The model city: Inside LMPD’s failure to reform itself Friday, Oct 22 2021 

J. Tyler Franklin

LMPD SRT officers and protesters in late May 2020

When hundreds of people took to the streets in Louisville, Ky. in May 2020, they were protesting the police killing of Breonna Taylor — and a police department they felt unfairly targeted and mistreated Black residents.

The protests stretched for months and helped launch a national reckoning about race, policing and public safety in America.

This wasn’t supposed to happen in Louisville.

These protests reflected the chasm of distrust between the Louisville Metro Police Department and the people they police, and followed five years of broken promises, unheeded warnings, and failed efforts to build a better relationship.

In 2015, Louisville embarked on an ambitious plan to reform its police department. The Department of Justice offered Louisville concrete recommendations, grants and coaching. The LMPD said it had overhauled training, changed policies and completed hundreds of reform initiatives. City leaders were honored at the White House in 2016 for these efforts.

Louisville portrayed itself as a model city that would show the rest of the nation how to maintain public safety while building community relationships and trust.

In May 2020, that facade came crumbling down as the nation learned what many in Louisville already knew: LMPD had not meaningfully changed how it policed the city.

How did Louisville go from a national leader in policing to an epicenter of the movement for racial justice in the United States? Listen now and subscribe in your favorite podcast app.

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and Newsy spent the last year reviewing thousands of pages of documents and interviewing dozens of people to understand how Louisville went from a national leader in policing reform to the face of a national movement protesting the police.

The investigation found that Louisville took a “checkbox” approach to reform, focusing on attainable or easily documented reforms rather than actually changing how they policed. The LMPD claimed to have implemented some changes that never happened, or made little difference. At the same time, the department invested in controversial violent crime units and encouraged officers to aggressively patrol certain Black neighborhoods.

When demonstrations broke out last May, the department relied on tactics that they’d specifically been warned against using. By the end of that first weekend of protests, another Black person was dead after a shooting involving LMPD and the National Guard.

Eleanor Klibanoff

Mayor Greg Fischer hugs David McAtee’s mother at the scene of his shooting on June 1, 2020.

Longtime LMPD Chief Steve Conrad was fired after that shooting in June 2020 when it came to light that the LMPD officers who fired their weapons hadn’t activated their body cameras. Conrad did not respond to requests for comment and LMPD did not make current department leadership available for an interview. In a statement, they said the department successfully implemented reforms in some areas but faced challenges in others, due to changing demands from the community, economic issues and evolving technology.

LMPD spokesperson Beth Ruoff noted the department’s current command staff is “committed to evolving and improving in those areas where it readily acknowledges improvement is needed.”

Checked boxes, but little change

More than a month after a grand jury decided not to indict the Ferguson, Missouri police officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, President Barack Obama spoke about the need for change.

“Ferguson laid bare a problem that is not unique to St. Louis or that area, and is not unique to our time,” Obama said in December 2014. “That is a simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color.”

In Louisville, that tension was felt most acutely in the city’s West End. The West End is predominately Black, and after decades of segregation and disinvestment, parts of it are extremely poor — about 40% of people in the West End live below the poverty line, compared to just 14% in the whole county.

LMPD data show that parts of the West End have high rates of violent crime, and the police department has admitted to targeting some of these neighborhoods with aggressive patrols.

Black residents are more likely to be stopped, cited and arrested citywide than white residents, according to a January 2021 audit from consulting firm Hillard Heintze commissioned by the city in the wake of the protests.

Nearly half of all Black respondents surveyed for the audit said they don’t trust LMPD.

This was the sort of “simmering distrust” that Obama had hoped to help cities address. His administration put together a policing reform task force, which consulted experts, activists, community leaders and law enforcement across the country to produce a 116-page guidebook on “21st Century Policing.” The report detailed how local police departments could build community relationships, gain legitimacy in the eyes of the people they serve and fight crime without burning trust.

Louisville city and department officials were immediately on board. In 2016, they were invited to the White House as one of 15 cities that were going to model 21st Century Policing to the rest of the nation.

In Louisville, Conrad called the 21st Century Policing report a “gift of best practices” that could change the way LMPD operated.

“My hope is that together we will not only make our communities safer, but we will improve the relationships between police and the community we serve moving forward,” Conrad said in 2016.

Over a series of community forums hosted by the department, Conrad acknowledged his department’s role in the broken relationship between the police and Louisville’s Black community. He said things would be different going forward: everyone in Louisville would be treated with dignity, respect and fairness by the police, no matter who they were or what neighborhood they lived in.

Officers were going to be trained on having a “guardian,” rather than a “warrior” mindset, and seeking to build relationships. LMPD was going to focus on community policing — identifying problems and implementing solutions alongside the people most affected.

“When I heard it, it was like a breath of fresh air,” said Bishop Dennis V. Lyons, a pastor at Gospel Missionary Church in the West End. “We [are] now going to get some justice with the police.”

Bishop Dennis Lyons, smiling, wearing a suit and tie, an embroidered hat and a mask around his chin

Bishop Dennis V. Lyons

Lyons, a longtime civil rights leader, used his church bus to bring people to one of these forums. He even got his own copy of the task force report, which he still has, as tattered and torn as a well-loved teddy bear.

By the time LMPD hosted these forums in 2016, the department had already overhauled its training curriculum and revised policies and procedures to better align with 21st Century Policing values. The department created a community policing unit, and started posting crime data online as part of their transparency efforts.

Lyons felt like they’d just hosted those forums so they could document their community involvement efforts. He has come to see that this was indicative of the department’s whole approach to reform.

“The police were always ready…for us to attend their seminars, but they were never willing to attend our seminars,” Lyons said. “It became one-sided, still, became that same mentality of master-slave.”

Lyons also felt the department focused on good PR. An example was the Clergy Police Academy, a one-day workshop the department started hosting in 2016 to educate religious leaders about LMPD. Lyons signed up pastors hoping the police would call on them to help build community relationships.

“Never one time [did they] call that team together,” he said.

In a recent statement to KyCIR and Newsy, an LMPD spokesperson said they did call on the clergy on different occasions, and hoped to reinvigorate that effort going forward.

By February 2017, less than two years after the 21st Century Policing report was released, Louisville claimed in internal documents that they had completed 351 different reform initiatives.

The department did make some meaningful changes: they equipped most officers with body cameras, and according to a 2020 study from the University of Cincinnati and the International Association of Chief of Police, officer use-of-force reports have declined since 2015.

But many of the promised reforms never happened. Several people with knowledge of LMPD’s reform efforts, including Lyons, described LMPD’s approach to 21st Century Policing the same way — checkbox reform.

“They checked a bunch of boxes to say that they were 21st Century, and they put it on a wall, and the mayor had a big ceremony,” said Metro Council President and former LMPD detective David James. “And we hadn’t changed anything.”

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In its 21st Century Policing documentation, LMPD claimed to have an early warning system, a tool experts say can be one of the most important parts of a police department’s accountability system. But KyCIR/Newsy found that they never actually implemented it.

Additionally, 21st Century Policing said law enforcement should require that a third party investigate police shootings.

LMPD marked that recommendation as “already implemented,” even as the department’s internal investigative unit continued to handle those cases. They claimed that the unit’s capacity to adequately handle investigations was “greater than any external capacity.”

The checkbox mentality was felt inside the department, too, as officers say they struggled to keep up with the flurry of new initiatives, training requirements and policy changes.

“You can’t come into work and sit down at a computer for an hour and a half and fully read all of these policies…while runs are holding,” said Dave Mutchler, a retired LMPD sergeant and press secretary for the police union. “What you run into is [officers] click and move on. ‘I’ll look at it later.’”

LMPD changed its use of force policy 10 times in five years, according to a recent audit, and failed to properly train officers on these changes.

Former LMPD deputy chief Michael Sullivan, now a deputy commissioner at the Baltimore Police Department, helped oversee LMPD’s implementation of 21st Century Policing. He acknowledged in an interview with KyCIR/Newsy that the department didn’t do enough to determine whether new policies were translating into meaningful change.

“You can have the best policies in the world,” he said. “But if you don’t know and can’t say with confidence that this policy is being followed…you can’t honestly say that that policy has changed anything.”

‘The house is on fire’

While documenting hundreds of reforms on paper, the department continued to invest in a style of policing that had the potential to damage trust.

Back when Louisville was implementing 21st Century Policing, the department wasn’t just battling a crisis of legitimacy. They were also facing a homicide surge. Louisville had 117 homicides in 2016, the deadliest year they had seen in decades.

Sullivan conceded that this took the department’s eye off of reform.

“When the house is on fire, you have to put it out before you start rebuilding it,” Sullivan said.

In 2016, the department moved resources away from neighborhood beats and into citywide violent crime units. Even as homicides declined over the next few years, LMPD continued to aggressively patrol parts of the West End.

Sullivan said the department did see reductions in crime.

“With that, the next question is, in Louisville, what was the cost of that crime reduction?” Sullivan said. “Was there a loss of community trust?”

Tae-Ahn Lea was exactly the kind of person LMPD might have wanted to forge a relationship with.

Tae-Ahn Lea in 2019

In 2018, he was 18, a young Black man who grew up in the West End, had no criminal record, and said he had no issue with the police.

That changed when he left a gas station with a slushie — and was promptly pulled over by an LMPD officer for a wide turn.

LMPD detectives Kevin Crawford and Gabe Hellard got Lea out of the car and patted him down. When a detective said the police dog registered a positive indication on Lea’s car, they handcuffed him. The traffic stop took nearly half an hour and found no drugs.

During the stop, Hellard pointed out that Lea’s heart was racing and he’d gotten his mother on the phone.

“When you do all that, that’s the same thing people do when they’re trying to hide something from the police,” Hellard said.

Lea later testified to Metro Council that he was scared and just trying to follow the precautions his mother had taught him “due to recent videos and encounters with other Black men and officers, shootings and everything like that.”

Hellard described the stop as a small inconvenience for Lea — and just another day at work for these officers.

“We deal with violent crime all day every day,” Hellard said. “We’re going to stop 30 more people after you.”

Crawford and Hellard did not respond to requests for comment. But Crawford later said in a deposition that he believed Lea was involved in criminal activity because he was slow to pull over and when asked if he had any weapons, he didn’t tell the officers there was a baseball bat in the car. Body camera footage shows Lea putting on his blinker to pull over immediately after the sirens start.

Hellard told LMPD investigators that Lea was “verbally aggressive” and created a safety issue for the officers when he answered the phone call from his mother.

The detectives that stopped Lea were with the 9th Mobile Division, a citywide violent crime unit created in 2015. This unit became known for aggressive traffic stops, some of which generated lawsuits or resulted in evidence being thrown out by judges after the searches were ruled unconstitutional.

KyCIR and Newsy found that 9th Mobile officers were at least 2.9 times as likely to be investigated for policy violations as the rest of the force.

According to documentation of LMPD’s 21st Century Policing efforts, 9th Mobile was going to gain the community’s trust by issuing citations rather than making arrests “whenever possible.”

But 9th Mobile was charged with making the city safer by getting the most violent criminals off the streets, Sullivan said.

“That doesn’t include…throwing a wide net and scooping up people that don’t need to be scooped up and brought into the criminal justice system on low-level offenses,” Sullivan said. “That’s the one thing that doesn’t build trust.”

But the LMPD was relying on this type of policing amid the homicide surge. Conrad called 9th Mobile the “the tip of the spear” of the LMPD’s crime fighting strategy.

These tactics weren’t limited to this one unit. At a 2019 Metro Council hearing, Councilmember Bill Hollander read aloud from an email he’d received from LMPD Major Eric Johnson. Hollander said Johnson wrote that he’d directed his officers in parts of the West End to “take as much enforcement as possible” and “aggressively patrol” those neighborhoods.

Three years before this hearing, Johnson had gone to the White House as part of the team that implemented 21st Century Policing in Louisville. And now, he was defending policing tactics the department knew had the potential to violate trust.

That’s what happened with Tae-Ahn Lea, who left that traffic stop with a citation that was dismissed in court. He has a federal civil rights lawsuit pending against LMPD leadership and the officers who pulled him over. He declined an interview request through his lawyer.

Lea told the Metro Council in 2019 that he’d grown up believing that if you don’t do anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about with the police.

“This experience has definitely changed my view,” he said. “That’s obviously not true in this situation.”

After that hearing, Conrad changed LMPD’s traffic stop policy, specifying that merely being nervous or in a high-crime area did not justify getting drivers out of their car or handcuffing them.

Understaffing leaves little time for community policing

While aggressively combatting the homicide surge, LMPD continued to promote its commitment to 21st Century Policing.

In 2016, the department used a federal grant to hire 10 officers to create a Community Policing Unit.

These officers handed out Christmas presents and books to kids, created a mentorship program for young girls and brought “DJ Justice” — an LMPD officer who moonlighted as a DJ — out to community events.

Laurie O. Robinson, professor emerita at George Mason University and co-chair of the 21st Century Policing task force, said creating a community policing unit contradicts the report, which intentionally notes that the responsibility of community policing should not be placed on one designated unit.

“Community policing has to be…the culture of the entire department,” she said. “It’s not setting up one unit that has five people on bicycles riding around.”

LMPD leadership was portraying this community policing effort as a full-time, full-department initiative. Conrad said in July 2016 that the department had documented more than a thousand times that year that officers had gotten out of their cars to talk with community members. But that comes to about one interaction per officer.

Former LMPD Sgt. Kevin Trees

Officers wanted to have the time to get out of their cars and build community relationships, according to former LMPD Sergeant Kevin Trees. A recent audit found that 70% of LMPD officers surveyed said they believe LMPD’s role should be to build and sustain collaborative community relationships.

But with low staffing and rising gun violence, Trees said the department didn’t make that possible.

“We simply do not have the manpower to be able to get out on the streets and make the runs and get with the community and just be available, for anything,” said Trees, who retired in 2019 after 20 years with LMPD, most of it in the West End. “We just don’t have the time anymore.”

For much of the last decade, LMPD has had around 1,200 sworn officers on staff — roughly the same number of officers as was budgeted for in 2004, even as homicides have surged and the city’s population has crept up.

Greg Fischer during an interview with KyCIR/Newsy

Louisville has struggled to recruit and retain officers, due in part to low salaries. Last summer, officers were given a significant raise in a short term contract, bringing starting salaries to $49,000. Taking inflation into account, that’s roughly the same starting salary the department offered in 2004.

And starting salaries at LMPD are still much less than in similar sized cities. In Cincinnati, for example, officers start at just over $65,000 a year — a third more than in Louisville.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said in an interview earlier this year that Louisville’s budget is “lean” compared to comparable cities.

“I would always like to have more money,” Fischer said. “But so the question then becomes, how do you balance what you have with public safety, with libraries, with trash pickup, with economic development, and all these other activities?”

Officers and community members say these low salaries come at a real cost.

Submitted

Shameka Parrish-Wright

“I don’t have a problem with paying them well,” said Louisville civil rights activist and mayoral candidate Shameka Parrish-Wright. “I don’t want no officer who feels underpaid patrolling my communities, because you’re going to come with the attitude, you’re going to be upset…you need to know that your job matters.”

But Parrish-Wright said, in return, the department needs to hold all officers accountable when they engage in misconduct.

Without that, she said, Louisville has seen this chasm of mistrust between police and Black communities only grow.

LMPD’s legitimacy in the eyes of the community had been badly damaged in recent years. Three officers were convicted of various charges after being accused of sexually abusing minors in the department’s Youth Explorer program. Several traffic stops, including Tae-Ahn Lea’s, sparked outrage.

For several years, it felt like the kindling was piling up — and all it would take was a spark to set the city ablaze.

Protests show LMPD missed the message

On March 13, 2020, in the middle of the night, a group of LMPD officers gathered to serve a no-knock search warrant on the apartment of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor. When they busted down her door, her boyfriend fired a shot at them and they returned fire, killing Taylor in her hallway.

Protests broke out more than two months later, hours after the Courier Journal released Taylor’s boyfriend’s 911 call and days after a Minneapolis Police officer murdered George Floyd. That night launched a months-long movement that showed the world just how far LMPD had fallen from the promises they’d made years prior.

Hundreds of people gathered downtown, chanting, singing and marching. As night fell, the police and protesters began to clash. Protesters surrounded police cars and the city later said it looked like they were trying to get the officers out of the cars. Police were in riot gear, using sticks and shields as they marched on the crowds.

Ryan Van Velzer

Police fire tear gas and pepper balls on protesters after seven were shot in downtown Louisville on May 28,2020.

Around 11:30 p.m., seven people were shot from within the crowd. In the chaos, someone set off fireworks. People were running and screaming. The police responded with flash-bangs, pepper balls and tear gas.

This incident seemed to set the stage for the rest of the weekend. The vast majority of protesters were just peacefully trying to have their voices heard. But each night, some took things a step further — shattering windows, lighting trash cans on fire, and throwing fireworks. Someone threw a Molotov cocktail that caught an officers’ pant leg on fire. The city said police officers were shot at several times. There was vandalism and burglary at stores downtown.

As the protests overwhelmed the police, they relied on crowd control techniques that 21st Century Policing specifically warned against using.

21st Century Policing emphasizes taking a demilitarized approach to mass demonstrations. Experts who testified to the task force cautioned against using tear gas or bringing rifles or armored vehicles to protests, all things LMPD did that first weekend.

LMPD received some of this advice firsthand when Ron Davis, the executive director of the 21st Century Policing task force, visited in 2016. Davis declined an interview request. But Rashaad Abdur-Rahman, then-executive director of the Office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods, remembers Davis’s warning.

Chief Steve Conrad, center, speaks during a 2016 press conference. Behind is Rashaad Abdur-Rahman and Ron Davis of the COPS office.

“What stuck out to me and I’ll probably never forget, is that he specifically spoke about … protests, and how police need to stop using tanks and tear gas and rubber bullets and riot shields and billy clubs,” Abdur-Rahman said. “He was like, ‘You’ve got to stop doing that stuff. Because we have seen in Ferguson how this escalated situations and makes things worse.’”

LMPD used tear gas every night for the first five nights; two weeks into the protests, the department changed its policy to require the chief or his designee to approve use of tear gas.

The Kentucky State Police and National Guard came to assist LMPD, and the Mayor instituted a citywide curfew.

Ryan Van Velzer

Carmen Jones shows an injury she said is from being struck by a pepper ball round prior to her arrest.

Officers were armed with pepper ball guns, which LMPD policy says should be fired at the ground or above the crowd, rather than directly at people. But officers were seen shooting people with the less-than-lethal munitions at close range, from vantage points above the crowd, and at identified members of the media.

LMPD Officer Katie Crews shared on Facebook a photo from the Courier Journal of a young woman offering her a flower the first night of protests; Crews wrote in a Facebook post that the girl was “doing a lot more than offering flowers.”

“I hope the pepper balls that she got lit up with a little later on hurt,” Crews wrote. “Come back and get ya some more ole girl, I’ll be on the line again tonight.”

Crews did not respond to a request for comment.

On the fourth night of protests, after another night of tear gas, pepper balls and mass arrests by LMPD, downtown was mostly quiet. LMPD officials later said they got intelligence that protesters may have been planning to regroup in the West End.

Crews was part of a group of LMPD officers and Guardsmen who went to 26th and Broadway, a well-known and rowdy intersection featuring a nightclub, a gas station and a barbecue restaurant called Yaya’s, owned by David McAtee.

It wasn’t a protest, but it was a curfew violation, so the police started ordering people to leave. Some people ran into Yaya’s Barbecue, and Crews approached the restaurant. She fired pepper balls, at least one of which hit McAtee’s niece, who was standing in the doorway of the restaurant.

In this still from surveillance video, David McAtee (at top) is leaning out the door after the people in the foreground rushed in.

“She was standing — I don’t wanna say in an aggressive manner, but as a manner that she was not gonna go inside,” Crews later told investigators. “After giving verbal commands, I did shoot more balls in her direction.””

Amid the chaos, McAtee leaned out the door and fired two shots. Crews, another officer and two Guardsmen fired back.

McAtee, 53, was struck once in the chest and killed by a Guardsman’s bullet.

McAtee’s death was a shock to the city. He had been known for feeding the police for free, in an effort to do exactly what the city had said for years they wanted to do — build a relationship between the police and the West End.

Crews, another LMPD officer and two Guardsmen who fired their weapons were cleared of criminal wrongdoing.

Bishop Dennis V. Lyons’ funeral home prepared McAtee’s body for the funeral, dressing him in a crisp, white suit, laying him in a black coffin, tucking his long braids neatly under his head.

Just five years after he’d optimistically attended those 21st Century Policing forums, Lyons stood behind a pulpit during McAtee’s service, trying to put into words the human toll of this city’s broken promises.

He harkened back to 2015, when the newspaper proudly touted LMPD’s commitment to reform.

“Here we are five years later with the same caption: ‘Police call for reform of the police department,’” he said.

Lyons offered a grim warning to the city.

“As long as we keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll keep getting what we’re getting.”

 

The answer is still 21st Century Policing

Louisville today is facing even greater challenges than what the city experienced in 2016.

In 2020, the city had 173 homicides, a nearly 50% increase from the previous high. This year is on track to surpass 2020. A recent audit called LMPD a “department in crisis” and found that 75% of officers would leave if they could.

And the chasm between the police and the community seems wider than ever.

Despite all this, Mayor Fischer says he has “never been more optimistic” about the city’s future.

“The opportunity coming out of this is to be a model city in terms of police reform, police community legitimacy, co-production of safety with the police and the community, and then racial equity as well,” Fischer said. “That’s our goal. That’s what I’m going to continue to work on until my last day in office.”

Fischer said he regretted not auditing the department’s reform efforts more closely. But he doesn’t see the events of 2020 as an indictment of the city’s past attempts at reform.

“Things happen in life, no matter how perfect you are,” he said. “No matter how hard you try, it’s things outside of your control.”

Fischer, a term-limited Democrat, will leave office in early January 2023. His pick to lead the police department, former Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields, is a strong indication that he hopes the city will remain committed to 21st Century Policing.

Chelsea Ketchum

LMPD Chief Erika Shields

Back in 2016, Atlanta was also chosen by the Obama Department of Justice to model 21st Century Policing for the rest of the country.

LMPD did not make Shields available for an interview, but she spoke with a reporter briefly after a recent event. She said she thinks Atlanta had success with 21st Century Policing, and proposed a greater focus going forward on use-of-force training and transparency.

“It was fantastic,” she said. “They need to come out with a 2.0…A lot has changed in the last six years.”

Both Fischer and Shields have pointed to the numerous promises Louisville has made in the wake of the Breonna Taylor shooting as evidence of the city’s progress.

But KyCIR and Newsy found that LMPD considered many of these reforms back when they were first rolling out 21st Century Policing.

The city has now asked the Kentucky State Police to investigate LMPD shootings, and created a more significant civilian review apparatus. As part of a $12 million settlement with Taylor’s family, Fischer also agreed to finally activate the early warning system for officers and offer housing credits to encourage officers to live in low-income areas of the city, mostly in the West End.

But even now, years after they were first considered, these more recent promises are falling short. The state police investigations have proven less transparent than LMPD’s. The state legislature didn’t grant the civilian review board subpoena power, so it’s not as strong as initially hoped. No officers have taken advantage of the housing credits, and the early warning system still hasn’t been activated.

There is one notable difference now. In April 2021, five years after Louisville city officials were lauded by the Department of Justice for their policing reform efforts, the same federal agency opened a civil rights investigation into the city government and police department.

If that investigation concludes that LMPD has engaged in a pattern or practice of violating its citizens’ civil rights, the city would likely be put under a consent decree — a legally binding reform plan that would require Louisville to meaningfully change how the department polices.

Federal intervention may force Louisville to become the kind of police department it claimed for years to be.

Rosie Cima and Mark Fahey of Newsy contributed reporting. A grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism supported KyCIR’s work.

The post The model city: Inside LMPD’s failure to reform itself appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Ky. Supreme Court to decide if police need a warrant for real-time phone tracking Wednesday, Oct 20 2021 

State attorneys arguing that police don’t need a search warrant to track a person’s location in real-time through their cell phone were met with skepticism from the Kentucky Supreme Court on Wednesday.

The state’s highest court heard arguments in a case that stems from a Woodford County robbery, in which police tracked a suspect’s location by “pinging” his cell phone without a search warrant.

The Kentucky Attorney General’s office argued that police don’t need a search warrant to track someone driving on a public road, even if that tracking is conducted through technology.

“This is not a case about police accessing data stored on cell phones. It is not about whether the police can use dragnet surveillance techniques to monitor an individual’s movement,” said Brett Nolan, a deputy solicitor general for the Office of the Kentucky Attorney General. “This is about using technology to do something that police have always been able to do, which they’ve always done: public surveillance on a public road.”

Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. pushed back, questioning why real-time cell phone tracking wouldn’t require a search warrant, pointing to the detailed data collected by cell companies.

“Don’t I have an expectation of some sort of privacy in that information?” Minton said. “Do we give it up by owning a cell phone?”

(Related: To solve murders, Louisville police turn to ‘geofence’ warrants — but net few arrests)

This case decision is of national interest as tech-based police investigations become more commonplace, said Nathan Freed Wessler, the deputy projects director for the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Since the founding of this country we have set limits on what police can do without judicial oversight,” he said. “Without protections from the courts, people are really vulnerable to having their entire lives become an open book for the government.”

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 ruled police must obtain a warrant to access historical cell location data. High courts in several other states have ruled that police do need search warrants for real-time cell data, Wessler said. In many states, however, the question is not yet settled.

“The court has an opportunity to make Kentucky a leader in securing people’s privacy rights,” Wessler said.

Cell phones collect the most intimate details about a person’s life, said Brad Clark, president of the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. To access that data, he believes police need a warrant, and he said the state Attorney General’s position on the matter is worrisome.

I think everyone should be concerned about this approach the government wants to adopt that they can search anyone without any judicial oversight,” he said. “We need a bright line rule that requires a warrant.”

Instantaneous tracking raises concerns

In this case, Dovontia Reed was suspected of pulling out a gun and robbing a man of $500 at a gas station in Versailles, Kentucky in April 2017. The victim provided police with Reed’s cell phone number, and police dispatch contacted the cell phone company —  which “pinged” the phone to determine its location, according to court documents.

The Versailles Police Department did not know Reed’s exact location when they tracked him through his cell phone and it was by happenstance he was on a public roadway when located by police.

Reed’s public defender at the time argued the real-time tracking of his cell phone was unlawful, to no avail. Reed pleaded guilty in October 2018 and was sentenced to seven years in prison.

He appealed his conviction to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, which ruled that obtaining real time cell data requires a search warrant. 

“Pinging a cell phone enables the police almost instantaneously to track individuals far beyond the public thoroughfare into areas where they would have a reasonable, legitimate expectation of privacy,” wrote Chief Judge Denise Clayton.

Attorney Adam Meyer, who argued on behalf of Reed, said real-time tracking is an invasion of privacy, and he implored the court to set the precedent that such a warrant is needed.

On Wednesday, Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Michelle M. Keller focused on privacy when questioning Nolan of the attorney general’s office, who presented the state’s argument that no warrant is necessary.

Keller noted that the man could have been at home, or another private location where the police wouldn’t have had the right to search without a warrant.

“Does the government have a right to access my location using my cell phone and determine if I’m in my bedroom or my basement?” she asked. “I’m really concerned about the actual accessing of the person’s location by virtue of having their cell phone on them.”

Nolan conceded that a warrant is best practice if an officer was unsure of a suspect’s location.

“How will that become best practice,” Keller responded, “if this court doesn’t make it so?”

Contact Jacob Ryan at jryan@kycir.org.

The post Ky. Supreme Court to decide if police need a warrant for real-time phone tracking appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

To solve murders, Louisville police turn to ‘geofence’ warrants — but net few arrests Tuesday, Oct 19 2021 

Last month, as dozens of people gathered for a vigil to remember and honor 16-year-old Tyree Smith, a Jefferson Circuit Court judge was signing search warrants that police hoped would help them track down his killer.

Police had no suspects in the shooting that killed Smith on the morning of September 22, while he waited for the school bus at the intersection of West Chestnut and Dr. W.J. Hodge streets. They had little evidence beyond a description of a Jeep Cherokee that pulled up to the bus stop before someone got out and shot at a group of students, according to a search warrant filed earlier this month with the Office of the Jefferson Circuit Court Clerk.

Warrants typically focus on a suspect. But for this case, the LMPD turned to a tactic that police across the country are using more than ever before: a geofence warrant for the area. 

Tyree Smith's 9th grade year book photo. He was killed in his junior year while waiting for his school bus.

Tyree Smith’s 9th grade year book photo.

LMPD Detective Jason Maguire’s geofence search warrant ordered Google to turn over user data collected near the scene of the shooting and a second location of interest, in hopes of pinpointing potential suspects.

A KyCIR review of court and police records found that the LMPD uses these warrants most frequently in homicide cases, as detectives are overwhelmed with murder investigations. Last year was an all-time high in the city, and LMPD had already reported 155 homicides by October 3 this year. Nearly 74 percent of those cases are still open, according to police data. 

And so far, the geofence warrants aren’t leading the LMPD to close many cases. Of the 41 homicides from 2020-21 in which a victim is identified in police affidavits and officers used a geofence warrant, 33 are still listed on LMPD’s website as open and unsolved.

An LMPD spokesperson did not respond to an interview request. 

LMPD officers have used geofence warrants at least 73 times since January 2020 in hopes of solving bank robberies, burglaries, sexual assault, and at least one kidnapping, according to a review of search warrants filed publicly with the Office of the Jefferson Circuit Court Clerk. Nearly three-fourths are tied to a homicide investigation. 

The warrants are rarely used by smaller police departments in the county — Shively Police filed one and St. Matthews Police filed three.

The warrant in the Tyree Smith killing designates a search area that spans a two block section of Dr. W. J. Hodge Street — including nearby homes and apartments. The detective asked Google to compile a list of every user that was within the area for nine hours before the shooting, and also from a residential property that reported a stolen Jeep prior to the shooting. Maguire also got a search warrant for any cell device that may have connected to the stolen Jeep’s internal computer system.

Police have yet to make an arrest in the case.

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Warrants use growing nationwide

The relatively new policing tool is controversial, but increasingly popular.

Google maintains a trove of data about virtually everyone who uses a cellular device and will share user information with police who obtain a search warrant. In 2018, the tech giant received 980 geofence warrants from law enforcement nationwide, according to a recent Google report.

Last year, they got 11,500.

Kentucky police submitted 126 geofence warrants to Google between 2018 and 2020. The data doesn’t specify which departments.

When police don’t have a specific suspect, they can obtain an anonymized list of everyone using a Google-connected device within a given area at a certain time — even if police have no evidence to tie them to the crime being investigated. Police can then narrow in on specific accounts and obtain users’ names, location data, and communication records.

Google did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In court records, the company points to judges as the party responsible to ensure police have the probable cause needed to obtain a geofence warrant — which Google’s attorneys describe as broad and intrusive.

The new tactic has raised flags for those concerned that civil liberties are compromised by the search.

Traditionally, police identify a person they suspect of committing a crime before obtaining a warrant to search a home, vehicle or device, and a geofence warrant “turns that on its head,” said Jennifer Lynch, the surveillance litigation director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Lynch argues the warrants violate Fourth Amendment protections against illegal search and seizure because they’re too broad, in nature. The threat to privacy outweighs any potential benefits for law enforcement, she said.

“They’re hugely problematic,” she said. “People could become under suspicion for a crime that they were not connected to, in any way. That means the criminal justice system is not working the way it’s supposed to.”

Keeping the balance between people’s privacy and legitimate police interests falls on judges, who approve law enforcement requests for search warrants. In Louisville, Jefferson Circuit Judge McKay Chauvin has signed at least 10 geofence warrants this year, including those related to Tyree Smith’s murder.

headshot of Judge McKay Chauvin, wearing a black robe and bow tie

Judge McKay Chauvin

Cell device data can provide police with invaluable evidence they’ve never before been able to get, Chauvin said in a recent interview.

“Your probable cause has to be very clear to get in there, because once you’re in there you’re in that person’s life in a way that, previously, you couldn’t have been,” he said.

Chauvin said he looks for a tightly focused area with added clues — like similar crimes that happened at multiple locations, eyewitness accounts or video footage — that would increase the likelihood of ensnaring a specific suspect.

“It’s not a fishing net, it’s more of a line,” he said.

If geofence warrants are going to be allowed, they need strict regulation from the legislature or the courts to ensure transparency and oversight, said Brad Clark, the president of the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“There’s little that violates a person’s privacy more than tracking their movements,” he said.

Wide nets, few arrests

Police often paint grim pictures of grisly crime scenes with scant evidence when they submit an affidavit for a geofence warrant. Cell phone data, they argue, could really help.

To explain how, police use boilerplate language that details the scope of Google’s precise tracking capabilities via applications, online searches and network connections.

The search areas can span several blocks and include businesses, busy streets, churches and parking lots. The window of collection can be a few hours or more than a day.

The widest net in warrants KyCIR reviewed was cast by LMPD Detective Ethan Guetig, who in April got a judge’s permission to collect data from a six-block radius that encompassed more than 120 homes, apartments, a bar, a gas station, a dollar store, a church, a fire department and the busy 4th Street thoroughfare that connects the neighboring University of Louisville campus to downtown. 

Guetig didn’t have many leads on who killed 18-year-old Kevon Dickerson in March on Montana Avenue. Witnesses said only the shooters had fled eastbound. The geofence warrant, he said in his affidavit, could help point him to the suspects. 

But more than six months later, police have not solved the case. 

In another case, a detective obtained a geofence warrant in July in hopes of identifying the person responsible for the June murder of a 34-year-old Jessie Smith, found in his home in Chickasaw with a single gunshot to the head. Witnesses pointed to a potential suspect, but police got the warrant to collect nearly two days worth of user data from the man’s home, the street out front and at least four neighboring houses.

In both affidavits, detectives said that “capturing data before and after the time of the crime allows investigators to rule out innocent devices.”

The case hasn’t been solved, according to LMPD’s homicide database.

Jessica Green

Police-led fishing expeditions of any type concern District 1 Louisville Metro Councilmember Jessica Green, a Democrat representing far western Louisville.

Green is a former prosecutor who chairs the council’s public safety committee and will be vying for a seat on the Jefferson Circuit Court bench next year. She said she wants police to aggressively target violent crime and get killers off the street.

“But to what end?” she asked. “It’s not OK to target crime on the backs of violating citizens’ constitutional rights.”

Louisville Metro Councilmember Jecorey Arthur, a District 4 Democrat, represents downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods, including the area where Tyree Smith was killed. He believes the practice can put people who were near a crime in real danger of retaliation.

Fourth District Metro Council Member Jecorey Arthur

“The streets talk,” he said. “How are you protecting people who you might end up engaging in the process who otherwise would have steered clear?”

Arthur and Green both said police should have strict policy to dictate when and how officers can utilize a geofence warrant. LMPD has no warrant policy that’s specific to geofence warrants, or the data collected, according to an agency spokesperson.  The warrants direct law enforcement to seek only detailed information from those devices deemed relevant to the investigation.

“It becomes dangerous when you don’t have a process,” Arthur said. “This is something that we definitely need more information on before we dive into it.”

Asked if there is a place for geofence warrants in Louisville, Arthur said LMPD should first address issues that plague the agency before deploying new techniques that could further the divide between people and the police.

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The agency has been under national scrutiny since officers killed Breonna Taylor in March 2020. Federal investigators with the Department of Justice are investigating whether LMPD has a pattern or practice of civil rights violations in policing.

“We have to clean up what we already have, before adding to it,” Arthur said. 

‘For better or worse’

Recent court rulings vary on how geofence warrants can be used in criminal investigations, according to Matthew Tokson, a law professor at the University of Utah. 

“When we talk about the scope of the geofence warrant, that’s the issue,” Tokson said.

Tokson anticipates many legal battles in the future over geofence warrants. The big question: Can police collect user data on everyone in an area if they believe that just one, or a few, people actually committed a crime?

Tech-based investigations will become more commonplace as companies continue to develop new surveillance capabilities, he said. Police this year have also obtained traditional search warrants for data from Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Ring, Cashapp and Lyft, according to KyCIR’s review. 

“For better or worse,” Tokson said.

Police aren’t highlighting their use of geofence warrants when they do make arrests.

In March, after a man shot and killed another man outside a nightclub on W. Broadway, police obtained a geofence warrant for three different locations in hopes of catching the killer.

They made an arrest about two months later.

In the arrest citation, police attributed the bust to video surveillance footage — which traced the man from the scene of the shooting to his home in Smoketown. 

Officers make no mention of whether the geofence warrant helped crack the case.

After Tyree Smith was killed, as the city mourned his death, LMPD Chief Erika Shields held a press conference. She said the police got to work immediately to solve the case. 

“Gathering information, pulling videos, cameras, and putting any and every resource towards solving this heinous crime,” she said.

She didn’t mention the geofence warrant.

Contact Jacob Ryan at 502-814-6559 or at jryan@kycir.org.

The post To solve murders, Louisville police turn to ‘geofence’ warrants — but net few arrests appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Longtime Metro jail union leader has history of misconduct allegations Friday, Oct 1 2021 

In 2017, Tracy Dotson, then-president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 77 representing correctional officers at the Louisville jail, spread a salacious rumor.

Dotson told fellow FOP leaders attending a conference in Madisonville that he’d seen a video of a female union member having sex on a desk at the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections training facility, according to disciplinary records.

An investigation found no evidence such a video existed and, in sworn interviews with the jail’s investigators, Dotson walked back his claims. The video was just one of the many rumors floating around the jail, he said. In a letter summarizing the investigation, jail director Mark Bolton said Dotson characterized his claim to have personally seen the video as “simply drunk talk.

Bolton considered spreading the rumor a significant act of misconduct. 

“Making a false statement of sexual misconduct creates a victim, it does damage to a person’s reputation,” Bolton wrote.

Dotson wasn’t disciplined, but the letter was placed in Dotson’s file, where it sits alongside more than two dozen notices of discipline since his first stint as a jail guard in 2000

While some of the disciplinary notices pertain to minor violations, they also include accusations of harassing coworkers, using unnecessary force against people held in the Louisville jail, antagonizing people housed in the detox unit and lying to investigators.

By 2019, when a colleague alleged in a lawsuit against the jail, the union and Metro government that Dotson was allowed to sexually harass her, Dotson had escaped firing three times. 

Dotson told KyCIR this incident, like many others in his file, is an example of the jail management using disciplinary actions to retaliate against him for his union activity.

“It’s been a long career,” Dotson said. “You make mistakes, you learn, you move on. But there’s a lot of retaliation in my personnel file for things that I’ve done in the union area.”

Jail spokesperson Steve Durham said in an email that numerous Metro Corrections Directors have recommended discipline against Dotson since he started at the jail.

“This volume of disciplinary write ups for one person is frustrating for management and, we believe, bad for our staff overall,” Durham said. “We are committed to examining this process in this light.” 

The 2019 harassment lawsuit is proceeding in the background as a crisis at the jail is making news daily. The union has said a staff shortage, with over 120 vacancies, has created the crisis and left the jail unsafe for staff and people held there. Last week, five people overdosed inside the jail and on Tuesday, the union held a vote of no confidence in jail director Dwayne Clark that passed by overwhelming majority.

Testimony from the former jail director as well as staffers paint a picture of difficult working conditions that preceded the current crisis, due in part to chronic understaffing and unchecked problematic behavior. The jail has been short-staffed for years, and Bolton said in an interview that has left management hesitant to fire people who they would have to spend time and resources to replace.

Current and former jail staff testified that Dotson has benefited from a culture of enforced loyalty that permeates the union and a contract which makes it difficult for jail management to hold bad actors accountable.

Dotson is no longer the union president; he served two terms from 2014 to 2020. But he’s still on the executive board, and when union members led a community meeting on September 21 to discuss the jail, Dotson did much of the speaking, placing blame for the turmoil squarely at the feet of the jail’s management team.

“I’m telling you now that if you have a mother, son, daughter, a brother, or loved one inside our jail, they’re not safe,” Dotson said at the meeting

Lawsuit alleges harassment

Emily Nichols said in court records that she started interacting regularly with Dotson in January 2017 as a new officer, with less than a year on the job. She was struggling with a workplace injury to her dominant hand. 

Nichols declined to speak with KyCIR through her lawyer. Nichols still works at the jail, and alleges in her 2019 lawsuit that the city had “an abundance of prior, first-hand knowledge that Tracy Dotson sexually harassed officers and union members.”

Dotson is not a named defendant in the lawsuit; he pointed out that the jail investigated and cleared him in its internal investigation.

The city has denied the allegation in court filings, arguing that Dotson was acting in his capacity as FOP president, not on behalf of Metro government. 

Dotson saw Nichols struggling to keep up with the demands of her post due to her injury, she said in a deposition in September 2020, and he offered to help. She said this professional connection quickly transitioned to a flirtatious texting relationship.

In messages Dotson provided to investigators, the two flirt, discuss Nichols’ injury and internal politics at the jail. Dotson also asks repeatedly for nude photos.

According to Nichols’ complaint and testimony, she sent some less revealing pictures of herself to Dotson “in an effort to appease” him because early on in their interactions, Dotson told her she needed to “make me want to help you.” 

In depositions, Nichols said she was “playing a role” because it seemed the only way to get the union’s help with her injury.

Nichols was assigned a training shift in early February 2017, which pays an extra $2 an hour. When she asked Dotson about the training assignment over text messages, Dotson responded with “someone is looking out for u.” 

Nichols says the next day, Dotson grabbed her and forced her to kiss him on Metro property.

When Nichols tried to transition to a strictly professional relationship, she said Dotson became less enthusiastic.

“Good luck with ur situations,” Dotson texted, though he later told investigators he was referring to problems with Nichols’ personal life.

Days later, Nichols said she was assigned back to the booking floor, a physically demanding post where her injury occurred.

Nichols told jail management that she believed she wasn’t getting the help she needed because of her experience with Dotson, and an investigation was opened.

Dotson told jail investigators the relationship was consensual, and not transactional. The standards unit found “insufficient evidence to either prove or disprove the allegation”.

But personnel records show that by the time he met Nichols, Dotson already had a long history of discipline.

Two dozen disciplines and three firing recommendations

Dotson’s career at Metro Corrections began in 2000.

A disciplinary file obtained through a records request shows that, by 2002, Dotson was disciplined for insubordination and for saying he didn’t like someone held at the jail because the person was Black

Investigators recommended his firing after two separate investigations found Dotson provoked people held at the jail by kicking their shoes or dangling a bag of candy while walking past the detox cell. A third found he pushed an incarcerated person when a verbal confrontation turned physical. Dotson didn’t restrain the individual and the investigation deemed him “incompetent.”

Dotson resigned before a disciplinary hearing could take place, according to the files.

Dotson returned to the jail in 2003.

In the four years that followed, Dotson’s files show he was disciplined for absenteeism, spitting chewing tobacco into a coworker’s soda bottle, and using language a colleague called an inappropriate generalization against incarcerated people from the West End.

Dotson was fired in December 2007 after he swept the legs out from under an inebriated, handcuffed person. The individual lost consciousness and needed stitches for the head injury he sustained when Dotson took him to the floor.

Dotson appealed, claiming the force was reasonable to get an uncooperative person under control. Metro government sustained his firing after concluding from security footage that Dotson didn’t need to use force. 

“His actions were unwarranted and excessive in nature,” the assistant human resources director said in a letter to Dotson’s attorney.

With the union’s help, Dotson took his appeal a step further, entering into arbitration.

Three people testified in support of Dotson, including an expert witness: Alex Payne, at the time a sergeant at the Jeffersontown Police Department and a retired Kentucky State Police trooper.

Payne worked at the state police training academy, where the Courier Journal found he first authored presentations quoting Confederate Gen. Robert Lee and encouraging a “warrior mindset.” Payne would be named commissioner of Kentucky Department of Criminal Justice Training in 2019, and retired the following year. 

At the arbitration hearing, Payne argued Dotson did what he had to do to get the uncooperative person under control, according to a summary written by the arbiter. “Just because someone is handcuffed does not mean he/she is under control,” Payne testified, and “sometimes officers have used deadly force against handcuffed prisoners with justification.

The third-party arbiter agreed that Dotson was justified in using force because he had reason to believe the person was about to resist physically.

Dotson was reinstated at the jail in August 2008, with back pay.

Dotson claims the brief termination was political. 

“Sometimes things that are termination recommendations for some folks aren’t for others, depending on how your relationship with management is,” Dotson said. “My relationship with management has been to basically demand better conditions and treatment for the members.”

In 2011, the standards unit recommended for a third time that Dotson’s employment be terminated after he allegedly used force against a person held at the jail who said he looked like Andy Griffith.

Dotson denied using unnecessary force, claiming in a report he used only “verbal commands.” 

But another officer came forward and said they saw Dotson with his arm around the person’s neck.

Investigators recommended he be fired.

But at Dotson’s pre-termination hearing, director Mark Bolton reduced his punishment to a 5-day suspension. Bolton said in an interview that disciplinary actions against union members typically involved a bargaining process where the punishment was reduced.

Blackmail allegations

In August, former jail director Bolton said in a sworn deposition that Dotson’s name came up in discipline conversations “more than just about anyone else’s during my tenure there.”

Bolton retired in 2019 after 11 years running the jail. He said Dotson, who represented more than 500 Metro Corrections officers as union head, is known to flex the FOP’s muscle. 

Bolton also claimed in his deposition that he’s spoken to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about Dotson. The FBI said it cannot confirm or deny any investigations at the Louisville jail.

Attorney Todd Lewis, who represents Tracy Dotson, said he questions Bolton’s veracity given the hostile relationship between the two and the fact that Dotson’s attorney was unable to cross examine the former director. 

County Attorney Mike O’Connell’s office declined to comment on pending litigation.

Two other current jail employees testified as part of that lawsuit that Dotson blackmailed them with an explicit photo.

The officers were having an affair several years ago, they testified separately, and the female officer said she also had a relationship with Dotson. He asked her to get an explicit photo of the other man, according to her testimony, and she sent Dotson a photo of the man’s erect penis, taken in the offices at the jail.

She testified that Dotson sent the photo to her then-husband, who she was in the process of divorcing. Over the years that followed, she said Dotson attempted to blackmail her with the photo, though she retained no proof.

One of the officers testified that Dotson’s position as the FOP president left them afraid of losing his protection, or that the union would retaliate, if they spoke up.

When the male officer was up for a promotion in 2018, the Professional Standards Unit obtained the photo and launched an investigation. 

Records show that Dotson admitted to receiving the photo, but denied using it for blackmail and was cleared of any wrongdoing.

But that investigation concluded the two officers engaged in sexual activity at the jail a few years prior. 

Both officers were demoted.

Contract questioned

Former director Bolton said the union’s contract has long been loaded with provisions that made it difficult for management to hold problem employees accountable.

“The amount of bureaucracy and second, third, fourth chances that it allows disruptive and poor employees to engage in makes it very, very difficult from a leadership position to hold folks accountable,” Bolton said.

Current union president Daniel Johnson countered that, saying Bolton was able to terminate a lot of people during his tenure.

“The only thing people ask for is due process and representation,” Johnson said. “I don’t believe that’s too much of a hurdle.”

Deputy director Durham said the jail has taken action in cases of serious misconduct, like inmate abuse or those officers causing harm to their co-workers. “[Current director Dwayne] Clark believes allegations of bad behavior should result in a fair review, including examining the harm caused by the offending employee’s conduct and the impact of discipline on the employee,” Durham wrote. 

Both Bolton and Dotson were involved in negotiating the current union contract, signed in 2016 and expiring in 2023. Bolton said he pushed for softer language regarding issues like progressive discipline during negotiations, but that “once something goes into a contract that benefits from one party over another, those provisions are never coming out.”

Martin Horn, a professor emeritus of corrections at John Jay College, reviewed the contract for KyCIR.

Horn has run correctional facilities in New York City and Pennsylvania. He said Louisville’s contract with correctional officers who run the Louisville jail is extraordinary in several ways: 

Horn doesn’t think it’s good practice for corrections officers to organize into the Fraternal Order of Police, though it is becoming increasingly common.

“[Police and corrections officers] are two very distinct work units with very distinct jobs and very distinct sets of rules,” Horn said.

The jail has its own Professional Standards Unit which is composed of members of the union, an arrangement Horn said could create “a question of dual loyalty.”

“It’s the ultimate what we refer to as ‘the blue wall of silence,’” Horn said. “It’s loyalty to your fellow officers rather than loyalty to your oath of office.”

But Johnson said the union doesn’t interfere with the investigative unit. He pointed to Dotson’s record as proof of this, since investigators sustained allegations against Dotson.

The contract also includes a 60-day time limit on imposing disciplinary actions, from the time a possible infraction is discovered. This is the provision Bolton cited in saying too much time passed to discipline Dotson for spreading the sex tape rumor. Horn said 60 days is “awfully short,” and can limit management’s disciplinary options

The contract also limits how long previous infractions can be considered when dolling out disciplinary actions for a new violation: one year for minor infractions and three years for more serious offenses.

In his most recent disciplinary action in April, Dotson was threatened with a five-day suspension for having his cell phone in a secure area. Dotson claimed in an emailed response that he was allowed to have the cell phone inside the jail because of his union responsibilities

“The harassment and hostile working environment I am experiencing… from Metro Corrections and its commanders is becoming untenable,” Dotson wrote.

Contact Jared Bennett at jbennett@kycir.org.

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Before Fatal Bus Stop Shooting, A Complaint About Missing Streetlights Thursday, Sep 23 2021 

The sky was still dark when the teenagers got to the school bus stop where one student was fatally shot and two were injured just after 6 a.m. Wednesday morning.

The corner of West Chestnut Street and Dr. W.J. Hodge Street was made even darker because there is no streetlight. Just last week, a resident submitted a request to the city’s Metro311 service for streetlights to be installed at the intersection, citing the threat of crime.

“These two corners appear to be LMPD crime data hotspots. Please add lighting to Hodge & W Chestnut and W Chestnut & 22nd,” the resident wrote in the online submission. The person did not leave their contact information, according to a spokesperson for Metro311.

The intersection is one of the few along the busy one-way stretch of Chestnut Street in the Russell neighborhood without a streetlight directly overhead. In addition to the Jefferson County Public Schools bus stop, there are two TARC bus stops at the intersection, where West Chestnut Street crosses the Dr. W.J. Hodge thoroughfare.

Two students were injured and 16-year-old Tyree Smith died in the shooting at the darkened corner Wednesday morning as they waited for the bus to take them across town to Eastern High School. Police said the gunfire came from a passing car and released a photo of a Jeep with Illinois plates they suspected in the shooting. It was found burned Thursday morning in St. Matthews.

A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Public Works and Assets did not return a request for comment on Wednesday about the specific service request for streetlights, which is listed in city data as “in progress.” A spokesperson for Louisville Gas and Electric said the agency has no streetlight at the intersection.

On Thursday, Mayor Greg Fischer said during a press conference that the public works department has referred a “lighting issue” near the intersection to the power company, and that agency has issued a work order.

Police data show officers have recorded nearly 140 criminal reports on the blocks that make up the intersection of West Chestnut St. and Dr. W.J. Hodge Street between January 2019 and earlier this month — more than 40 incidents involved violence or the threat of violence. Police recorded four homicides in nearby blocks since April 2021. The school bus stop at the intersection had already been the target of at least three other shootings this school year, families told a reporter from The Courier Journal.

Looking north to W Chestnut St from Dr W.J. Hodge St.

During a candlelight vigil Wednesday night to honor Tyree Smith, residents were discussing the need to improve bus stop safety — like organizing adult volunteers to have a presence at the stops and adding streetlights, said Metro Councilman Jecorey Arthur, who represents the area.

Asked if streetlights would be a good idea, Arthur was quick to respond: “1,000 percent yes.”

He said installing street lights near bus stops is “low hanging fruit” to ensure kids have a safe space to wait for rides to school.

Lights Key To Safety

City residents have submitted more than 3,300 service requests related to street light outages or the need for street lights since September 2019, according to Metro311 data.

The danger unlit streets poses for children and other people at bus stops was the focus for at least 20 of the complaints.

“This light is needed for safety,” wrote one resident in an August 2021 request for a light repair near Beulah Church Road.

At least 70 other complaints listed the threat of crime or dangerous conditions that come with darkened streets as the need for a streetlight, according to a KyCIR review of the data. Nearly 160 complaints dating to September 2019 are listed as “in-progress.”

Residents can also complain about busted, broken or needed street lights directly to Louisville Gas and Electric. 

The mere presence of a streetlight is not guaranteed to prevent crime, but it can certainly help, said Aaron Chalfin, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Chalfin has studied the effect lighting has on crime and said research shows that lights can reduce the amount of crime. Moreover, he said lighting can empower people by making them feel safe — especially people at a bus stop, which are set locations that people must be at if they want to catch their bus.

Without lights, victims are put at a disadvantage, while offenders get the upper hand, Chalfin said.

When selecting bus stop locations, school officials should pick locations that offer adequate lighting, according to a report from the National Center for Safe Routes to Schools.

“If students will be waiting during low light hours, the stop should be positioned near a street light or other light source whenever possible,” the report states.

The bus that Smith and the other children were waiting for is due at 6:11 a.m., according to data listed on JCPS’ online bus finder tool. The sun in Louisville doesn’t rise this time of year until an hour later, at least.

JCPS operates more than 770 bus routes.

A spokesperson for the district did not immediately respond to a request for information about whether officials consider lighting when selecting a bus stop location.

Diane Porter, a JCPS board member who represents the area surrounding the intersection where Smith was killed, said decisions about bus stops are made by district officials and not something board members have been asked to consider during her tenure.

“I regret that there may be a need for lighting, but that is not what a school board makes a decision about,” she said.

Asked what, if anything, should be done to improve school bus stop safety, Porter said it’s difficult to say because board members aren’t privy to those issues.

Right now, she said there’s much to pick apart, but she’s focused on Wednesday’s tragic killing.

“We lost a child yesterday,” she said. “I don’t think that we should just very quickly step away from that.”

Contact Jacob Ryan at jryan@kycir.org.

The post Before Fatal Bus Stop Shooting, A Complaint About Missing Streetlights appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Jefferson County Sheriff Seizes Millions in Cash — Often From UPS Packages Monday, Sep 20 2021 

A young woman with long brown hair crouches behind her red-nosed pitbull, who's carrying a ball in his mouth. Both are looking at the camera.

Jacob Ryan

Haley Vogen poses with her dog Kali on a recent evening.

The puppies were bred from a prized pair of American pit bull terriers, promising the attributes that buyers would pay thousands for: a chiseled and strong build, a cool and confident temperament and a deep red color. 

In October 2019, Haley Vogen wrapped a bundle of $11,000 in cash with cellophane and tape, stuffed it in a pair of Nike shoes and shipped the box from a UPS store on Dixie Highway to San Ysidro, California, where she said the breeder was located. After the puppies were born, Vogen, an aspiring dog breeder from Jeffersonville, Indiana, planned to drive cross country to retrieve the first and second picks of the litter.

The money never made it. Court records show that a Jefferson County Sheriff’s detective seized the cash, alleging it was drug money after a K-9 dog named Nala sniffed the package, indicated the odor of narcotics and stopped Vogen’s puppy purchase.

Vogen, 25, hired an attorney and fought to prove the money was legally obtained, but the cost was too much. She agreed to forfeit all but $1,000, which she split with the attorney. 

“I’m pissed,” Vogen said. “I don’t have any priors, there wasn’t any drugs in that package, they didn’t have any evidence to take that money. They just did it.”

In Kentucky, the state’s asset forfeiture law gives law enforcement broad authority to take money if it’s presumed to be tied to or even near drugs. Law enforcement keeps up to 85%, with the rest going to prosecutors.

(Read our series, Seized: https://kycir.org/series/seized-asset-forfeiture-in-kentucky/)

Cases like Vogen’s have become big business in recent years for the Jefferson County Sheriff. Since 2019, the agency has seized more than $3.2 million, according to public records obtained by KyCIR through an open records request. 

This is not by accident; the sheriff’s office has added a drug-sniffing dog to its narcotics team, where seasoned investigators working with federal task forces are honing in on asset forfeiture work, said Lt. Col. Carl Yates, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office. 

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John Aubrey (far left) talks with former president Donald Trump during a 2017 meeting at The White House.

Sheriff John Aubrey, a Democrat who was first elected in 1999, has publicly praised the use of civil asset forfeiture. During a trip to the White House in 2017, he and other sheriffs met with then-president Donald Trump to discuss the tactic. 

“How simple could anything be,” Trump said. “I love it.”

New Focus Brings Millions In Seizures

 

While the Louisville Metro Police Department and other suburban departments handle most of the policing throughout the county, the sheriff’s office is primarily tasked with collecting taxes, serving court papers, overseeing evictions and providing court security. But seizures by the sheriff’s office have increased dramatically — from $25,000 in 2015 to $1.5 million in the 2021 fiscal year. 

Civil asset forfeiture is a controversial practice in which agencies file civil lawsuits when they suspect money is tied to narcotics and can be awarded the seized cash without ever proving it was tied to drug dealing. From 2015-18, the sheriff’s office reported just 11 civil forfeitures to the state.

Over the next three years, though, the agency conducted nearly 60 civil forfeitures, often searching packages traveling through Louisville’s UPS Worldport shipping hub and finding cash. 

Kentucky law enforcement agencies reported seizing more than $11.6 million in fiscal year 2020, according to a KyCIR analysis of statewide data. The Jefferson County Sheriff’s office seizures were fourth-highest statewide.

The sheriff’s office staffs eight deputies on its criminal interdiction unit, which is largely responsible for narcotics investigations and the rise in asset forfeiture cases, said Lt. Col. Carl Yates, a spokesperson for the agency.

“It’s just hard work and commitment to look for this stuff,” Yates said. 

The amount of “illegal money” that flows through Louisville is staggering, Yates said, noting the agency has also seized more than 1,700 pounds of drugs this year — nearly double last year’s haul. The recent increase in cash seized by the sheriff’s office represents just a fraction of the cash in circulation, Yates said.

“We just can’t get it all,” he said.

The Jefferson County Sheriff is funded primarily with the fees associated with the collection of property taxes, executing evictions, inspecting vehicles, providing court security and serving court papers.

“But no fee collection covers the cost of actually doing it,” Yates said.

Seized funds, he said, are a tremendous asset.

The potential to generate revenue is a major problem, said Michael Greenberg, a law and liberty fellow at the Institute for Justice. 

Civil forfeiture is made even more troublesome, he said, with the low standard of evidence that’s required for law enforcement to seize property.

“For police to keep your stuff they should have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt – the same proof to find you guilty of the crime,” Greenberg said. “That is the American presumption of evidence.”

Many Factors Can Make Packages ‘Suspicious’

A review of the sheriff’s asset forfeiture cases closed in court this year shows the deputies are often taking cash from UPS packages — like Vogen’s — and they often do it at the shipping giant’s Worldport hub on Grade Lane. The sheriff’s office is part of a task force with LMPD and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that searches through packages after getting search warrants from local judges. 

Officials with the Office of Homeland Security and LMPD did not respond to a request for comment. 

Jim Mayer, a spokesperson for UPS, refused to provide any details about law enforcement agencies that work at UPS Worldport, or what types of oversight is in place to hold the agencies accountable.

Sheriff deputies rely on intelligence to determine when they search a package, Yates said, but he declined to elaborate.

“For obvious reasons we aren’t going to talk about intel or investigative leads,” he said.

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office does not use body cameras, so they don’t generally mention video evidence when requesting warrants from the local court. Instead, the evidence they cite can be limited only to an indication from a K-9 dog and a suspicion about how the money is packaged or where it’s addressed.

Among factors the sheriff’s detectives consider suspicious: expedited shipping, excess tape, person-to-person packages and addresses from drug “source states” like California, Colorado, Texas, Florida and Nevada, according to search warrant affidavits filed with the Jefferson Circuit Court Clerk.

Sometimes the packages are just passing through Louisville en route to somewhere else. In late June, a sheriff detective obtained a search warrant for a three-pound package headed from Philadelphia to West Covina, California, which the detective called a known drug dealing city in his affidavit. The K9, Nala, also alerted deputies to the odor of drugs. 

The detective reported finding an undisclosed amount of cash, along with scraps of plastic and cardboard, but no drugs. The agency seized the cash.

Yates said it’s up to the courts to decide if a seizure is legitimate or not. Under state law, people who want their money returned must prove that it’s not tied to drug dealing. Yet few people do mount a fight in court, according to a review of online court records.

Yates reckons this is because they’re drug dealers.

“They’re not going to come to court,” he said.

But, in fact, records show some people who lost money to a sheriff’s office seizure never find out about the hearing.

When law enforcement seizes cash from a package, a specially appointed third-party attorney is tasked with alerting them that they’re named in a legal action via certified mail.

In nearly half of the 31 cases closed this year, letters were addressed to a postal retail store — like the UPS Store on Bardstown Road or Dixie Highway, or a postal annex in Tennessee. Documents don’t explain whether the recipient held a mailing address there, or it was simply where the package originated.

In some cases, the mail was returned to the sender, but no follow up was conducted.

In July 2020, the sheriff had seized $7,000 from a package a Louisville man shipped to California. A certified letter sent to the Dixie Highway UPS Store was returned to sender. The attorney claimed to have “made a diligent effort to locate and inform” the defendant by searching public records and “using general internet search capabilities,” but didn’t send another letter, according to court records. Three months later, a judge ordered the cash to be forfeited.

In another case, a letter about a $14,000 seizure went to the same UPS Store on Dixie Highway and was returned, according to court documents. Staff had written “this person does not have a box here.” Still, the appointed attorney believed the woman had been given “adequate notice of the nature and pendency of the instant action” and did nothing more to attempt to locate the woman. Five months later, a judge ordered the cash be forfeited.

Seizure A Roadblock To New Career

The state’s asset forfeiture laws don’t require people to be convicted or even accused of a crime in order to lose their money.

A November 2019 report from KyCIR found seized cash plays an outsized role in plea bargaining — with prosecutors offering favorable deals for reduced charges if people agree to forfeit cash.

Even though the Jefferson County Sheriff’s detective alleged in court that Haley Vogen’s cash was the product of drug dealing, she was not charged with a crime and has no history of drug offenses.

Vogen is a dancer at a strip club in south Louisville, and makes most of her money through cash tips. She said she doesn’t keep much of it in a bank, but she also doesn’t deal drugs. 

Watching her 1-year-old pitbull, Kali, romp in the grass and roll in the mud, she said her future outside of dancing was tied to dogs like Kali, and the puppies she tried to buy in 2019.  

Jacob Ryan

Haley Vogen sprays her dog Kali with a hose.

She explained in an affidavit that her seized money was legally earned through hard work, and the $11,000 in the package was intended to be an investment in her future.

She’s trying to transition from dancing to dog breeding — a goal of hers since she was a child, when she helped her mother breed Golden Retrievers. A litter of red-nosed pit bulls can yield more than $50,000, she said. 

But fighting to get the money back became too costly, on top of the loss. She agreed to a settlement with a prosecutor that she’d get $1,000 back. She had to split it with her lawyer.

A spokesperson for the Jefferson County Attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Law enforcement agencies are free to spend forfeited money on anything with a “direct law enforcement purpose,” according to state law. 

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s office has not yet provided records requested last week that would show how forfeited funds are used.

Some agencies use forfeiture funds to cover K9 expenses. And Yates, who partly credits the addition of a new K9 with the increase in seizures, said the dogs are quite expensive.

But they sometimes miss the mark.

In May, a detective flagged a two-pound box headed from Shively to La Mesa, California. A deputy said the K-9 — the same one that a detective said sniffed out drugs in the box that Haley Vogen had shipped — indicated the odor of drugs, and a judge signed the search warrant to open the box.

But inside, there were no drugs — only chicken wings.

Contact Jacob Ryan at (502) 814.6559 or jryan@kycir.org.

Correction: Sheriff John Aubrey is a Democrat. His party affiliation was incorrect in a previous version.

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At Shelby County Jail, Quarantine Means Missing Your Own Court Hearings Friday, Sep 17 2021 

In early August, a judge in Shelby County set bail for seven people accused of crimes who weren’t there in the courtroom, or watching remotely.

They weren’t allowed to participate in their hearings because they were quarantined, either for having COVID-19 or being exposed at the Shelby County Detention Center.

Shelby County jailer Darrell Cox said the jail hasn’t set up a virtual option for quarantined people because the WiFi signal doesn’t penetrate the concrete walls of the jail, and running a cord through the facility would pose safety issues. He says they also won’t transport people to the court house if there’s a chance they can spread COVID-19. 

That means that a year and a half into the pandemic, the people held there see their cases grind to a halt when they’re exposed to or catch the coronavirus — or their hearings simply go on without them.

The issue prompted a public defender to ask a judge last month to release those still held in the jail on their own recognizance or order the jail to allow them to appear in court in-person or virtually.

Judge Charles Hickman of the Shelby Circuit Court denied the request and, as a result, people who have not been convicted have gone weeks at the Shelby County Detention Center without the chance to see a judge.

The Department of Public Advocacy’s website says it can sometimes take up to one week for people charged with a crime to be arraigned.

Cox said these circumstances occur rarely: only when someone has tested positive or been exposed to someone who had the coronavirus, and has a court date scheduled. Five people at the jail currently have the virus and are in quarantine with mild symptoms, Cox said.

“All we try and do is follow the safety precautions,” Cox said. “I have to take care of the public as well as the jail.”

Virtual courts ‘should be routine’

Public defender Saeid Shafizadeh filed a writ of habeas corpus on August 4 on behalf of the seven individuals held in Shelby County, arguing the lack of options violates incarcerated people’s constitutional rights.

The coronavirus created this challenge for jails and courtrooms across the country, as many court systems — including Kentucky — scaled back in-person hearing dramatically. Though Cox said it’s not possible in Shelby County, most jails and prisons implemented virtual options for people to appear in court through video calling or by phone.

“These petitioners have been denied the ability to get to court, to ask for counsel, or to argue for a bail review, or have their case set for pretrial conferences,” Shafizadeh’s petition said. “There is no reason why these folks should be held in jail for two weeks or longer, when — 17 months into the pandemic —virtual court in jails should be routine.”

In a hearing on August 11, a captain at the jail testified that new arrivals were automatically held in a 12-day quarantine.

Hickman wrote in his order that correctional facilities were dealing with an “unprecedented issue” while attempting to stop the spread of the virus through the vulnerable population. 

“The Court appreciates that the Petitioners are being frustrated by not being transported to Court,” Hickman wrote in his order siding with the jail. “The reason provided for the failure of the jail to transport the Petitioners on the foregoing dates was that the inmates were in quarantine, as they had either tested positive for COVID-19 or had been housed in a cell with another inmate who had tested positive for COVID-19.” 

Hickman argued that the bond amounts were not improperly high, and pointed out that at least one defendant’s bail was reduced from $5,000 to $500 without them attending the court hearing.

The judge encouraged the jail to find a way for people quarantined there to appear by telephone.

Contact Jared Bennett at jbennett@kycir.org.

 

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COVID-19 Deaths, Infection Rates in Ky. Prisons Among Nation’s Worst Wednesday, Sep 1 2021 

Kentucky earned an “F” in the Prison Policy Initiative report.

More than 10,000 people are currently held in Kentucky prisons, and nearly 8,000 have been infected with the coronavirus since the pandemic began. This infection rate of nearly 80% is among the worst nationally, according to a new report by the advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative.

The group graded state prison systems’ response to the coronavirus pandemic based on four categories: efforts to reduce the population of people in prisons, policies to keep the virus at bay, mortality and infection rates and vaccination reach. Kentucky scored higher than all but six states when it came to implementing policies such as suspending medical co-pays and making masks available, but the state earned an “F” for its overall coronavirus response.

Only one state prison system (Michigan) had a higher infection rate and two (New Mexico and New Jersey) had mortality rates than Kentucky, where the coronavirus has so far killed 48 incarcerated people. Six staff have also died, a figure that wasn’t part of the group’s assessment.

Wandra Bertram, a communications strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative, said Kentucky took promising steps last year, when Gov. Andy Beshear commuted the sentences of 1,880 people to reduce the pressure on overcrowded correctional facilities, though most of them were released from local jails, not state-run prisons.

“But what we needed to see this year and last year was prisons taking really decisive action to release people and stop admissions,” Bertram said. “And Kentucky did not do that.”

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found there have been no further steps to significantly reduce the prison population this year and the state has largely failed to stop deadly outbreaks.

Most of the people killed by the coronavirus in Kentucky prisons were housed at the Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange. The state has no hospital for its prison system, but the reformatory houses the most medically fragile people incarcerated by the state. The virus took hold there in July of 2020 and killed 28 people.

Bertram said the virus’ deadly run through the reformatory shows what a threat the virus still poses to people behind bars.

“Because it is so hard to get a look at what goes on inside prisons, people don’t realize what is meant by a medically vulnerable person,” Bertram said. “If you see photographs of people on these medically vulnerable units, you’re seeing people who are even using walkers, people in wheelchairs are people who can barely move… It’s just baloney for states to say, throughout the pandemic, ‘No, it’s just impossible for us to release these people even temporarily.’”

Kyle Thompson is serving life without parole at the reformatory and caught the coronavirus last year. He said he’s not surprised by Kentucky’s failing grade. 

“After people started getting the virus, then they started putting out masks,” Thompson said.

“They didn’t try to quarantine me or anything, they just left me in the general population and it just let the virus spread all over the prison.”

The Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment.

KyCIR previously reported that state prisons relied on lockdowns and unproven technology in their attempts to keep the virus at bay, but correctional facilities are still overcrowded and often lack space to effectively quarantine.

While Kentucky’s infection and death rates were the highest nationwide, the advocacy group gave an F to 37 other states, plus the federal Bureau of Prisons.

“We gave most states failing grades because they refused to address basic health (and mental health) needs for those trapped inside, they shied away from releasing large numbers of people who could have been safely returned home, all of which contributed to extremely dangerous conditions behind bars,” the report says.

The highest grade was New Jersey’s C-.

The report calls the nation’s handling of the coronavirus behind bars a “shameful failure.”

Nationwide, the virus has claimed more than 2,700 people and infected one out of every 3 people in prison.

There are 33 current cases of COVID-19 at Kentucky prisons, with most at Western Kentucky Correctional Complex.

Contact Jared Bennett at jbennett@kycir.org.

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Lawsuit: LMPD Detective Alleges Retaliation For Reporting Sex Crime Thursday, Aug 19 2021 

A Louisville Metro Police detective has filed a lawsuit, claiming he was demoted after he reported a woman’s allegation of sexual assault against a sex crimes detective. 

Det. Jason Moseley filed suit Wednesday against LMPD and his supervisor, Sgt. Anthony Doninger. Moseley claims that a victim’s advocate working with the state’s human trafficking task force told him she had been sexually assaulted by Det. Kris Pedigo — a detective in the sex crimes unit.

“She feared for other victims who Pedigo would be in contact with,” the lawsuit said.

Moseley alleged he was effectively pushed out of the sex crimes unit after reporting the allegation. The lawsuit does not name the woman who made the allegation to Moseley or detail the alleged incident. 

Reached on his cell, Pedigo directed all questions to LMPD. A spokesperson for LMPD said they do not comment on pending litigation. 

Claims made in a lawsuit represent one side of a case.

Moseley said in the lawsuit that after he told Doninger about the victim advocate’s report of sexual assault, Doninger interviewed her. He then referred her to LMPD’s Professional Standards Unit, which investigates potential violations of police policy and also interviewed her, the lawsuit said.

A different internal affairs unit, the Public Integrity Unit, investigates allegations of criminal wrongdoing by LMPD officers and other city officials. 

The lawsuit alleges that Doninger was “angry” that Moseley had reported the allegation against Pedigo, who was Doninger’s good friend and former beat partner. 

Doninger allegedly spent “months subjecting Detective Moseley to verbal beratements, ridicule, harassment and hypercritical and contradictory reviews of his work.” 

On August 2, the lawsuit claims, Doninger and another senior LMPD officer told Moselely he could leave the Sex Crimes Unit or be removed involuntarily. 

Moseley left the unit, the suit said. He remains employed by LMPD, according to his attorney, Morgan McGarvey. 

“We need to encourage people to report problems, bad behavior and bad actions that they see, not retaliate against them and punish them for coming forward and trying to clean things up,” said McGarvey, a Democratic state senator. The lawsuit requests lost compensation, reinstatement and punitive damages. 

Recent LMPD Sex Crime Issues

A 2019 investigation by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found Louisville had low rape reporting rates, low prosecution rates and low conviction rates compared to the rest of the country. 

Several LMPD officers have been accused of sexual misconduct in recent years. A woman filed a lawsuit in November 2020 alleging that former LMPD Detective Brett Hankison sexually assaulted her, and that the department turned a blind eye. Hankison is the only officer to face criminal charges related to the police killing of Breonna Taylor. 

Det. Brian Bailey, the department’s top search warrant getter, is under investigation for allegations he sexually abused confidential informants, a KyCIR/WDRB investigation found. In that case, LMPD only opened a misconduct investigation, not a criminal probe, into the complaints against Bailey. 

Former LMPD officer Pablo Cano was sentenced to five years in prison after he admitted to sexually assaulting five women between 2015 and 2017, and pled guilty to reduced charges of sexual misconduct. 

And in the most high-profile case, three LMPD officers involved with the department’s Youth Explorer program were convicted of child sexual abuse. Kenneth Betts was sentenced in 2019 to 16 years in federal prison; Brandon Wood was sentenced to nearly six years. Brad Schumann was sentenced to six months of home confinement. 

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For Kentucky State Police, Lots of Shootings Draw Little Scrutiny Thursday, Aug 19 2021 

John Whitlock for The Marshall Project and KyCIR

Photos from Dermot Tatlow/laif/Redux, Kentucky State Police, Mike Belleme, Getty Images

This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system, and the Lexington Herald-Leader. Sign up for The Marshall Project’s newsletter, or follow them on Facebook or Twitter

 

PINE TOP, Kentucky Just before sunset on October 22, 2015, 53-year-old Stephen Brock was walking up and down the narrow gravel road near his trailer home, yelling, cursing and praying.

Neighbors later told police that Brock was erratic — nice one day, agitated the next. Many were aware he suffered from mental illness. But when they heard Brock making threats as he paced that evening, carrying what some thought was a gun, a neighbor called 911.

Kentucky State Trooper Luke Pridemore drove alone to the scene in rural Knott County. He found Brock hiding behind a bush, shouting that the government wasn’t going to take his land, and threatening to shoot, according to police records. The trooper returned to his patrol car and retrieved an M16 assault rifle. 

Brock kept one of his hands behind his back and Pridemore thought it held a gun, he later told investigators. He fired three shots, killing Brock.

But Brock had no gun, only a length of rusty chain with a padlock on the end, which investigators found near his body.

J. Tyler Franklin

Stephen Brock was killed by Kentucky State Trooper Luke Pridemore outside his home in Pine Top, Kentucky, in 2015.

Brock was the third person Pridemore was involved in killing in less than 17 months, according to state police records, which don’t indicate that he faced any consequences for the deaths.

Such a string of shootings is unusual; studies have found that only a quarter of police officers reported ever firing their weapons, and just 15% of those who did were involved in more than one incident. 

Reached recently by telephone, Pridemore, 36, declined to comment.

Pridemore’s track record helps illustrate the low level of accountability at the Kentucky State Police, whose officers shot and killed at least 41 people from 2015 through 2020. That is more fatal shootings than any other law enforcement agency in the state, according to an investigation by The Marshall Project and the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

In fact, Kentucky troopers have killed more people in rural communities than any department nationwide, according to our analysis of data compiled by the Washington Post.

(Read: ‘Shooting First And Asking Questions Later‘)

No Kentucky trooper was prosecuted for any of the 41 deaths we examined. About a quarter of those killed were not armed with a gun when state police shot them, and a majority were suffering from addiction or mental health problems.  

The state police investigate their officers’ shootings with no outside oversight, a practice many police departments are abandoning and which some criminal justice experts and prosecutors say is problematic.

“I don’t think it should be done,” said Dave Stengel, the former commonwealth’s attorney in Louisville, citing the potential for conflicts of interest. “Everybody knows everybody else.” 

Troopers don’t wear body cameras, although the Kentucky State Police says it is exploring the possibility of employing them. The lack of video evidence allows shootings to escape scrutiny, some experts say. We found some conflicting accounts from officers and witnesses about how fatal police encounters played out.

The state police declined our request for an interview. But the agency’s commissioner, Phillip Burnett Jr., defended its work, saying in a statement that he is “committed to protecting the integrity of all investigations, interactions with the public and our state officials as we conduct law enforcement in the right way.”

Sgt. Billy Gregory, head of public affairs for the state police, said that all shootings by its officers are reviewed by prosecutors who may take cases to grand juries. The agency “is committed to being transparent while ensuring the integrity of the investigation,” he said in a statement. He did not address questions about Pridemore.

The state agency that oversees the state police is “committed to full and fair investigations of every officer-involved shooting, including those involving the Kentucky State Police,” said Kerry Harvey, secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet.  

There is no comprehensive government database of police shootings, and the Kentucky State Police would not provide a list of people shot to death by troopers. Using a combination of publicly available data and state police records, The Marshall Project and KyCIR built our own database of fatal shootings by troopers.

Three Killings, No Wrongdoing

Troopers patrol wide stretches of Kentucky and are regularly dispatched to people’s homes. More than half the people killed by state police during the six-year review period were at a residence when they were shot, and almost three-quarters of those killed were armed with guns. 

J. Tyler Franklin

Luke Pridemore at a Zoom court hearing May 2021

Pridemore’s first deadly encounter involved an armed man inside a home on Tranquility Lane in a little community near Hazard. In May 2014, six months after Pridemore was hired as a trooper, he was backing up an officer who reported being threatened by Larry Smith. After troopers arrived, Smith set the house on fire, according to police records.

Smith emerged holding a gun in his right hand and refused commands to drop the weapon, the records show. Four state troopers on the scene fired a total of 29 shots. Twelve were from Pridemore’s M16

A grand jury declined to indict the officers. 

The next fatal shooting Pridemore was involved in drew questions from witnesses about whether it was necessary — and whether the troopers were careful enough to protect bystanders. Neither of these questions was addressed by the Kentucky State Police inquiry into the death of Michael Asher. 

On May 3, 2015, a county constable reported hearing gunshots from Asher’s camper on Doctor’s Row near Hazard. Pridemore was among the troopers who responded.

Neighbors said later that Asher was known for shooting at coyotes to protect his cats.

Troopers said that Asher pointed a gun at them from inside the camper. Pridemore and two other officers fired their weapons. Asher fell dead in the doorway.

A neighbor, Brian Carter, watched the shooting with his wife through a window of their nearby home. They couldn’t see Asher clearly because he was inside the camper. Carter said state police lined up “like a firing squad” with guns drawn. He heard troopers tell Asher to put the gun down several times before opening fire. 

None of the troopers involved responded to requests for comment.

Six of the shots troopers fired at Asher went into a neighbor’s home, where some plowed through the living room and others were stopped by a brick fireplace, according to police records. Three residents were inside, including a man who used a walker. 

The residents were not evacuated until after the shooting, according to police records. None of the officers were criminally charged.

Police gunfire that endangered bystanders cost a Louisville police officer his job last year. Brett Hankison fired shots that traveled into an apartment adjoining Breonna Taylor’s in March 2020. Hankison was the first to be fired, and the only officer involved in killing Taylor to face criminal charges: three counts of wanton endangerment for the bullets in the neighbor’s apartment. He has pleaded not guilty; his trial is scheduled for February.

From 2015 through 2020, Louisville Metro Police shot and killed 20 people, according to an analysis by KyCIR, about half the number fatally shot by Kentucky State Police over the same period. Louisville employs about 300 more officers than the state police’s 740 troopers, and the city’s police department receives far more public scrutiny for its actions than the state police.

Greg Belzley, a lawyer who has sued the state police several times, said he often gets contacted by people about alleged abuse by Kentucky troopers. But many are too intimidated to file a lawsuit, he said, or don’t have the financial resources to hire a lawyer.

“If it happens here in Louisville, that’s one thing,” Belzley said. “But if it happens where we say, ‘out in the state,’ it’s something entirely different.”

When it comes to police shootings in rural areas, he said, “There’s a sense that this is all better forgotten.”

Policing experts say state police escape scrutiny partly because video footage of killings by troopers in rural communities is rare. And there are sometimes differences between the way officers and witnesses describe events.

A single officer responded to a 911 call about Kenneth Huntzinger on February 7, 2017. Huntzinger had taken too much of the insomnia drug Ambien, his wife told police, and was hallucinating, acting aggressively and trying to drive away from their central Kentucky home in his pickup truck.

COURTESY OF WILLIAM HUNTZINGER

Kenneth Huntzinger

When a state police sergeant arrived, he pulled his weapon and in less than one minute, shot Huntzinger while his wife and son looked on, according to court records. Huntzinger died a week later.

Sgt. Toby Coyle told investigators he fired because Huntzinger was driving toward him and he was afraid he would be run over. Coyle declined to comment.

When the Madison County commonwealth’s attorney took the case to a grand jury, it did not indict, describing the force used as regrettable but justified.

But in a civil-rights lawsuit Huntzinger’s family filed, they said Coyle was not in danger of being hit by the truck. The fatal shot entered Huntzinger’s body after going through the driver-side window. 

In court filings, Coyle’s lawyers said he had to shoot Huntzinger in part to protect other drivers he might encounter on the road.  

A federal judge found “genuine issues of material facts” in the case and declined to dismiss it; it is set for trial on November 15. 

J. Tyler Franklin

Kenneth Huntzinger’s former home in Richmond, Kentucky, where he was killed by Sgt. Toby Coyle in 2017.

The state police model has been to shoot first and ask questions later, said John Tilley, who from 2015 through 2019 was head of the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet. Though the agency needs more oversight, he said, the legislature has been hesitant to scrutinize it. 

“There’s an unwillingness to address some of those tough issues,” Tilley said.

Internal Investigations, No Prosecutions

The Kentucky State Police created a special unit in 2017 to investigate state police shootings, as well as those of many local police departments.

The Louisville Metro Police Department turned to the state police to examine its shootings in the wake of Breonna Taylor’s killing.  

But state police have been far slower to release body camera footage and the names of city officers involved in fatal shootings than the Louisville police department, which used to provide information within 24 hours. 

A spokeswoman for the Justice and Safety Cabinet said state police have “vast knowledge and experience” and are “committed to being transparent while ensuring the integrity of the investigation.”

The state police have been criticized for their failure to release public records. The Kentucky attorney general found in July that the agency had violated the state’s open records law when its officials denied a request reporters submitted for this story.

The state police violated Kentucky’s open records law more than any other government agency, according to a 2018 review by television station WDRB of state attorney general’s opinions on records disputes. 

The state police also told us that at least nine investigations of officers’ fatal shootings going back as far as 2015 were still “open” and therefore not available to the public. The agency reversed itself after we supplied proof that the cases were closed.

Of the 41 fatal shootings by state police, The Marshall Project and KyCIR were able to identify 22 cases that prosecutors presented to grand juries. None of those officers were indicted. In 10 other cases, prosecutors decided that the evidence didn’t merit grand-jury consideration. What happened in the rest is unclear.

Pridemore’s Downfall

COURTESY OF HAYLEY EVERAGE

Stephen Brock with his daughter, Hayley Everage, in 2012. Brock grew the rose for his daughter.

After Luke Pridemore shot and killed Stephen Brock in 2015, Brock’s daughter, Hayley Everage, thought the trooper would be held accountable once a grand jury heard the case.

Everage said her father had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. He had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital six times since 2008, police records show. 

But her hopes were dashed when a grand jury declined to indict.

“It was like what happened with my dad didn’t matter,” Everage said. 

The neighbor who called 911, Rebecca Pratt, watched from her front porch while Pridemore killed Brock.

“Honestly, I don’t see why he shot at him,” she said. “With somebody in his state of mind, you need to have more patience.”

Though the shootings apparently did not result in discipline for Pridemore, other incidents did. 

In February 2017, he was suspended without pay for 60 days for an auto collision the previous year, according to police records. He was driving his agency-issued Chevy Tahoe nearly 90 miles an hour, and the other driver was seriously injured.

When Pridemore faced firing, it was over an off-duty assault, according to police records.

His cousin had been involved in an altercation at Karen Noble’s home in Knott County. At 1 a.m. on August 28, 2017, Noble called 911 to report an intruder: Pridemore. 

According to a civil lawsuit filed by Noble and her teenage son, Landon Noble, Pridemore was dressed in police “tactical clothing,” with hard plastic knuckles under black gloves, and armed with a handgun. He entered the home without permission and struck Landon Noble in the face before slamming Karen Noble’s hand into a door and pushing her to the ground, according to the lawsuit. 

Pridemore told state police investigators the Nobles assaulted him first and that he did not have a gun on him at the time. 

An internal investigation substantiated the gist of Noble’s account, police records show. About eight months after the incident, State Police Commissioner Richard Sanders recommended that Pridemore be fired. In July of 2018, Pridemore resigned.

In May, Pridemore pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and misdemeanor criminal trespass and was placed on two years’ probation. The Nobles’ civil suit against Pridemore is pending.

After his career as a trooper ended, Pridemore was involved in another incident. In June of 2020, he pleaded guilty to charges including misdemeanor assault and misdemeanor resisting arrest, after he struck a woman and a local law enforcement officer at a Letcher County bar, court records show. He was placed on two years’ probation and ordered to undergo counseling.

According to his LinkedIn page, Pridemore still maintains a connection to law enforcement. He is the owner of Prideheart Logistics, LLC, a process server and consulting business, which lists “use of force procedures” as one of his areas of expertise.

“I have a strong record of accomplishments,” his profile says. “My biggest attribute: Execution; I get things done.”

R.G. Dunlop is an investigative reporter with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. Alysia Santo is a staff writer at The Marshall Project. Weihua Li, a data reporter for The Marshall Project, provided data analysis and reporting. A grant by the Fund for Investigative Journalism supported KyCIR’s work on this project.

The post For Kentucky State Police, Lots of Shootings Draw Little Scrutiny appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

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