The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Breonna Taylor’s death sparked police reform in Louisville. But the path forward is complicated.

Louisville Metro Police Maj. Steven Healey of the city’s 2nd Division speaks with Louisville Defender newspaper publisher Clarence Leslie on Oct. 26. (Luke Sharrett for The Washington Post)
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LOUISVILLE — In a city still wounded by the police killing of Breonna Taylor, another officer-involved shooting last month offered a test of policies aimed at restoring public trust.

Louisville Metro Police Chief Erika Shields learned of the late-night incident via emergency text. Under a new city policy, she confirmed the details — police responding to a domestic disturbance fatally shot a man who they said fired at them first — then handed over the investigation to the Kentucky State Police.

A team of Justice Department investigators was in town, part of a sweeping probe of the police department prompted by Taylor’s death in March 2020 and the law enforcement response to more than 100 days of social justice demonstrations last year.

By the next afternoon, federal investigators were on the phone with Louisville’s division commander asking questions about the officer-involved shooting — the eighth in the city this year, and the second that resulted in a fatality.

“You can’t control the timing of these things — you just want as few of them as possible,” said Shields, 54, who was hired in January after four years as Atlanta’s police chief. “The problem is that with so much violence and guns on the streets, you just know there’s a likelihood of this kind of thing happening.”

Twenty months after Taylor was killed, the dynamics in Louisville highlight the predicament of a first-year chief whose department has become a testing ground in the Biden administration’s effort to demonstrate that federal intervention can lead to sustainable improvements in policing.

Like many parts of the country, the city is grappling with a spike in killings and a large number of officer vacancies, dampening support for a dramatic revamp of public safety. City leaders are weighing expensive reforms, even as the federal probe promises to stretch for months.

At the same time, activists are clamoring for more accountability. Two officers were fired after the Taylor killing, and one agreed to retire. One officer was charged with “wanton endangerment,” but none were charged with firing the fatal shots. Area activists said the FBI continues to gather information about the shooting.

“There has been no closure on Breonna Taylor,” said Sadiqa Reynolds, chief executive of the Louisville Urban League. “I don’t know if we’re doing reform right now in Louisville. If we are, we do not have the evidence of that yet.”

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For Shields, the stakes are high and the clock is ticking. While police chiefs in some cities have taken an antagonistic posture toward Justice Department investigations, Shields has been welcoming. She says the intervention should complement her own reform efforts, even as probes in other cities have produced frustration and mixed results.

On the day investigators arrived last month, Louisville officials unveiled a four-year, $35 million proposal to improve policing, including hiring more internal auditors, increasing officer training and establishing a police accountability bureau. Mayor Greg Fischer (D) said the funding will come from the federal stimulus.

But there is no guarantee those efforts will satisfy federal authorities. The Justice Department’s final report, expected late next year, will probably result in a court-mandated consent decree, requiring more costly changes and years of federal oversight. And next fall, voters will potentially render judgment on the state of reforms when they elect a new mayor, with public safety certain to be a top issue.

“They are clearly going to find patterns they find problematic and seek assurances that these are truly addressed,” Shields said of the Justice Department. “The reality of it is, when you’re in this space, you’ve lost the ability to leverage.”

Opening their records

The visit to Louisville in late October was the third for investigators since Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the civil probe in April. He has launched similar investigations in Minneapolis and Phoenix.

Louisville’s team is led by Paul Killebrew, special counsel in Justice’s civil rights division, and includes officials from Washington and the local U.S. attorney’s office, along with two former police chiefs from other jurisdictions.

In a statement, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said the Justice Department will “work to expeditiously address any pattern or practice of unlawful conduct that may be identified.” The review spans the past five years.

Federal investigators have accompanied local officers on patrol duty and homicide investigations, toured facilities, and interviewed police staff, city officials and civic activists. Shields’s team gave them laptop computers that can access the department’s vast system of computerized files and thousands of hours of body-camera footage.

Matt Golden, Louisville’s chief of public services, said investigators told local officials that a single digital folder contained more information than all the data the Justice Department compiled in its probe of the much larger Chicago Police Department from 2015 to 2017.

“Louisville has been very open to us. They’ve provided an enormous amount of data,” said one federal official close to the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the probe is ongoing.

The team is reviewing dozens of police use-of-force incidents, including all officer-involved shootings from 2017 through this year, and past use of no-knock warrants, which were banned after police shot Taylor while carrying out a no-knock warrant at her apartment.

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Already, investigators have voiced concerns about the dilapidated state of Louisville’s police facilities, where they said some officers have been asked to sign liability waivers to work in buildings with code violations. Consultants warned in 2018 that the aging police headquarters should be torn down over work-safety hazards; Shields and her executive staff are only now relocating.

“They made a good point,” Lt. Col. Paul Humphrey, the assistant chief, said of the criticism by the feds. “How can officers expect to be held to a high standard if their facilities reflect that no one cares about them?”

The issue, he said, illustrates a broader challenge of police reform: It requires investments that city leaders are often unwilling to make. Humphrey pointed to the dearth of social services in Louisville that he said means police officers — rather than mental health counselors — must deal with mentally ill suspects, without adequate training in how to de-escalate such situations. “When there are no other resources to respond, who steps in? The police,” he said. “And that’s of no ill intent, but it comes to that because problems fester.”

State officials investigating last month’s shooting said three Louisville officers responded to a 911 call about a domestic disturbance. Body-camera footage shows the officers attempting to escort a man, identified as Ivan Foster, 37, from a woman’s apartment.

The footage shows police warning Foster, who grabs a gun and fires a shot, which authorities said struck a police radio on an officer’s hip. Foster then yells “I’ll kill him!” and another officer, identified as Timothy Lanham, fires fatal shots. Lanham has been placed on paid administrative leave.

'Not a quick path forward'

Shields took over the 1,300-officer department as its fourth leader in seven months, succeeding two interim chiefs and Police Chief Steve Conrad, who was fired during the 2020 protests. The leadership tumult has harmed morale; union leaders say it’s a primary reason 300 positions on the force remain vacant.

“Officers don’t know who to believe, who to trust,” said the federal official close to the investigation. “It leaves them in a poor position as it relates to understanding what their focus should be, what their priorities should be, how they should be engaging with communities.”

As part of an effort to win the confidence of her officers, Shields announced that she and her executive team would participate in patrol shifts, getting an up-close view of the challenges facing her department. One glimpse came the night of June 22. Shields was in a squad car driven by Lt. Bryan Edelen that fell in behind a cruiser pursuing a reported stolen vehicle on a freeway.

In Atlanta, Shields had banned such high-speed chases over fear of endangering the public. But Louisville had 173 criminal homicides last year — obliterating the previous record of 117 set in 2016. The 2021 homicide tally reached 170 the week of Nov. 14, with just 36 percent of the killings solved so far.

Police say assailants are increasingly using stolen vehicles to carry out shootings, lessening the chance they will be caught. Shields said that is one reason she has condoned high-speed chases in Louisville: “If we do not allow the pursuit of these cars, the shooters get loose.”

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The city offered police officers and sergeants a contract that included 12 percent raises over two years but would require drug testing for officers involved in critical incidents and lengthen the period the city retains complaints about officers from 90 days to two years.

The union rejected the proposal, with leaders saying the salary increases were not enough to reverse attrition or boost morale that has been low for months. An outside audit in January found that 75 percent of Louisville officers said they would leave to join another department if possible.

“We think it’s having a huge impact,” union spokesman and retired officer Dave Mutchler said of the department’s vacancy rate. “It’s not just about stopping crime, but there’s less time to engage with the citizens on your beat. We may have to stop providing some services if we are continuing to lose officers at this rate.”

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Shields expressed empathy for the officers, saying they have experienced “a lot of PTSD and very strong emotions from last year,” which saw weeks of protests, scores of arrests and the fatal shooting of a shop owner by Kentucky National Guard troops who were helping police enforce a curfew.

“It’s a morale issue when people feel that they’re hated,” she said. “This is not to discount the [social justice] activism; it’s not to discount the movement. It’s saying, as someone who’s trying to get this department upright, engaged and positive, I have a lot of folks who are really wrestling with a lot of things. And there’s not a quick path forward.”

Stray bullets and 'wheelies'

For Maj. Steven Healey, who took charge of Louisville’s 2nd Division in June even though he was eligible to retire, the way forward is to rebuild relationships in the community. It has not been easy. The division is down to 53 officers — 19 short of full staffing.

Residents say they want more officer patrols and more resources to reduce shootings and address lesser concerns.

Healey said he welcomes any funding the federal probe may bring. In the meantime, he used a recent radio appearance to tout a dip in homicides in the 2nd Division, and then joined the radio host, Bishop Dennis V. Lyons of the Gospel Missionary Church, for a meeting with parishioners a short drive away.

At the radio station, Lyons pressed Healey to work more closely with church leaders and help protect Dino’s, a popular neighborhood food mart, which city government leaders have sought to close over allegations that it draws drug dealers and prostitutes to the area.

After the show, Healey acknowledged that the bishop had made a good point. “Do we want to shut down another business or make a safe neighborhood store in a community that doesn’t have many?” Healey said.

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Lyons’s church is small and aging. He placed a mailbox outside the church with the lettering “Community Crime Tip Box,” hoping to collect anonymous information that he could pass on to police. But he said someone recently left the box mangled beyond repair.

Inside, a man complained to Healey about “kids doing wheelies” on the streets. Another said drivers sped through stop signs. A woman said stray bullets pierced her home. While the summertime protests demanded sweeping police reforms, the discussion at the church reflected more prosaic, day-to-day concerns.

Healey told the residents that police were adding speed cameras and considering expanding the “shot-spotter” system, which detects gunfire and alerts police. He distributed copies of a 43-page pamphlet listing community services, before ducking out as the parishioners sampled fried chicken from Dino’s.

“Even in the 2nd Division, citizens want the police there,” Healey said. “They just want us to do it the right way.”

Urgent need, shifting climate

On a late September morning, a mile from the church, 16-year-old Tyree Smith was killed, and two other teens injured, after a gunman fired on a group of students at a city bus stop. Police said the assailant drove a stolen Jeep Cherokee, then set it on fire.

At a news conference, Shields warned of escalating gang violence among teens and vowed to “bang the drum loudly” to convince school board leaders that the system “has to have its own police department.”

Her remarks earned rebukes from civic leaders who don’t want police inside schools and say the city should focus instead on investing in housing, education and social programs.

“What we’re saying is, ‘Listen, you can’t have a community that has been redlined out of opportunity for so long and think police are the only answer,’ ” said the Urban League’s Reynolds.

Shields emphasized in an interview that she does not want her officers in school buildings either. Rather, she envisions a separate pool of resource officers trained to identify brewing conflicts. Fischer, meanwhile, recently proposed spending $15.8 million on violence prevention initiatives and $15 million on youth programs.

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Louisville Metro Council member Jessica Green, who supported Shields’s hiring and has praised her performance, said she doesn’t want school resource officers either. But she acknowledged that Shields is in a tough spot: “There is nothing she can say or do right now that will appease every single faction.”

Next fall, the city will elect a mayor to succeed Fischer, who is statutorily barred from seeking a fourth term. At least one declared candidate — pastor Timothy Findley Jr. of the Kingdom Fellowship church, who was arrested during the social justice demonstrations — has said he would replace Shields, citing her “empty words, without substance” and close ties to Fischer. Other candidates could do the same.

Federal officials say consent decrees, with their legal requirements, are designed to withstand such political upheaval. But political transitions have complicated reform efforts in other cities, as new leaders pursue their own agendas. For example, Seattle is heading into its 10th year under a federal consent decree, a process that has spanned four police chiefs, three elected mayors and two federal monitors.

Fischer said he is ready to press for a more detailed timetable for Louisville.

“We’re at an inflection point,” he said. “I’m hoping that whatever agreement we have with the DOJ is done while I’m still mayor. This is a terrible thing to hand off to the next mayor.”

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