Kentucky Politics

In the wake of the police killing of Breonna Taylor and protests over racial justice, Louisville created a citizen review board to try and create more oversight of its troubled police department.

Supporters hoped the board would be allowed to issue subpoenas to compel documents and testimony for its investigations. But that power can only be granted by the Republican-led state legislature, which so far has been unwilling to do that.

Earlier this year, bills to give investigative power to the board died amid debates over whether judges should be brought in to sign off on subpoenas, and Republican attempts to tweak the structure of Louisville’s Democratic-run government.

And ahead of this year’s legislative session, lawmakers don’t appear any closer to allowing the civilian review board to issue subpoenas.

During a legislative meeting on Wednesday, Benton Republican Sen. Danny Carroll said police, not citizens, should be in charge of making any fixes to the city’s law enforcement agency.

“I don’t think it’s any big secret that I’m not a big fan of what’s going on in Louisville with this advisory board, or review board,” Carroll said.

“Police officers do not like being forced to do things. So, I would hope that the city of Louisville makes the officers as much a part of this process as they possibly can.”

Carroll said he was encouraged that the board was only operating in an advisory capacity, but that he was worried city leaders would take the panel’s recommendations seriously.

“The concern is even though you say that what comes out of this will be recommendations, without a doubt there will be pressure on the upper administration to follow the recommendations,” Carroll said.

In recent decades, Louisville has repeatedly created civilian review boards after police killings of Black people, but attempts to give the panels real investigative authority have fallen flat.

There appeared to be momentum for the issue in the legislature earlier this year on the heels of Taylor’s killing and last year’s racial justice protests. Lawmakers had heated public discussions during committee hearings.

But the measure that had the most support, penned by Louisville Republican Rep. Jerry Miller, was problematic.

It would have only given the board limited subpoena power; members would have had to get approval from a Metro Council committee. And it would have also required Louisville to have nonpartisan mayoral elections, a provision long-sought by Republicans seeking office in the heavily Democratic city. It stalled after passing out of the House.

Rep. John Blanton, a Republican from Salyersville, said the board shouldn’t second-guess police actions.

“We’re armchair quarterbacking them really harshly for split-second decisions,” Blanton said. “Oftentimes, those officers are scared sometimes when they’re in that situation and they’re trying to survive. They want to live,” Blanton said.

Jennifer Green, chair of the civilian review board, said people in Louisville want more oversight of their police department.

“Our goal is to put into effect all of the great thinking…all with the view of giving ordinary, everyday citizens faith that when they lodge a complaint against law enforcement that there’s someone outside of the court infrastructure that’s taking a look at that,” Green said.

Louisville recently hired an inspector general to lead the 11-member board: Edward Harness, who was the head of a similar agency in Albuquerque.

Albuquerque’s Civilian Police Oversight Agency was created by a federal consent decree after the Department of Justice found a pattern of civil rights violations by the city’s police department. That consent decree also ordered Albuquerque’s civilian review board to have subpoena power.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.