Investigations

Mayor Greg Fischer has a short list for a new police chief more than six months after firing former Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad amid scandal and scrutiny.

But the city is breaking with its past practice and keeping finalists for the position secret — even as many other large cities are doing the opposite. 

Jean Porter, a spokesperson for Fischer, said Fischer will announce a new chief by the end of the year. The secrecy surrounding the choice is meant to protect the identity of the candidates, Porter said.

“Disclosure presents a risk to their current employment and a risk to their reputation/credibility if they were not selected,” Porter said via email. 

An eight-member panel signed non-disclosure agreements and interviewed more than 20 applicants for the position. They sent a list of finalists to the Mayor about four weeks ago.

Porter said the candidates “repeatedly identified confidentiality as a top concern,” and she told a reporter to file an open records request to see the non-disclosure agreements. That request hasn’t been fulfilled yet. 

Courtesy Jerry McBroom

Chef David McAtee, preparing food for homeless families at the Volunteers of America family shelter in Louisville.

The search follows Conrad’s firing in June after eight years as chief. The mayor’s decision to let Conrad go came during a tumultuous summer in Louisville sparked by LMPD officers killing Breonna Taylor in March, and worsened by the shooting of David McAtee. National Guardsmen shot and killed McAtee after both guardsmen and police shot at him as he stood in the door of his west Louisville barbecue restaurant. Police said he fired a gun out the door after LMPD officers began pelting the restaurant with pepper balls to break up a crowd and enforce a curfew due to protests downtown.

LMPD officers who shot at McAtee had failed to activate their body cameras, even as protests raged over Taylor’s killing, which also had no video footage. Conrad, who had already announced his intention to retire, was fired the same day. His immediate replacement, Robert Schroeder, retired in September. LMPD’s current interim chief, Yvette Gentry, has said she won’t seek the permanent job.

Louisville officials provided a survey for residents to complete in which they could express what they’d like to see in a new chief. More than 10,100 anonymous responses were collected between June 10 and July 18, according to a city database. More than 2,400 of the responses suggested the next chief “defund the police.”

Other Cities ‘As Transparent As Possible’

Other cities on the hunt for a police chief aren’t being so opaque. 

At least nine cities where police chief searches are underway or were recently completed have publicized lists of finalists. 

Officials in Dallas on Wednesday released a list of seven finalists. In Milwaukee, the three finalists have held virtual public forums and sat for interviews with local news organizations. Four finalists for the top cop job in Madison, Wisconsin have also addressed community questions. Finalists have also been named in Ft. Worth, Texas, Arlington, Texas, Framingham, Mass., Oakland, Calif. and Nashville.

“We wanted to ensure we were as transparent as possible with Nashville residents in selecting the new chief,” said Katie Lentile, spokesperson for the city’s mayor, when asked why the list was made public.

In Louisville, secrecy has not always been the norm when it comes to police chief hiring. Fischer was mayor the last time they filled the job, and he did name the finalists when he hired Conrad. 

Louisville Metro Councilwoman Jessica Green, chair of the council’s public safety committee and member of the panel that interviewed candidates, said consultants with the Police Executive Research Forum — who were hired to facilitate a nationwide search —  encouraged officials to keep the candidates’ names a secret.

“We were led to believe that this was best practice — to not announce the finalist names,” she said. Looking back, however, and seeing other cities openly share candidate names, Green said she wishes there could be more transparency. Green signed a non-disclosure agreement along with the rest of the panel.

“I would have liked for the public to have an opportunity to see who finalists are,” she said.

Keeping secrets like this from the public will only widen the gap between police and the community, said Keturah Herron, policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky.

“Now is the time for the mayor and LMPD to be more transparent, not less,” she said. “There is no reason not to let the public in on this process.”

Councilman James Peden, vice chair of the council’s public safety committee and member of the interviewing panel, said he was surprised to see candidates were named in other cities. But he maintains that the promise of secrecy enabled stronger candidates to apply without fear of reprisal from current employers.

“I feel we got a much better list of candidates to apply up front because it was a closed process,” he said, comparing the candidates he interviewed with the candidates publicized this week in Dallas.

Louisville Metro Council President David James was also on the panel that interviewed candidates for the chief job. He said he’s not bothered by the secrecy surrounding the finalists, who he says should have a right to keep their job searches private from their current employers.

And both James and Peden compared the need for secrecy to recent reports that University of Louisville football coach Scott Satterfield was looking to leave the school for a coaching job at the University of South Carolina. People were upset at those reports, James said, because if they were true it would mean Satterfield was leaving U of L for a lesser program, even though both programs have each won only two conference games this season.

The same can be said for Louisville Metro Police, he said. If a chief makes it known they are seeking out a job in Louisville — which is plagued with problems regarding police and community relationships, and where the lame duck mayor has only a few years left in their tenure — it could damage their reputation.

“You’ve got social civil unrest, a police department that’s riddled with piss poor leadership over a number of years, and you’ve got a mayor that allowed that to happen,” James said. “It’s not like you’re coming into a great situation.”

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.