The Ninth Mobile Division of the Louisville Metro Police Department spends quite a bit of time in and around the Russell neighborhood.
The division is a revamped version of the VIPER Unit. Like its predecessor, it is tasked with targeting areas with high rates of violent crime. It also focuses on getting guns off the street and fugitives into custody.
So when members swarmed a community center at the corner of 17th and Chestnut streets in unmarked vehicles on Monday morning — not to serve a warrant or make an arrest, but to hand out turkeys — people paid attention. And they were critical.
Louisville Metro Police has eight geographic patrol divisions. The Ninth Mobile is a special division that can be assigned to any area of the city. But because the division targets high-crime areas, many of its 52 officers often find themselves on the streets of Russell — a neighborhood that accounts for more than 16 percent of reported gunshots this calendar year, nearly double the amount of any other neighborhood, according to police data.
On Monday, about a dozen Ninth Mobile officers were dispatched on a different type of run. They were ordered to drop off hundreds of pounds of food to the Plymouth Community Center.
By noon, people packed into the community center awaiting the drop off. Some sat in rows of hard-backed chairs and others stood, making small talk with neighbors.
The officers lined up behind a big box truck. One-by-one, they hoisted and hauled the 130 frozen turkeys and 12 large boxes of canned goods and boxed pastas into the cramped center.
The division uses these interactions as a way to build relationships with the community, said Maj. Kevin Thompson, the Ninth Mobile’s commander.
“We can’t just come in and do our policing and enforcing all the time. We have to build relationships,” he said.
In the couple years it operated, the VIPER Unit garnered a reputation in some parts of the city as a clandestine, aggressive unit. Thompson acknowledged the crew earned the reputation as the city’s “jump out boys,” a moniker given to such units who operate in a bellicose way.
Thompson said it is difficult to build a relationship with a community when you have that reputation.
“It does make it tougher,” he said. “Most of the time they see us, we’re locking someone up.”
He said this attempt at community outreach is not an outright effort to get away from the VIPER Unit brand. But it is a step in that direction, he acknowledged.
About half of the officers assigned to the Ninth Mobile Division were also on VIPER Unit. One key difference is the requirement that officers wear uniforms, adding visibility to the unit. Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad said earlier this year the uniforms also would make officers more approachable.
But this week’s effort at community outreach seemed to fall flat for some residents.
Dawn Hayden noticed that the officers didn’t waste time to file out of the community center once the food was unloaded. Few hung around to help sort the food; even fewer took time to chat with residents.
“There wasn’t any communication between me and them,” he said.
Hayden, 36, praised the officers for showing up. Still, he said he’d like to see more communication, more often.
“There’s more they can do,” he said. “It wasn’t like they tried to find out something about me.”
Pedia Turner, a self-described “criminal” who claims to have been arrested by members of the former VIPER Unit, said the effort from the officers is akin to “crying wolf.”
“Tomorrow, the same [officers] who dropped these off will probably be the same [officers] down there at 34th and Vermont jumping out on people, locking them up,” she said, clutching a turkey as she walked out.
Markham French shook his head when he heard what Turner had to say.
French is the executive director of the Plymouth Community Center. He said he welcomes any support from the Ninth Mobile Division and any other police officer.
Turner’s comments are evidence that strengthening the relationship between the police and the community they’re sworn to serve will take more work, he said.
And, he said, it’ll take both sides — the police and the people — to do it.
“No one group is going to be able to bring both groups together,” he said.