Metro Louisville

The protests that erupted in downtown Louisville on May 28 caught the Louisville Metro Police Department off-guard.

Addressing a Louisville Metro Council committee meeting on Wednesday night, Major Aubrey Gregory said the agency was expecting a car-caravan style protest that night, with about 20-30 vehicles.

By then, the police had become familiar with these types of vehicle protests. They were casual, peaceful and usually lasted no more than 20 minutes.

By 10:30 p.m, however, Gregory was at the base of the Second Street bridge in downtown Louisville, surrounded by more than 100 protesters, and putting out a call for help from any law enforcement in the area that could offer it.

“We didn’t have enough people,” he said. 

What followed that night set the stage for months of civil unrest in Louisville. People have taken to the streets every day since, to protest the police killing of 26-year-old Black woman Breonna Taylor, and other issues related to systemic racism. More than 600 arrests have been made, two people have been killed — one by the National Guard — and at least seven others have been shot. The city’s police chief has been fired. Windows have been broken. Reforms have been implemented. And Louisville has become a focal point for justice and accountability as the nation grapples with the burden of police brutality.

On Wednesday, police officials gave their account of what transpired in those early days of protests and the weeks that followed. The Louisville Metro Council’s Government Accountability and Oversight committee has for weeks attempted to question the department’s chief, Robert Schroeder, and Amy Hess, the city’s Chief of Public Safety. On Wednesday, Hess did testify, but Schroeder did not. His lawyer said he would only answer questions if a Jefferson Circuit Court judge said he must.

Still, the committee held a marathon meeting during which council members peppered other top police brass with questions about the department’s response to the protests. Police offered little in the way of retrospection or regrets, and at times contradicted previous statements made by city officials.

“It can’t be understated: What happened on May 28 was a cataclysmic event for this city,” said Lt. Col. Josh Judah, who commanded ground-level deployments and crowd control for the department.

Judah painted a picture of an ongoing street fight between protesters and police officers. Without offering evidence, he said police were repeatedly attacked by “angry” protesters, who were intent on violence and were carrying “medieval weapons.”

“They came there to fight us,” he said. “And we tried not to.”

But the police did use a cadre of non-lethal munitions against protesters. The council members briefly and sporadically questioned the police about the use of such weapons.

Maj. Gregory said he was the first to authorize the use of tear gas against protesters on the night of May 28, moments after seven people were shot just steps away from Metro Hall. 

Gregory claimed the gas was necessary to clear the crowd and make way for police, who were seeking to render aid to the victims. 

Hess, who oversees the police department, said tear gas was routinely used in the early days of protests to disperse “riotous crowds,” though WFPL reporters observed tear gas and pepper balls being used against protesters who weren’t violent. State Rep. Attica Scott filed a formal complaint against the department, alleging she was shoved by an officer and subjected to tear gas without warning, while peacefully protesting prior to the then-imposed city curfew of 9 p.m.

Hess and the other police personnel testified under oath. And though committee chairman Brent Ackerson, a Democrat from Norbourne Estates, said the meeting was a “fact finding”mission, the council members applied little to no pressure to the police to provide evidence, data, or statistics to back up their claims.

“Your answers were candid. Some people might not be happy with your answers,” Ackerson told the law enforcement officials. “But I know this, I am much more educated.”

‘The last problem in the city’

David McAtee was killed in the early morning hours of June 1 after Louisville Metro Police and the National Guard descended on the intersection of 26th Street and West Broadway. The police and guard members opened fire on McAtee after he fired a gun.

McAtee was a beloved restaurateur known for his barbecue, caring spirit and willingness to feed anyone who was hungry.

For months, the official narrative has been that the police and Guard were dispatched to the busy intersection to break up a crowd that had gathered in violation of the 9 p.m. curfew.

On Wednesday, Judah said it was his decision to send the National Guard and police to the area after a long night of protests that he described as highly coordinated. Judah said police “received intelligence” that a group of protesters were “planning on regrouping in the West End.” At the same time, city employees at the Real Time Crime Center reported a crowd gathered at 26th and West Broadway.

“That was the last problem in the city,” Judah said.

This narrative contradicts previous statements made by police and city officials that police were dispatched to the area to break up the large crowd.

Once there, police began firing pepper balls into the crowd almost immediately. Then police and the National Guard fired at least 18 bullets toward McAtee, striking him once and killing him.

Judah declined to provide much detail about the events that led to the shooting of McAtee or the investigation of that shooting, citing ongoing investigations. The Kentucky State Police turned over their investigation of the shooting to the Jefferson Commonwealth Attorney and the Federal Bureau of Investigation early last month.

Following McAtee’s death, several people who knew him criticized the decision to send the National Guard into west Louisville.

Councilman Bill Hollander, a Democrat from Crescent Hill, asked if Judah had “any sensitivity” about sending the National Guard into west Louisville, where a majority of the city’s Black residents reside.

“For me, personally, there wasn’t,” Judah said. “We were sending, from what I viewed, help.”

The former LMPD chief, Steve Conrad, was fired the day after McAtee was killed, after it was revealed the officers who fired their weapons did not have their body cameras activated.

‘Mistakes were made’

A large point of interest for the council members was the notion that Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer had directed a “stand down” order to police to not engage or respond to criminal activity.

Maj. Gregory said he knew of two direct stand down orders. As a result, he said police were “unsure” of what to do with specific protest situations. Gregory said police tried to meet with Fischer to ascertain direction, but failed to do so.

In an emailed statement following the committee meeting, Fischer said his emphasis to the police has been to “deescalate whenever possible, to avoid making difficult situations even worse.”

“It would be negligent for me not to be involved in discussions about how we ensure people can exercise their First Amendment right to protest peacefully while maintaining public safety,” he said. “Yet, I can now understand why some conversations and questions were interpreted as directives. It was never my intent to make LMPD command and officers feel unsupported or unfairly criticized.”

Hess admitted that “mistakes were made,” and they came to a head on June 16: A day, she said, will forever be remembered.

“And not in a positive way,” she said.

Hess said miscommunication had led to some police personnel being put in situations they described as unsafe. There was confusion about who was in control of ground-level operations. On June 16, tensions between police and city officials came to a head, and a meeting was held to develop a strategy for responding to the protests moving forward.

“After that date, we got better,” she said. 

Still, Maj. Paul Humphrey said the current conditions of police and community relations equate to an effective stand down order. Officers are apprehensive about engaging with the public, and commanders are hesitant to send officers out to do things they might not have the public support to do.

“Nobody here is going to say we haven’t messed up a whole lot of stuff in a whole lot of ways. We have,” he said.

Humphrey said police and the public need to work together to figure out a resolution that allows police to do their jobs in a constitutional way that keeps the public safe.

“That’s not where we’re at right now.”

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