Metro Louisville

If Mayor Greg Fischer’s recommended budget for 2023 is approved next month, the Louisville Metro Police Department would receive $218 million, roughly $25 million more than the current fiscal year. That would amount to nearly a third of the city’s general fund.

Police officials say the additional money will pay for things that make the city safer amid two straight years of record breaking homicides and gun violence. They say it would allow for investments, like better pay and benefits for officers and continuing expanded police surveillance programs. Since he presented his budget back in April, Fischer has repeatedly said his proposal underscores that public safety is Louisville’s top priority.

“Nothing else matters if our people are not safe and able to live and work comfortably throughout our city,” he told Metro Council last month.

But as the council now debates changes to Fischer’s proposal, some residents are pushing to have that funding moved out of the police budget to other social service agencies. Some are also speaking out against the need for increased surveillance.

What’s behind the $25 million increase?

Officials with Louisville’s Office of Management and Budget say the largest chunk of new funding for LMPD, a little more than $10 million, will go toward the pension fund for police officers. 

In part, the increased pension contributions are out of local government’s control. Metro Council’s Budget Chair Bill Hollander, a Democrat representing District 9, said Tuesday that Louisville Metro gets a bill from the state each year laying out their required employer contribution. Since 2019, it has grown by 12% each year, except in the 2020-2021 fiscal year, when the rate increase was paused due to the pandemic. The total contribution for the coming fiscal year is projected to be $132 million, including $52 million for LMPD employees.

Officer raises negotiated between the city and the police union last year are another reason the city has to set more money aside for pension contributions this year, since pensions are tied to salaries. The promised 15% raises over by 2023 is the largest one-time pay increase in the department’s history, officials say.

“So, we’re seeing the increase in two ways: One, the pay we are offering has gone up significantly,” Hollander said. “At the same time, the rate we are paying on that pay has gone up significantly.”

On Tuesday, LMPD Chief Erika Shields told Metro Council’s Budget Committee she believed the higher starting pay was contributing to uptick in recruit applications and a slowdown of resignations and retirements so far this year.

Shields said the department is also using private labs, which are more expensive, for DNA testing, rather than state-run labs. She said they made the switch last year as increasing homicides across Kentucky and worker shortages brought the state testing labs to a crawl.

“And was it worth it? Yes, it was,” Shields said. “It led to multiple arrests, including in the high-profile Tyree Smith [case], the young man who was shot and killed at the bus stop. People we had on our radar as suspects, it hardened our cases against them.”

During a recent public hearing on the proposed budget, a number of residents lined up to speak against increased funding for police. 

Nancy Cavalcante, a member of the advocacy group 490 Project, called on Metro Council to divert money from policing and invest in other resources that address the root causes of crime, including poverty. The 490 Project is a local grassroots organization focused on policing reform.

“There are many institutions and services, some that you’ve even heard from tonight, that could be expanded with the $25 million,” she said at the hearing. “Let’s spend on services such as food justice, reproductive justice, housing security, education programs for our children.”

In an interview with WFPL News, community organizer and West End resident Shauntrice Martin echoed Calvalcante’s call to rethink how the city invests in public safety. She said police don’t prevent crimes, they just respond to them.

“If we were to invert the budget and instead significantly fund departments and programs that prevent the need for policing, then we wouldn’t have the crises we have now,” Martin said. “I’ve listened to the budget hearings where the health department and libraries are just begging for money.”

A push to defund police surveillance

Some members of community groups that have pushed for divesting from policing in recent years — the 490 Project, Black Lives Matter Louisville, the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America — are now trying to pressure Metro Council to cut funding for surveillance technology as part of a Defund LMPD Spying Collective.

Included in LMPD’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2023, which starts July 1, is $900,000 for the department’s partnership with the private company ShotSpotter. The company supplies the infrastructure and software for LMPD’s gunfire detection system.

Until now, ShotSpotter has only been deployed in police divisions covering Old Louisville and West End neighborhoods such as Shawnee, Portland and Russell, areas with higher numbers of Black and working class residents. 

LMPD says it recently doubled ShotSpotter’s footprint in Louisville, from six square miles to 12. The cost has also doubled from the roughly $390,000 the city paid for the service in 2019.

Shield said she believes the program has been effective, alongside LMPD’s expanded use of license plate readers and surveillance cameras placed in high-crime areas.

“I’m a huge believer in technology, especially in the space we are in where we are so short of officers,” she said. “Also, technology can afford you a level of veracity the human element doesn’t bring. It’s not opinion. It’s black and white.”

In addition to funding in the 2023 budget, Louisville police also received $6 million in federal COVID-19 relief last year earmarked for new technology. 

Organizers with the Defund LMPD Spying Collective disagree with Shields. They say ShotSpotter and other surveillance technologies have not been worth the financial and social costs in Louisville and other cities that have deployed them. 

Kaitlyn Selman, a member of the Collective and a criminal justice professor at Bellarmine University, said research shows police surveillance does not generally deter people from committing crimes. 

“I would love it if that were true,” Selman said. “That’s what our criminal justice system is based on — surveillance, detection and then punishment — but it’s not effective.”

As for ShotSpotter specifically, Selman said the technology is only about responding to potential crime, not preventing it. And she said Louisville police don’t investigate the vast majority of gunfire the technology detects. 

Selman acquired data through open records requests that shows LMPD received roughly 14,000 ShotSpotter alerts between Feb. 2020 and Feb. 2022. Police responded to only 9,000 of those alerts, and half the time officers only spent about 10 minutes at the scene.

“That seems to suggest that no further investigation was warranted, that they got to the scene and realized that this was a false alert or there was nothing they could do,” she said. 

The data collected and analyzed by Selman aligns with a 2019 report from the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting that found police responding to ShotSpotter alerts seldom find evidence of a shooting and the alerts rarely lead to an arrest.

Selman said ShotSpotter causes police to be present in the communities where the technology is deployed more often than they would be otherwise. She said the 9,000 police responses between 2020 and 2022 led to about 2,750 hours of police response, or about 114 days.

“This is terrifying because we know even just the smallest point of contact between poor residents, Black and brown residents, and police can be deadly,” she said. “So it’s not ‘Well, most of the calls result in nothing,’ because the police were still there.”

Aaron Ellis, a spokesperson for LMPD, said in a statement that ShotSpotter has helped officers respond more quickly to crimes and locate victims of gun violence who may not be able to call for help.

The Defund LMPD Spying Collective plans to continue attending Metro Council’s public budget hearings and speaking with council members about pulling back on surveillance spending. 

Metro Council is expected to consider amendments to Fischer’s proposed 2023 budget on June 16, with a final vote scheduled for June 23.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL.