As part of its historic, $12 million settlement with the family of Breonna Taylor, Louisville has agreed to implement several major police reforms, including creating an early warning system to identify officer behavioral trends to prevent misconduct.
This is not the first time the city has made such a promise. In the wake of police shootings and as a response to critical audits, the Louisville Metro Police Department has frequently asserted that it already has such a system, or is on the cusp of implementing one.
The current LMPD policy manual says it is actively using such a system. But it’s not, a joint investigation by Newsy and the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting has found.
Despite several promises since at least 2015, the department has never actually activated it, according to LMPD spokesperson Lamont Washington.
Early warning systems can be one of the most powerful tools of police reform, experts say, if implemented properly. The idea is simple, proponents of these systems say: Most police misconduct comes from a few officers. By tracking officer activity, departments can identify trouble spots early and either fix them — with extra training, counseling or discipline — or remove the officer before something much worse happens.
Louisville Metro Council President David James was outraged to hear Mayor Greg Fischer announce the roll out of the early warning system in the settlement press conference.
“That is something that the police department had promoted years ago, and said that they had implemented,” James said. “So I find out today that they had not actually implemented that.”
LMPD declined an interview request, but said in an email that “budget cuts and constriction” had prevented them from fully implementing the system.
A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office said efforts to implement an early warning system were suspended “as the department considered a broader officer wellness program” that incorporates early warning aspects.
James said this revelation raises a lot of questions for him about what other promises haven’t been upheld.
“I, for some reason, felt like if you … said that that’s what you’re doing, then it would seem like that’s what you would do,” James said.
Now, with the legal settlement, the department can no longer delay moving forward. But an early warning system only works in a department that wants it to work, said Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska Omaha who wrote a series of reports on early warning systems for the Department of Justice in the early 2000s.
When an agency waits until a settlement requires them to activate its early warning system, “it’s a gigantic red flag,” said Walker.
How early warning systems work
Early warning systems review officer discipline, citizen complaints, administrative incident reports, attendance, commendations, driving records and other factors to proactively identify areas of concern within a department.
Once an officer has a certain number of infractions — as determined by each individual department — the software sends an alert, flagging the trend. Supervisors can then respond however they see fit: more training, counseling, or, if necessary, disciplinary action.
LMPD has some of this framework in place. Since at least 2009, the city has contracted with CI Technologies, a company that distributes policing software, including a program called IAPro that LMPD says in reports it uses for internal affairs management.
IAPro centralizes all the documentation of officer activity, like administrative incident reports and personnel files. But in addition to gathering these records, IAPro also has the ability to use that information to send early warning alerts about officer behavior. LMPD has chosen not to activate that aspect of the software before now.
Sam Aguiar, an attorney for Taylor’s family, believes Officer Brett Hankison might have been flagged by an early warning system for excessive use of force incidents — if LMPD was using one.
Hankison is one of the three officers who shot and killed Taylor at her apartment in March while serving a “no-knock” search warrant. He was fired in June.
Every police department sets its thresholds for alerts differently, and there’s no way to know what would have happened had LMPD been formally alerted to these trends.
But if Hankison was a police officer in Kentucky’s second-largest city, he would have been flagged repeatedly.
Lexington has had an early warning system for its police department since 2004. By the metrics the Lexington police use, Hankison’s use of force record alone would have triggered an alert at least four times in nine years.
But Taylor’s case is not the first time LMPD has been made aware of an officer with multiple infractions that an early warning system might have caught.
Conrad: LMPD ‘sort of’ has a system
In Beau Gadegaard’s first 18 months as an LMPD officer, he racked up at least ten use-of-force reports. His supervisor deemed them all justified, but he was repeatedly chastised for failing to turn on his body camera.
He also was found to be at fault in an on-duty car accident, and was investigated and later suspended for one day for performing a warrantless search on a group of Black teens playing basketball in west Louisville.
For just these instances, if Gadegaard had been a police officer down the road in Lexington, he would have triggered four alerts in six months.
Then, on August 8, 2016, Gadegaard and two other officers responded to a domestic dispute call. When they arrived on the scene, they encountered Darnell Wicker holding a saw.
The officers shouted for Wicker to drop the saw. When he didn’t, Gadegaard and Officer Taylor Banks opened fire, shooting him 14 times. He died at the scene.
Cincinnati-based civil rights attorney Alphonse Gerhardstein sued LMPD on behalf of Wicker’s family. He recalls being surprised that LMPD’s early warning system hadn’t flagged Gadegaard.
“[He was] someone who had … a lot of curious complaints around his conduct and someone who had repeatedly failed to turn on his body cam when he was involved in a use of force,” Gerhardstein said. “These are the types of things that an employee tracking system picks up.”
It’s not surprising that Gerhardstein believed LMPD had an early warning system.
In response to audits of traffic stops in 2014, 2015-2016 and 2017, LMPD said that it utilized an early warning system software, and was in the process of developing a new system.
In 2015, in a use-of-force policy review, LMPD said it was in the process of implementing an early warning system “for the purpose of identifying work‐related problematic behavioral patterns among officers.”
The agency’s own policy manual says it is currently using such a system.
But when Gerhardstein sat down to depose Conrad in 2017, the truth came out.
“You have an early warning system at the LMPD, right?” Gerhardstein asked.
Conrad responded: “Sort of.”
Gerhardstein asked what “sort of” meant.
“We don’t have one that is operational,” Conrad replied. “It’s referred to in our policy…it has never been operational.”
Gerhardstein recalled the way Conrad’s admission “bonked me over the head.”
“It just clicked that one of the reasons my client was killed was because the man who shot him had never been properly flagged by this very simple tool,” Gerhardstein said in a recent interview. “This department just hadn’t gotten around to implementing it.”
Conrad said in the deposition that Louisville had never implemented its early warning system because leadership couldn’t agree on the thresholds to trigger an alert. He told Gerhardstein that he had since put together a working group to resolve the issue.
“I am told that we are close to having it up and running,” Conrad said.
That was three years — and at least 15 fatal police shootings — ago.
Will it actually be implemented this time?
In the end, Darnell Wicker’s death resulted in a three-day suspension for Gadegaard for failing to turn on his body camera. In February of this year, that suspension was reduced to a written reprimand. He is still employed by LMPD.
Gerhardstein ended up settling the Wicker family’s lawsuit for $1.25 million in late 2019. He said he tried to negotiate for reforms as part of the deal, but nothing came of it.
Just three months later, Breonna Taylor was shot and killed. Her name became a rallying cry, and her family’s civil lawsuit against the city garnered national headlines.
Sam Aguiar, one of the lawyers for Taylor’s family, was also Gerhardstein’s co-counsel on the Wicker case. When he realized that they’d have a chance to push for reforms, Aguiar said one of the first things that came to mind was the early warning system.
“It could have identified Hankison, or Beau Gadegaard, and they’re just sitting on this tool,” Aguiar said.
Now, the city will be forced to implement it. The system will be monitored by the yet-to-be-created Office of Inspector General, and a consulting firm will offer recommendations on how to improve it.
It’s not clear how the city will overcome the roadblocks that have hampered progress in the past, like agreeing on thresholds for alerts and pushback from the police union.
LMPD spokesperson Lamont Washington said the local Fraternal Order of Police chapter was worried the system created “a paper trail of perceived ‘potential’ issues about an officer.” FOP President Ryan Nichols did not respond to request for comment.
Metro Council President James would love to see this project finally come to fruition. But he’s incredibly frustrated that it took the death of Breonna Taylor and others to force the agency to do something he thought they did years ago.
“I just wonder what types of things could have been avoided had that actually been implemented over the years,” James said.
Contact Eleanor Klibanoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was produced in collaboration with Newsy.