Report: Kentucky troopers killed more people in rural communities than any other agency in the nation

Published 1:07 pm Thursday, August 19, 2021

During a five-year span that ended last year, Kentucky State Police fatally shot at least 41 people — more than any other law enforcement agency in the state, according to a published report.

Police declined to release the numbers, but the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and The Marshall Project built a database using a combination of publicly available data and state police records, according to an article the entities published in partnership with the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Kentucky troopers killed more people in rural communities than any other department in the nation, according to the partnership’s analysis of data compiled by the Washington Post, the report said.

None of the 41 fatal shootings resulted in troopers being prosecuted. Of those killed, about 75% were armed and a majority were suffering from addiction or mental health problems, according to the investigation.

Kentucky State Police investigate shootings with no outside oversight, a practice some experts and prosecutors say is problematic.

“I don’t think it should be done,” said Dave Stengel, the former commonwealth’s attorney in Louisville. He said there is potential for conflicts of interest. “Everybody knows everybody else.”
Kentucky State Police declined an interview request but Commissioner Phillip Burnett Jr. defended the agency’s work in a statement. Burnett said 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.”

Agency spokesperson Sgt. Billy Gregory said all shootings are reviewed by prosecutors who decide whether to present them to grand juries. The agency “is committed to being transparent while ensuring the integrity of the investigation,” he said.

The report identified 22 fatal shootings prosecutors presented to grand juries, though none handed down indictments, and 10 others that prosecutors decided not to present. It’s not clear what happened in the other cases.

In comparison, Louisville Metro Police, which has about 300 more officers than Kentucky State Police, fatally shot 20 people in the same time span, according to the report.

Policing experts say state police shootings don’t get the same level of scrutiny partly because video footage in rural communities is rare. Kentucky troopers don’t wear body cameras.
Among the shootings cited in the report were those of Stephen Brock in 2015 and Kenneth Huntzinger in 2017, both of which were presented to grand juries who declined to indict.

Brock was killed by Kentucky State Trooper Luke Pridemore outside his home in Pine Top in rural Knott County. A neighbor called police because Brock, who suffered from mental illness, was pacing outside, making threats and carrying what some thought was a gun. Pridemore told investigators Brock kept one of his hands behind his back and he thought the man was armed. He fired three shots, killing Brock, who held a length of rusty chain with a padlock on the end.

Huntzinger was killed in 2017 by Sgt. Toby Coyle as the Richmond man tried driving away from his home after his wife reported he was acting erratic after taking medicine for insomnia. Coyle told investigators Huntzinger was driving toward him and he was afraid he would be run over. Huntzinger’s family filed a civil rights lawsuit in which they said Coyle was not in danger of being hit by the truck and the fatal shot entered Huntzinger’s body after going through the driver-side window. The lawsuit is pending.
Pridemore and Coyle declined to comment for the article.