Metro Louisville

Following six in-custody deaths at the Louisville jail since November, Metro Council voted Thursday night to launch an independent investigation into conditions at the facility. 

The council voted unanimously to hire a third-party investigator to look into the deaths, as well as any shortcomings in training, policies or procedures that led to them. The chosen investigator will also be responsible for providing Metro Council with a final report that includes potential reforms. 

In addition to the in-custody deaths, jail employees say the facility is understaffed and its infrastructure, like door locks, elevators and radios, are in disrepair. The availability of drugs in the jail has also become a concern after a mass overdose event last year that sent five women to the hospital.

District 19 Council Member Anthony Piagentini, a Republican, authored the resolution launching the investigation. He said the investigation will complement short-term reforms Metro Council is pursuing, such as drug-sniffing dogs and leadership changes.

“You have to do both,” Piagentini said. “You have to do that, and you have to do the detailed, multi-layered strategic look at everything and then come out of it with the big policy recommendations.”

Mayor Greg Fischer, who appoints and oversees jail leaders, recently ordered his own independent review of the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections. The city has also hired two high-ranking public services officials as Assistant Chiefs to help improve the department.

But Piagentini said he doesn’t trust Fischer’s ability to conduct a truly independent investigation. Given that Fischer is ultimately responsible for the jail, Piagentini said it’s like he’s investigating himself. 

“For him to say he’s launching an investigation, that’s a joke,” Piagentini said. “What he means is that he’s hiring someone to help him find out what’s going on and make recommendations, which that’s fine.”

Piagentini said he believes there’s value to having Metro Council conduct a “truly independent” investigation that could find things Fischer might not. He pointed to the Council’s investigation last year of Louisville’s public transit authority, TARC, which found improper vetting lead to the hiring of a director later accused of sexual assault and financial mismanagement. A separate internal investigation instead stopped short of blaming TARC’s board.

Metro Council’s Government Oversight and Audit Committee is now tasked with contracting a third-party investigator.

Metro Council has ‘no confidence’ in jail leadership

Metro Council also approved a no confidence vote against Louisville Metro Department of Corrections Director Dwyane Clark Thursday night. 

The resolution, which states Metro Council has lost confidence in Clark and his executive leadership team, was sponsored by Council Members David James of District 6, Amy Holton Stewart of District 25 and District 13’s Mark Fox, all Democrats. 

The resolution outlines concerns similar to those Piagentini raised: the rash of deaths inside the jail, drug smuggling and a failure by jail leaders to “to aggressively address recruitment and retention issues.”

According to city officials, Metro Corrections is currently short about 25% of its workforce, including more than 130 sworn officers.

Democratic District 7 Council Member Paula McCraney supported the no confidence resolution. At a recent committee meeting, she said it’s not the job of Metro Council to manage city personnel, but she feels this situation requires it. 

“I am begging the [Fischer] administration to get it together,” McCraney said. “Let us work together so that no more lives will be lost because of incompetence, or lack of understanding, or lack of care or a lack of leadership.”

Metro Council members also expressed frustration that Clark has not yet brought on drug-sniffing dogs to deal with drug smuggling in the jail, despite the body allocating money for that purpose last December. 

Holton Stewart, who proposed that funding, said Clark called the proposal “a burden” when she sat down with him late last year. 

“My answer to him was, ‘No, sir. What’s a burden is when your officers are on their hands and knees delivering CPR and Narcan to save lives,’” Holton Stewart said. “And then they have to get up and go back to work without any type of reprieve.”

Ahead of Thursday’s vote, Fischer’s top public safety official, Matt Golden, sent a letter to the Council defending Clark’s performance. Golden wrote that the jail reduced its population under Clark’s leadership, and noted that worker shortages at the Louisville jail are not as severe as other facilities in Kentucky. He also asked Metro Council to delay the no confidence vote until after the body’s planned independent investigation.

District 9 Council Member Bill Hollander echoed Golden’s letter, saying Thursday that passing the ‘no confidence’ resolution before the investigation was like “shoot first, ask questions later.”

Despite Golden’s request, Metro Council approved the ‘no confidence’ resolution by a 18-6 vote.

“An investigation takes months and we don’t have months,” Holton Stewart said in response to Golden’s letter. “We don’t have any time to waste. We need some solid leadership change in Corrections.”

While the no confidence vote is mostly symbolic, the sponsors of the resolution hope to add to the growing pressure on Fischer to fire Clark. The mayor, however, has indicated he is not interested in pushing Clark out the door.

In a statement following Thursday night’s no confidence vote, Fischer called it “an unnecessary distraction.” 

“We welcome constructive engagement with the Council to develop solutions that improve the health and safety conditions for our inmate population and our Metro Corrections employees,” Fischer said.

This story has been updated.

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