The final days of May were a whirlwind of protests, violence and vandalism in downtown Louisville that upended the city and set the tone for months of civil unrest that continue today.
In the span of four days, protesters demanding accountability for the police killing of Breonna Taylor were doused with tear gas, pelted with pepper balls and arrested en masse by Louisville Metro Police. Seven people were shot in a still-unsolved incident in the middle of the protest, just steps away from Metro Hall. The National Guard was called in to help LMPD keep the peace and ended up fatally shooting David McAtee.
By June, the city’s central business district was busted up and boarded. The police chief was fired. And downtown was a perennial protest zone.
LMPD’s policies require an analysis of the agency’s response as soon as possible once “the disturbance has been brought under control” following events of civil unrest, like those that transpired in late May. Such a review, known as an after-action report, is considered a key element for critiquing tactics, and can help improve strategies, develop efficiencies and build public trust.
But LMPD hasn’t done any “after-action reports” related to the protests, according to a department spokesperson. And as time passes, memories of these tumultuous days will fade, and lead to the perception that accountability is not a priority, according to policing experts and local leaders.
According to LMPD policy, the reports should focus on operational concerns, problem areas and the efficiency and effectiveness of the entire response. The reports should recommend methods for improving departmental operations, and policies to prepare for future incidents.
Without them, officers may feel like they have a license “to do what you want, because there’s not going to be a report,” said Samuel Walker, an emeritus professor at University of Nebraska-Omaha’s school of criminology and criminal justice.
For police, it’s necessary to create a comprehensive record of how the agency responds to critical incidents, such as a weekend of violent clashes with protesters: waiting too long to review the weekend, or analyze it, could jeopardize the agency’s ability to accurately document what occurred, and determine if policies were followed and assess whether crowd-control strategies were effective, he said.
“This is particularly important when you have injuries or death,” Walker said.
State Rep. Attica Scott attended the protests on Friday, May 29. It was the second night of protests, and hundreds gathered in downtown Louisville to protest the police killing of Taylor, a Black woman who was killed by LMPD officers executing a search warrant at her home.
Scott, a Democrat whose district includes downtown, St. Matthews and west Louisville, said the events were peaceful until police began blanketing the crowd with tear gas.
“It was chaos,” she said. “The police turned it into chaos.”
Now, nearly two months later, Scott said it “makes no sense” that police have yet to analyze their response to the protests during those days in late May.
“To me, it says that LMPD has no interest in learning from their mistakes, that they have absolutely no interest in acknowledging where they have gone wrong and they have absolutely no interest in making sure that they don’t make the same mistakes moving forward,” she said. “That’s why you analyze your actions, so you can learn from them.”
An LMPD spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for an interview about the lack of after-action reports. It’s unclear if any after-action reports have been completed for later protests following those days in May. But emails related to a records request from the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting shed some light on the agency’s records related to the protests.
KyCIR asked LMPD on June 1 for the after-action report for the preceding weekend’s protests. The agency responded to the open records request last week, stating they had no such reports.
KyCIR also requested the agency’s Incident Action Plan for protest events in late May, which would detail the agency’s strategies, goals and tactics for their response. LMPD spokesperson Alicia Smiley said in denying that request that releasing such information would “directly affect the vulnerability and LMPD’s counterterrorism/antiterrorism protective measures and plans” and put officers at risk of violence.
Smiley also said the LMPD has “intercepted multiple plans between violent demonstrators that includes ambushing law enforcement officers at staging locations and known response routes.”
“Violent demonstrators” have accessed police radio communications “so they may evade and attack officers as they move in real time,” Smiley said in an email to KyCIR.
Police have not reported that sort of attack by protesters during the civil unrest, though police have said demonstrators threw water bottles filled with urine and at one point police claimed to have seized unknown flammable substances. Protesters have also vandalized government buildings. Numerous protesters, however, have claimed they were assaulted by police without provocation during their arrests.
After-action reviews should not be overlooked by agency leadership because they help improve public trust — and can lead to “smarter thinking and therefore more effective execution,” according to a report published this year by the National Police Foundation, a non-partisan organization based in Arlington, Va. that aims to improve policing through innovation and science.
The report said that after-action reports should be conducted immediately after an incident and shared with responding agencies to communicate “promising practices, lessons learned, and areas for shared improvement.”
Presently, police departments across the country are facing widespread and continued protests, as well as the fallout that stems from the global COVID-19 pandemic, which together create a unique set of challenges that could impede their ability to conduct in-depth, comprehensive reviews of critical incidents, said Keith Taylor, an adjunct assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Taylor, a former assistant commissioner with the New York City Police Department, said after-action reports are certainly valuable, and necessary. But he said it’s not surprising if they fall to the wayside as agencies deal with the stresses of policing during a pandemic and the workload that comes with ongoing protests.
“It’s quite a chaotic time,” he said.
Additionally, Taylor said current ongoing investigations into incidents that occurred during the first weekend of protests in Louisville could impede the completion of after-action reports.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Kentucky State Police are conducting independent investigations of the June 1 fatal law enforcement shooting of McAtee.
Not completing the reports, however, could also hamper the ability to investigate and review the totality of the police department’s response to protests, said Louisville Metro Council President David James. He pointed to an investigation underway by the Metro Council’s Government Oversight and Audit Committee that will focus on the killings of Breonna Taylor and McAtee, as well as the related protests.
The reports, he said, would help council members get a clear understanding of what took place during the first week of unrest, James said.
“Those documents would be important,” he said. “You need documentation to see what did or did not happen.
James, a Democrat and former LMPD narcotics detective, said after-action reports are commonplace and are routinely completed by LMPD. He was surprised to hear no such report had been completed to analyze the events in late May.
“It doesn’t seem logical,” he said.
Walker, the Nebraska policing expert, pointed out the scope of the protests and the magnitude of their intensity — there were shootings, mass arrests, claims of police brutality, and widespread vandalism that went largely unchecked for hours as buildings were damaged and property destroyed. Those incidents make it all the more important to complete the required analysis of the events and the agency’s response, he said, a task he considers routine police work.
And even though protests and civil unrest in Louisville have been constant since late May, there have been moments of relative calm.
“It’s in that quiet period that you do your report,” Walker said.
Scott, the state representative, said police should conduct thorough analysis of every day they are confronting protesters. The final days of May, she said, are especially in need of review due to the magnitude of the events, damage and violence.
Scott saw protests in St. Matthews, but the police response came with no tear gas, no pepper balls, and no arrests. In west Louisville, there were no protests, but the National Guard responded and killed McAtee, a Black man.
“All of that has to be addressed,” she said. “Because they cannot deny there was disparity in the way they treated people based on place and based on race.”
Correction: Samuel Walker is professor emeritus at University of Nebraska-Omaha. A previous version of this story named the wrong campus.