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The DOJ found a pattern of misconduct in the Louisville police department. Now what?

Louisville Metro Police Department Interim Chief Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel, along with other city and federal officials, discuss the civil rights investigation at a press conference on Wednesday. Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg (L) and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland (R) are standing to her left.
Luke Sharrett
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AFP via Getty Images
Louisville Metro Police Department Interim Chief Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel, along with other city and federal officials, discuss the civil rights investigation at a press conference on Wednesday. Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg (L) and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland (R) are standing to her left.

Updated March 9, 2023 at 10:50 AM ET

The Louisville Metro Police Department has a pattern of violating civil rights, conducting unlawful searches and discriminating against Black people and people with disabilities, according to federal authorities.

The U.S. Justice Department came to that conclusion after a two-year investigation into the department, which began a year after the police killing of Breonna Taylor and determined it was far from the only example of officers' unlawful conduct between 2016 and 2021.

Officials detailed their findings in a 90-page report released Wednesday, which asserts that LMPD has long "practiced an aggressive style of policing that it deploys selectively, especially against Black people, but also against vulnerable people throughout the city."

Examples include using excessive force (including "unjustified neck restraints"), conducting searches based on invalid warrants, executing search warrants without knocking or announcing themselves, unlawfully searching and arresting people during traffic stops and violating the rights of people "engaged in protected speech critical of policing."

It also accused the department of discriminating against Black people in its enforcement activities and against people with behavioral health disabilities while responding to them in crisis.

The report "paints a very painful picture of our past," says Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg, who took office in January.

He tells Morning Edition that he ran for office knowing he would inherit the report, unaware of what its findings would be but resolved to act on them "so that everyone has a police department that they trust and that they are proud of."

"Many of the incidents that the Justice Department has in its report are infuriating to read, and really infuriating examples of abuse that no one is proud of to happen in their city or any city," he says. "It's unacceptable, inexcusable, and we are focused on where we go from here."

The report recommends 36 improvements the department can make in areas from training (especially around the use of force and search warrants) and documentation to internal affairs and civilian oversight.

Justice Department and Louisville officials have also said they will work together towards a legally enforceable list of reforms known as a consent decree.

Greenberg believes Louisville is "moving in the right direction," noting that the city made some policy changes even before he was elected in November and a new interim police chief took over at the start of the year.

And he echoes the Justice Department's assessment that the majority of Louisville officers are committed to public service for the right reason, though he said that doesn't excuse any of the incidents that took place.

"It doesn't excuse it in the past, it wouldn't excuse it if it takes place right now, and so we are going to focus on that reform, improvement on training, on improving supervision on changing the culture and moving forward from here," Greenberg says.

Greenberg spoke to Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep about what those next steps might look like.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

On whether he thinks Louisville's Black residents, who make up nearly a quarter of the population, have fundamentally different experiences with the police

Historically, maybe even still today, yes, which is unfortunate. And that's what we need to work on, one of the many things that we need to work on. We need to ensure that regardless of what race you are, what your gender is, whether you're a child or an adult, that you see police as someone who is here to help you, there to keep you safe, and that there are incidents when they use the appropriate level of force, they do not use excessive force. So we are going to have a lot of continued conversation and collaboration not just with the Department of Justice but also with the community to ensure that our entire community can trust the police department.

On what he thinks needs to be in the consent decree

Just from our conversations with the Department of Justice over the past few days and yesterday, they are very focused on our training, ensuring that we have the right leaders in place at LMPD and that they have the right training for all of our officers. And then there's supervision of the training, that there's reports of the trainings that we can see very early if there are any patterns that emerge where things aren't going right, and ensure that our officers have the training they need to do constitutional and effective policing. And so I think our LMPD is ready to embrace this — it was definitely a difficult day for them as well yesterday — but we need to deal with the hard truths of the past so we can move forward together as a community.

On whether he's getting any pushback from people concerned about crime

I think everyone in the community wants a good police department; nearly everyone that I've ever interacted with supports having a great police department. In fact, in Louisville right now we actually need more officers — we are nearly 300 officers short, which means we have fewer officers working in the neighborhoods, with community leaders, with members of the clergy, with small business owners that are working to prevent crime. And so I am strongly supportive of having more police officers, we are just going to make sure they have the right training and resources and leadership they need so that they can work collaboratively with the community, in a way that we're proud of, to prevent crime.

On whether it's possible to increase police funding while reforming the police

That is our goal, yes.

The audio interview was edited by HJ Mai.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.