It’s been one year since the downtown shooting that Louisville Metro Police said injured seven people. It happened during the first night of mass protests for Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old Black woman killed by police in her home a little more than two months prior.
Police say they are still looking for suspects.
Five .45 caliber casings, a stranded flip flop, a lost hat and a bloody shirt; these were among the pieces of evidence LMPD officers reported they collected in the aftermath.
The night was heavily streamed, photographed and recorded, yet the specifics of what happened, and why, are scant. And, in the absence of a detailed, official and public report of the incident, different parties offer different versions of events.
Despite the time passed and reported number of victims, police haven’t identified the person or persons responsible for the shooting. An after-action report produced by LMPD Major Aubrey Gregory stated the shooter was a protester who fired on other protesters. A Black Lives Matter Louisville leader said she saw a police officer fire his weapon.
WFPL News spoke with other protesters there that night who also shared conflicting versions of events: Some said it was police, although police said the caliber of recovered bullets doesn’t match what officers are issued and no evidence has been presented to match witness statements. Others said it was a civilian. WFPL’s own reporters were on the scene. Two stood near enough to see victims immediately after the shooting, but neither saw the shooter.
LMPD declined to release body camera footage of the incident to WFPL, saying the records are part of an ongoing investigation. The department also declined an interview for this story and responded with a brief initial statement only after a reporter contacted LMPD spokespeople seven times over a period of weeks.
“LMPD remains committed to making an arrest and welcomes any information that will assist in us (sic) in our efforts. The LMPD Homicide Unit is investigating,” said LMPD spokesperson Dwight Mitchell.
The events of the night unfolded three days after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd.
Demonstrators amassed in downtown Louisville, galvanized by an audio recording of Taylor’s bewildered boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, calling 911 after LMPD officers shot and killed her. Lawyers representing Taylor’s family released the recording earlier that afternoon.
As the sun set, hundreds of protesters filled the streets near the Mayor’s office, City Hall, the Hall of Justice and Jefferson Square Park, which would become home base for the racial justice movement that summer. A first wave of police arrived, then another in riot gear.
That night, the uprising for racial justice in Louisville reached an inflection point. Demonstrations shifted away from occasional car caravans and toward a lengthy, round-the-clock protester presence downtown. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the night culminated in LMPD’s first use of tear gas, pepper balls and flash bangs to quell the protests.
‘Like A Clock Arm’
The protesters gathered in grief, outrage and anger near the Historic City Hall Clock Tower, illuminated green to honor Kentuckians dying of COVID-19.
A group of protesters marched north and east to the Clark Memorial Bridge, where they briefly overwhelmed police before backup arrived. At one point, a band of protesters formed a human shield to protect a lone police officer separated from his unit.
A second group of protesters blocked traffic headed west on Jefferson Street near the intersection with Sixth Street. The two merged outside Metro Hall, forming a crowd of well over a thousand people.
Riot gear-clad police formed a line across Jefferson Street. Black organizers asked white protesters to stand between police and other demonstrators. Some in the crowd began to throw water bottles.
As the crowd swirled in the intersection of Jefferson and Sixth, a protester swung from the hand of the Louis XVI statue. When his weight pulled the hand off, the crowd cheered. Someone else scrawled anti-police graffiti at the statue’s base and on the street.
Shortly after, a crowd formed around a police transport vehicle parked on the sidewalk in front of Metro Hall, which houses the Mayor’s office. Someone jumped on the hood, then others began to smash the vehicle’s windows. Soon, people surrounded and rocked it back and forth, attempting to flip it.
Just before 11:30 p.m., a volley of gunfire rang out — nine shots in quick succession beside the steps of Metro Hall.
Protester John Faughender was livestreaming from the area at the moment the shooting occurred. Faughender told WFPL he stood only feet from a lone shooter. His footage doesn’t show the shooter, but in the audio it’s possible to hear what sounds like a person cocking a firearm immediately before the gunshots.
“I had a feeling it was a pretty random occurrence,” Faughender said. “It was just almost like he was moving his arm back and forth like, tick tock, like a clock arm or something.”
People ran in all directions. At least two people who were shot fell to the ground not far from the police transport vehicle. People screamed and cried out for help. A few stopped to help the wounded.
— 89.3 WFPL News (@WFPLNews) May 29, 2020
Sixteen seconds after the last gunshot, LMPD fired a flash bang above the crowd in the intersection. The explosion sounded similar to a gunshot, but louder, reverberating off the buildings surrounding Jefferson Square Park.
The bang compounded the confusion and anger among protesters. LMPD fired a second flash bang and followed up by firing pepper ball rounds and tear gas. The crowd fell back, but didn’t retreat.
“The police (are) trying to get crowd control. It sounded like they set off a bomb to get the crowd stirred up and maybe some tear gas, but I think someone down there started shooting,” said Larry, a protester at the scene who declined to give his last name, that night. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this, but this is where we are now.”
Police mobilized to push back protesters and attend to those injured in the gunfire.
LMPD reports stated protesters lit small fires, broke windows and sprayed anti-police graffiti in the area, according to an investigative letter assessing property damage downtown written by Det. Ethan Guetig on May 29.
By 1 a.m., heavy rain drenched the area and helped clear out the crowd.
Police Offer Limited Details
Earlier that afternoon, at 4:32 p.m., then-deputy chief Robert Schroeder emailed then-public safety chief Amy Hess. The subject line was “Upcoming Protests.” The email’s body listed five events, including a demonstration planned outside Indi’s on Broadway beginning at 6 p.m., but no mention of a downtown protest that evening.
It is not clear when and how the city decided to respond to the protest that night in the way it did.
LMPD’s incident report from the night lists seven people with injuries; all are Black, six men and one woman, with ages that ranged from 23 to 63 years old. LMPD redacted their names, citing privacy restrictions.
Homicide detective Chris Middleton authored the report that said protests turned violent around 11:30 p.m., when shots were fired “by an unknown person/persons” injuring seven people.
Six people were transported to University of Louisville Hospital with injuries ranging from a “minor graze” to “serious physical injury,” according to the report. Two people underwent surgery shortly after arriving. Another person with injuries was taken to Jewish Hospital.
Middleton said LMPD interviewed four of those shot. All of them said they were attempting to leave the area around Metro Hall when the shots were fired. None of them said they saw the shooter.
The morning after the shooting, LMPD’s Schroeder — who would within days become interim chief — emailed Hess a scene investigation worksheet that indicated the suspect used a .45 caliber firearm.
LMPD’s July 29th after action report for the night is a one-paragraph summary that describes events this way: “Thursday May 28’s activities were primarily violence directed at the police and other rioters. Seven protestors were shot by another protestor in front of metro hall. This resulted in [REDACTED] to save the victims.”
That report was produced by Major Aubrey Gregory, an officer who was shot amid downtown protests in September. Those demonstrations followed Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s decision to offer the grand jury only one option to indict one former officer, Brett Hankison, on charges of wanton endangerment for shooting into Taylor’s neighbors’ apartment.
This month, Gregory was put on paid leave after allegedly using “offensive and derogatory” language during training, according to WDRB.
Gregory’s summary describes protester actions, but doesn’t appear to explain in-depth the police’s actions following the shooting.
Elizabeth Ruoff, an LMPD spokesperson, responded late Thursday to allegations that the shooter was a police officer. She said videos captured by onlookers and posted to YouTube do not show officers in the immediate vicinity of the shooting, and that evidence police collected at the scene was from a .45 caliber semi-automatic weapon, a firearm not issued by LMPD.
Ruoff said some officers carry .45 calibers off-duty, but the ammunition provided for those weapons by LMPD does not match that collected at the scene. She said LMPD is now attempting to speak to all the victims, including those who were not originally interviewed.
LMPD’s Homicide Unit couldn’t find any witnesses to interview when they appeared on scene that night, Ruoff said.
Ruoff also said no one has contacted the homicide or tip line in reference to the shootings, but Faughender, who was livestreaming as the shooting happened, told WFPL he left an anonymous tip in the days after the shooting.
Chanelle Helm of Black Lives Matter Louisville said those who showed up to demonstrate that night were Louisville residents, people she said are used to being terrorized by local police. She’s a vocal critic of LMPD who favors abolishing all police.
Helm remembers the shooting differently than LMPD reported it, and said she believes it was an officer who fired the shots, though she did not provide evidence beyond her eyewitness account to support this claim.
She believes LMPD was not prepared for what happened that night. To her, the police arrived armed and with the intention to use their weapons.
The Impact Of May 28th
LMPD’s interactions with protesters that night set the tone for the days to come.
Trust between protesters and police, which was already tenuous, splintered. Police officers destroyed supplies including water bottles brought to Jefferson Square Park by protesters. Fischer said the bottles contained hazardous materials, but provided no evidence for his claims.
As the weekend progressed, protester arrests mounted.
After midnight on Monday morning, June 1, LMPD and National Guard soldiers arrived at 26th Street and Broadway, many blocks west of the protests, and moved to clear out a large social gathering that was in violation of a citywide curfew. They started with pepper balls, then switched to bullets. A National Guard soldier shot and killed barbecue chef David McAtee.
That was the start of the largest movement for racial justice in Louisville since the Civil Rights era.
Clarification: Language has been updated to make clear that the allegation that a police officer shot protesters isn’t supported beyond eyewitness accounts.
WFPL City Editor Amina Elahi contributed to this story.