assessment on its effectiveness.
  • Policies, operational practices, organizational structure and management, accountability systems, corrective and reporting procedures, workload indicators, trends, and performance measures.
  • Community policing, internal affairs complaints and any resulting officer discipline, recruiting, hiring, promotions, interactions with youth and people struggling with mental health issues.

The RFP says the firm selected will have to conduct listening sessions “ensuring substantial interaction with community members, interest groups, prosecutors and defense attorneys, and police personnel.” 

In an addendum, the city said they are hoping “diverse views” will inform the review and recommendations. 

The addendum also specifies that the city is “open” to an audit that includes evaluation of equitable justice, racial reconciliation and social justice issues, as well as traditional law enforcement issues. 

The LMPD will be required to give auditors access to training curriculum and records, body camera files, all offense and arrest records, and all crime statistics and analysis. 

But the RFP says they will not have to provide access to open Public Integrity Unit investigations or full Police Standard Unit investigations. Public Integrity investigations look at whether an officer broke the law in the course of duty; Public Standard investigations look at whether they violated department rules. The RFP doesn’t explain why those records won’t be made available.

The auditors will also not have access to background checks on officers, and will only receive hiring practice records and employees performance reviews that are not limited by the union contract or state law. 

The police officers’ union says they are eager for the review. 

“No officer working the street writes policies for LMPD,” said Fraternal Order of Police president Ryan Nichols. “When that review gets into procedures and policies, that will be a direct reflection of the mayor and his command staff.”

Experts Say Audits Are Difficult But Necessary

Several experts interviewed by KyCIR said these reviews are a common practice for police departments facing scrutiny. 

“It can only be helpful and can only produce a better police service,” said Dean Esserman, a retired police chief and senior counselor at the National Police Foundation. “It can be tough. It can be a hard process, but you’re usually better once you’re through it.” 

Experts say these audits work best when they are done in collaboration with the community and the officers on the force. There’s often a gap between how policies are written and how officers implement them in practice, not to mention how those policies end up affecting the communities the police serve, said Zoe Thorkildsen, senior research scientist with CNA, a Virginia-based research firm that audits police departments.

“Sometimes the policy says one thing, but there’s sort of become a cultural interpretation of that policy that isn’t fully aligned with sort of what’s written on paper,” said Thorkildsen. “The organization itself isn’t necessarily always in a position to sort of get that honest information back from the officers.” 

Thorkildsen’s specializes in racial bias audits of police departments. She was part of a team that has performed audits of police departments in Charleston, South Carolina; Philadelphia; Las Vegas; Spokane, Washington, and others. She said just the racial bias aspects alone of this kind of audit would take a minimum of six months, but likely closer to a year. 

Charleston spent more than $150,000 on its audit.  

In Thorkildsen’s experience, the most important part of any audit is what happens after the results are in.

She said the most successful audits include a second phase, where the firm or another agency comes in to monitor how well the findings are being implemented by the department. 

“We are able to give them … an independent assessment about whether they had truly implemented a recommendation versus, you know, maybe an agency might think they did but didn’t really get the whole spirit of it,” she said. 

Louisville’s request for proposals does not specify that any monitoring would follow the audit. Thorkildsen pointed to Minneapolis as an example of what can happen when reforms are announced but not sufficiently implemented. 

In 2015, the Department of Justice’s diagnostic center released a report with guidance to help improve police accountability and community trust. Five years later, a police officer with a long history of misconduct kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, killing him, while other officers stood by and watched. 

“By all reports, they were engaged in the process,” said Thorkildsen, who did not work on that audit. “But you can see from the events that took place that those recommendations weren’t probably implemented.”

Other Changes Likely

Louisville’s audit is expected to coincide with the hiring of a new police chief, who will presumably be empowered to implement considerable reforms. 

But Esserman of the National Police Foundation said the success of those reforms will depend more on the rank-and-file officers than senior leadership. He took over the Providence, R.I., police department when it was facing federal intervention and ended up asking the entire senior command staff to retire. 

He said he promoted good, well-respected officers from within to rebuild the command staff. He said, depending on what the audit finds, a new police chief coming in at a moment like this in Louisville might find they need to make similarly sweeping changes. 

“It’s like they say, a crisis is a terrible thing to squander,” he said. “It’s a rare moment in the timeline when change like this is possible, so they have to take advantage of it.” 

And, he said, doing this kind of audit and overhaul now is better than the alternative: waiting for the federal government to do its own investigation and require federally-monitored reforms, usually in the form of a consent decree. 

“It’s always better if a city and its police department can take its own look in the mirror, take a snapshot of itself and be hard on itself than someone do it for them.” 

Bias Has Been Examined Before

This is not LMPD’s first attempt to try to quantify and eradicate racial bias in its policing. Every year since 2013, researchers at the University of Louisville have analyzed traffic stop data from LMPD by race and gender, looking at types of stops and outcomes. 

The most recent version of that report, which looked at traffic stops from 2016-17, laid out at length the ways LMPD said it was combating racial bias in its policing. 

“While analysis of this data cannot confirm nor eliminate a finding of biased policing within the Louisville Metro Police Department,” the report said, “collection of the data reflects an openness and willingness to sustain transparency within police community relations.” 

And yet, still, in 2019, LMPD significantly revised its traffic stop policy — not due to the findings of the annual review, but in response to outcry over a viral video of a traffic stop of an 18-year-old Black man. 

Officers were directed to “weigh the totality of the circumstances” before pulling someone over, WDRB reported at the time.

“Stops based upon the subject’s nervousness alone, the suspect’s prior criminal history alone, or presence in a high-crime area alone are not sufficient factors, by themselves, to establish a reasonable suspicion,” the new guidance advised. 

All officers were directed to be retrained. 

Other audits are still ongoing. Just last month, LMPD released the first part of an overtime audit that Metro Council called for in late 2018. That audit found a lack of monitoring, documentation and accounting of overtime for special events, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars of missed reimbursements. 

The second part of that audit, which looks at officer overtime unrelated to special events, is expected soon. 

Contact Eleanor Klibanoff at eklibanoff@kycir.org.

 

Eleanor Klibanoff is a reporter with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.