By Tom Peterson, Michigan Advance
On what would have been her 28th birthday, June 5, 2021, Breonna Taylor was remembered with an art installation in Louisville, Ky. Months of protests following her death in 2020 led to the March 8, 2023, U.S. Justice Department report exposing a culture of unconstitutional abuse in the Louisville police. // Jon Cherry/Getty Images via Kentucky Lantern
The fallout of the 2020 Breonna Taylor killing by police, resulting from an invalid warrant, made clear that the Louisville police department has serious problems in management and training.
But a two-year federal investigation into the department exposed the depth of the bullying and overall disrespect toward citizens. Attorney General Merrick Garland rightly described the results in the report as “heartbreaking. … It is an affront to the people of Louisville who deserve better.”
The department violated residents’ constitutional rights: illegal stops, detentions and arrests; excessive force with neck restraints, stun guns and dog bites; inadequate attention to sexual assault and domestic-violence cases; yelling and name-calling, which escalate conflicts.
Black residents were targeted and routinely called “animal,” “monkey” and “boy.” A group of detectives in 2018 and 2019 filmed themselves throwing drinks at pedestrians as they drove by and then distributed the cellphone videos. Two detectives pleaded guilty in June to civil rights violations in that case.
The department “cites people for minor offenses, like wide turns and broken taillights, while serious crimes such as sexual assault and homicides go unsolved,” Garland said at a press conference in Louisville. Meanwhile, an inadequate internal-affairs department and a confusing citizen-complaint process make it harder to root out troublemakers.
It’s the type of policing one would expect to find in the Deep South decades ago, not today in Kentucky’s largest and most racially diverse city.
“This report paints a painful picture of LMPD’s past, but it helps point us in the right direction for our future,” said Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg, who took office in January. “To those people who have been harmed, on behalf of our city government, I’m sorry.”
The city and the police department will now negotiate a consent decree that would place a judge in charge of overseeing overdue reforms in 36 areas of operation, including training, administration, community response and employee management.
The totality of the department’s rot would not have been laid bare without the demands of Breonna Taylor’s family, vigilant protests by Louisville citizens and the support they garnered across the country. Continued scrutiny is essential for substantive change.
Garland praised some reforms already under way as part of the Metro government ‘s $12 million settlement of the Taylor wrongful death lawsuit. They include improved crisis intervention, more citizen oversight, and an “early warning” system for troubled officers.
DOJ has charged four former Louisville police officers in connection to that raid. They lied to get a no-knock search warrant and opened fire on the 26-year-old emergency-room technician who had been in bed when she heard pounding then police breaking down her apartment door.
Over the last five years, the city has paid more than $40 million to settle dozens of lawsuits accusing police of complaints ranging from wrongful arrests to drivers who were stopped and searched illegally.
Federal scrutiny presents an opportunity for Louisville and other local governments in Kentucky to rethink public safety, taking best practices from cities that have gone through the consent-decree process. It would not only benefit citizens but also the officers who deserve a well-run department that adequately prepares them to protect and serve.
“My hope is that everyone in Louisville will come together and see the findings of this report as an urgent opportunity to take intentional steps for positive, lasting change,” Gov. Andy Beshear said in a tweet.
Tamika Palmer, mother of Breonna Taylor, views the DOJ report as validation that “Breonna’s death is not in vain.”
“Our fight will protect future potential victims from LMPD’s racist tactics and behavior,” she said. “The time for terrorizing the Black community with no repercussions is over.”
Vanessa Gallman, a Kentucky Lantern freelance columnist, worked for more than two decades as editorial page editor for the Lexington Herald-Leader. She was also a local government editor for The Washington Post and a national correspondent for Knight-Ridder Inc.
The Kentucky Lantern is an independent, nonpartisan, free news service. We’re based in Frankfort a short walk from the Capitol, but all of Kentucky is our beat. We focus on how decisions made in the marble halls of power ripple through the lives of Kentuckians. We bring attention to injustices and hold institutions and officials accountable. We tell the stories of Kentuckians who are making a difference and shine a light on what’s working. Our journalism is aimed at building a fairer, healthier Kentucky for all.
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