Community

By the end of next month, the Louisville Metro Police Department’s controversial VIPER Unit will cease to exist, Chief Steve Conrad confirmed on Friday. The special 30-member tactical-style unit, under which officers patrolled high-crime areas in plain clothes, was created nearly three years ago to combat violent crime in targeted neighborhoods.

In its place, the department will create a new unit called the Ninth Mobile Division.

The new division will include VIPER officers as well as those who have been working on the Operation TRUST task force, an expansion of VIPER that was established earlier this year in response to a rash of homicides. Unlike VIPER, the officers in the Ninth Mobile Division will wear LMPD uniforms.

VIPER stands for Violent Incident Prevention, Enforcement and Response.

Two officers from each patrol division will also join the new division in six-month rotations, Conrad said. Maj. Kevin Thompson, who has been leading Operation TRUST, will be in charge of the new division, which will focus on violent crime.

Since February, the task force has removed more than 300 guns from Louisville’s streets, Conrad said.

Operation TRUST includes members of the department’s narcotics division and all eight patrol divisions, and it receives support from federal agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the U.S. Marshals. The new unit will include those entities.

Conrad said the success of Operation TRUST sparked the creation of the Ninth Mobile Division.

“We need to focus in on gun-related crimes, and the purpose of the Ninth Mobile Division will be just that,” he said, calling it the “next iteration” of LMPD’s efforts against violent crime.

Like VIPER and TRUST, the Ninth will continue to focus in and around the neighborhoods within the police department’s First and Second patrol divisions — including Russell, Shawnee, Parkland, Park Hill and Park DuValle, Conrad said.

“But they can move as our problems move,” he added.

Maria Haberfield, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said such units can have a positive effect on a community.

“They can actually identify the serial offenders and displace the street crime to another area,” she said.

But there are also drawbacks. Residents may feel like the police target their community because it is a minority or poor neighborhood.

“Thus, people feel labeled as a  group, in a way seeing themselves, collectively, as a police target,” she said.

Anthony Smith, the city’s director of safe and healthy neighborhoods, said residents in those neighborhoods have mixed feelings about the idea of a boosted, targeted police presence. He said younger residents often aren’t interested in seeing more police in their communities, while older residents are often proponents of an increased presence.

Smith couldn’t say if the police presence these residents seek is that of the plain-clothed, tactical style of the VIPER Unit or other specialty units.

“There’s got to be a balance,” he said. “Nobody in the community wants to be afraid to walk in the community, but everybody also doesn’t want a heavy presence where they feel like they’re always policed, either.”

Pete Kraska, chair of graduate studies and research in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, said specialty units can sometimes find difficulty meshing with a community they’re tasked with policing.

“By operating in a somewhat clandestine and aggressive manner, they harbor the potential to create resentment and distrust in the community,” he said.

Kraska added these types of units may be granted “operational autonomy, which can easily devolve into cutting corners.”

Conrad acknowledged the VIPER Unit experienced “some leadership issues,” but the nixing of the specialty unit is not a response to that.

“This is all about trying to move forward,” he said.

One way the new division will differ from the VIPER Unit is that officers in the Ninth Mobile Division will wear khaki uniforms, Conrad said. Officers in the VIPER Unit and Operation TRUST patrolled in plain clothes.

“This way, people will know who they are and who they’re attached to,” Conrad said. “If there is a problem with anything that anyone in the communities sees or perceives as a problem, they’ll be able to say ‘Hey, it was a member of the Ninth Mobile Division.'”

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