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Louisville police engaged in pattern of misconduct, Justice Dept. finds

The two-year federal investigation was prompted by the 2020 police killing of Breonna Taylor and is expected to result in court-mandated changes

Police officers and protesters on Sept. 23, 2020, in Louisville. (John Minchillo/AP)
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The Louisville Metro Police Department engaged in systemic civil rights abuses and excessive-force misconduct in the years leading up to the 2020 police killing of Breonna Taylor, according to the findings of a federal investigation released Wednesday that is likely to require the department to undergo sweeping changes.

The Justice Department’s probe found that officers carried out unlawful and unconstitutional policing, including conducting searches that were based on invalid warrants, executing search warrants without knocking and announcing their presence, making unlawful stops, and targeting those who spoke out against abusive policing during mass protests or even day-to-day interactions.

The Louisville police department has for years “practiced an aggressive style of policing that it deploys selectively, especially against Black people, but also against vulnerable people throughout the city,” the report said. “ … Failures of leadership and accountability have allowed unlawful conduct to continue unchecked. Even when city and police leaders announced solutions, they failed to follow through.”

The Justice Department on March 8 said Louisville Police engaged in systemic civil rights abuses and excessive force, after a probe of Breonna Taylor’s death. (Video: Reuters)

The exhaustive and scathing 86-page report described officers using racial slurs and said that when responding to crisis situations, the police and the Louisville city government discriminated against people who have behavioral health disabilities.

In one case, federal officials said, a man suffering with such disabilities had 25 encounters with police, who used unnecessary force and mocked him. He died in a police detention center, officials said.

At a news conference in Louisville, Attorney General Merrick Garland called the misconduct “heartbreaking” and said it “erodes the community trust that is needed for effective community policing.” He was joined at the announcement by top Justice Department aides, as well as Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg (D) and interim police chief Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel.

Read the Justice Department’s findings on the Louisville Metro Police and the Louisville Metro government

Greenberg, who took office in January, said the report offered vindication for those in the community who have decried abusive policing. He pledged the city’s cooperation and sought to preempt those who might seek to minimize the findings as a product of politics or dismiss the misconduct as something that can be found in most cities.

“No, this is not about politics or about other places. This is about Louisville,” Greenberg said. “We will not make excuses. We will make changes. We will make progress. To those people who have been harmed: On behalf of our city government, I’m sorry. You deserved better.”

An official with the River City Fraternal Order of Police, which represents Louisville officers, said the organization would not issue an immediate comment.

Ben Crump, an attorney for Taylor’s family, said the Justice Department’s findings “will help protect the citizens of Louisville and shape its culture of policing” in hopes of preventing “future tragedies like the one that took the life of Breonna Taylor and the countless others who have been killed unnecessarily by law enforcement.”

The investigation took nearly two years, and the report was released just days before the third anniversary of Taylor’s death on March 13. It starts the clock on negotiations between the federal authorities and Louisville city and police leaders that are expected to result in a court-approved consent decree outlining what could amount to hundreds of specific departmental changes overseen by a federal monitor.

The report included three dozen initial recommendations, including improving use-of-force training and improving policies related to search warrants.

Such responses could take years, and similar federal efforts in dozens of other cities over the past three decades — including Seattle, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Detroit and New Orleans — have produced mixed results, while costing local city governments millions of dollars annually. Garland announced a series of changes in 2021 aimed at improving federal oversight.

Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said the Justice Department will use the experiences of those other cities to guide its work in Louisville, where community leaders have for years decried reported abuses by officers.

Local residents protested for weeks after Taylor, 26, a Black emergency-room technician, was killed when plainclothes police officers burst into her apartment to execute a search warrant in a botched drug probe. Taylor was not a suspect in the case and officials said she did not do anything wrong when police entered her home.

Her death and the police killing weeks later of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis sparked months of social justice demonstrations across the country.

Breonna Taylor's death sparked police reform in Lousiville. But the path forward is complicated.

Garland announced pattern-or-practice probes of the police forces in both Louisville and Minneapolis within his first days on the job in April 2021. The investigations involved a deep forensic examination of each department, including reviews of reams of data and thousands of hours of body-camera footage, training methods, accountability structures, facilities and equipment, and management. The Minneapolis probe continues.

The Louisville investigation found that officers frequently used unnecessary and excessive force, failed to report the encounters and did not face repercussions for their behavior. Officers used force on civilians “simply because people do not immediately follow their orders, even when those people are not physically resisting officers or posing a threat to anyone.”

Officers have at times used force just “to inflict punishment or to retaliate against those challenging their authority,” something that violates the Constitution, the report said.

In one bracing example, federal investigators describe an officer encountering a woman who was intoxicated, screaming and crying on her friend’s lawn. The woman was fighting with her friends. The officer waited for 90 seconds, then ran up, used his boot to hold her on the ground and pressed his foot into her chest, according to the report.

When the slight woman tried to bite his shoe, the officer went “into a frenzy” and began beating her face with his flashlight. The officer, the report said, did not know how many times he had hit the woman’s face. The officer left her lying on her stomach, her arms handcuffed behind her, at risk of being unable to breathe. “Despite using clearly excessive force, the officer faced no discipline,” the report said.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who oversees the civil rights division, cited broad racial disparities in how the police dealt with suspects: Black people were far more likely than Whites to be targets of police stops and searches and to be cited for traffic violations, including having improper licenses, tinted windows or busted taillights.

She said the Louisville police routinely served search warrants at night, a dangerous approach that risked officers being mistakenly identified as intruders or misinterpreting residents’ surprise as a threat.

Such tactics, Clarke said, become “weapons of oppression, submission and fear.”

’Broken Doors’: A Washington Post investigation into no-knock warrants

The review weighed heavily on the Louisville police force as it tried to repair trust with local residents while combating a rise in violent crime that tracked national trends. Though Justice Department officials praised local leaders for making changes since Taylor’s death, including installing an inspector general and a civilian review board, the Louisville police department has faced continued turmoil in the top ranks.

Erika Shields, hired by the city as chief in early 2021, struggled to balance her own push for greater accountability within the department with the ongoing specter of the federal probe. She resigned late last year after the voters elected Greenberg (D), who named Gwinn-Villaroel, a deputy of Shields, to take over as interim police chief.

“I’ve met with several officers and divisions from across the police force, and there is a renewed sense of optimism about new leadership in terms of the interim chief and mayor. That’s important,” Markus Winkler, who took over in January as the chairman of the Louisville Metro Council, said in an interview this week before the report was released.

The Justice Department has sought to demonstrate to local residents that it will seek accountability, amid an outcry from civil rights activists that no one has been convicted of a crime in Taylor’s death. In August, prosecutors filed federal civil rights charges against four former Louisville police officers.

Although the officers knocked before entering Taylor’s apartment, there is disagreement about whether they identified themselves as police. Kenneth Walker, Taylor’s boyfriend, fired a shot with his legally owned gun, striking an officer in the leg. He later said he did not realize the people who had entered the apartment were law enforcement officers. Several officers shot back, killing Taylor.

Louisville police later fired detective Myles Cosgrove, who the FBI determined fired the fatal shot, and detective Brett Hankison, who fired 10 shots that did not hit Taylor. State officials did not charge anyone directly in Taylor’s death.

Federal prosecutors have accused former detective Joshua Jaynes and two current police officers, detective Kelly Goodlett and Sgt. Kyle Meany, of falsifying information on a search warrant before and after Taylor was shot. Hankison, who fired through Taylor’s patio door even though he could not see whom he was shooting at, is charged with two counts of deprivation of rights under color of law.

“Our city has wounds that have not yet healed,” Greenberg said, “and that’s why this report, this moment, is so important and so necessary. We have to understand, and come to terms with, where we’ve been, so we can get to where we want to be.”

Police reform in America

Repeated police misconduct: More than $1.5 billion has been spent to settle claims of police misconduct involving thousands of officers repeatedly accused of wrongdoing. Taxpayers are often in the dark.

Listen: “Broken Doors” is a six-part investigative podcast about how no-knock warrants are deployed in the American justice system — and what happens when accountability is flawed at every level.

Fatal Force: Since 2015, The Washington Post has logged every fatal shooting by an on-duty police officer in the United States. View our police shooting database.

Fired/Rehired: Police departments have had to take back hundreds of officers who were fired for misconduct and then rehired after arbitration.

Read more coverage on policing in America.