Louisville pins hopes on Justice Dept. review of policing

Published 7:54 am Sunday, May 23, 2021

For the people marching in the streets for more than a year after the killing of Breonna Taylor, a wide-ranging new federal investigation of policing in Louisville is seen as one more chance for justice.

The demonstrations big and small have led to lawsuits and complaints that police are abusing the people out protesting abuse. Most are still upset that no officers have been directly charged in the killing of Taylor on March 13, 2020.

“It’s been insult to injury the whole time for many of us protesting,” said Shameka Parrish-Wright, a Louisville mayoral candidate who has been arrested during protests. “They’ve started this civil unrest. We’re out here because of them and we’ve been treated like trash.”

The broadened “patterns and practices” probe announced last month by U.S. Attorney Merrick Garland could soon be led by a veteran Black civil rights lawyer who has criticized the handling of the Taylor case. Kristen Clarke is the Biden administration’s choice to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Her nomination narrowly advanced through a Senate committee this week.

Federal investigators are likely to review instances in which Louisville demonstrators were beaten and shot with pepper balls, as well as the killing of a popular barbecue stand owner as police and the National Guard, brought in to enforce a curfew, descended on his property.

Barbecue cook David McAtee thought he was under attack, his family said. Surveillance video showed authorities arriving at his restaurant and unleashing pepper balls without warning, striking around his grill and inside his kitchen. McAtee didn’t realize they were non-lethal weapons fired by law enforcers, his family’s lawyer said. He fired two rounds from a handgun through the door of his eatery, and was shot dead by a National Guard member.

The chief of police was later fired because Louisville officers on the scene failed to turn on their body cameras.

“There was nothing going on at his place, no protesting going on,” the family’s attorney, Steve Romines, said in an interview. “People were standing around eating barbecue.”

Romines said he trusts the civil rights division to conduct “a good faith review of the multiple bad actors in LMPD.”

The Justice Department had already begun an investigation last year into the officers involved in the Taylor shooting and their chain of command for civil rights violations.

The pattern or practice investigation reflects a shift in priorities under the new Democratic administration, which opened a similar probe of the Minneapolis Police after the death of George Floyd. In both cases, the announced scope includes any violations of First Amendment rights and questions about illegal searches and seizures and equal protection under the law.

Louisville’s city leaders and new police chief — the fourth since Taylor’s death — welcomed the Justice Department’s promise to examine the “root causes” of potential civil rights violations going back about five years.

“I think our officers at LMPD really want to have the very best police department in the country,” said David James, a city council member and former police officer. But “I think there has to be some cultural change to take place in order for that to happen.”

Police Chief Erika Shields, hired from Atlanta as a reformer, said Louisville’s officers “want to get it right.”

“They want the community to be proud of them,” Shields said after the probe was announced in April.

The city has banned controversial no-knock warrants, paid Taylor’s family $12 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit and fired two of the officers who shot at her. One of the fired officers has been charged for shooting recklessly into Taylor’s neighbor’s apartment. But after state officials declined to pursue criminal charges for Taylor’s death, demands for justice have persisted, as have clashes with police.

Parrish-Wright was arrested in September — on felony riot charges that were later dropped — after Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron announced that his grand jury process led to no officers being charged in Taylor’s killing. After enduring pepper balls, tear gas and rough arrests, she said she and other protesters are glad to see the federal response.

“I think the DOJ is giving people hope that we’ll see something positive happen,” said Parrish-Wright, who leads the local chapter of the Bail Project, which has helped protesters get released from jail.

Clarke, who has been president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and previously managed the Civil Rights Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office, criticized Cameron’s handling of the case last year as “a full-scale denial of justice.”

The conflict continues: Just days before the new federal investigation was announced, a protester was recorded being beaten by a Louisville officer during an arrest downtown. Denorver Garret was demonstrating when officers ordered him to move out of the street. Then they put him on the ground and an officer punched him in the head and face.

“I don’t fear them, and I’m not going to stop protesting,” said Garrett, who is suing the officer. “I have the right to protest and I’m going to keep doing it. I could’ve been a George Floyd yesterday.”

Many Black Louisville residents say the police department has a long history of heavy-handed tactics in its dealings with their community. In Taylor’s case, detectives secured a narcotics warrant and knocked her door down, but a search for drugs and cash alleged by the warrant turned up nothing. Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, tweeted that with federal investigators now involved, she “can’t wait for the world to see Louisville Police Department for what it really is.”

An audit conducted by a consulting firm hired by the city in the wake of the Taylor shooting said police have had “generations of problematic relations” with the city’s Black community. It found issues with the department’s warrant process and morale so low that many officers have considered quitting.

Louisville’s police union, River City FOP, expressed confidence that federal investigators won’t find “systemic violations of constitutional or federal statutory rights by the officers of the LMPD.”

Instead, the union blames police and city leaders for officer shortages that have led to a spike in violent crime.

“We look forward to meeting with DOJ investigators and assisting in this process in any way possible,” the FOP statement said.