With Breonna Taylor protests, COVID-19 and record homicides, Louisville police are in crisis

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Officer Christian Lewis raced to the hospital Wednesday night after learning one of his best friends and partners, Robinson Desroches, had been shot during downtown Louisville protests.

Desroches and Louisville Metro Police Maj. Aubrey Gregory were both hit by gunfire in the hours following a grand jury's decision in the police-shooting death of Breonna Taylor.

Lewis said he knew the day of the highly anticipated grand jury report would be a historic one. The jury didn't indict any officer in direct relation to Taylor's death, which outraged those seeking justice for the 26-year-old Black woman.

“It was a very emotional and draining day,” he told The Courier Journal.

As a Black man raised in Louisville’s West End, Lewis said he understands the cries for justice at the protests, where he sees the familiar faces of family and friends.

He also knows the stress of 120-plus days of demonstrations on police.

Taylor's death has catapulted Louisville into the national spotlight and made the city’s police department a focal point of the cry for racial justice and police reform.

That intense scrutiny on Louisville policing comes as the department contends with a slew of other challenges this year: policing during the coronavirus pandemic, two leadership changes and another on the horizon, a record-breaking homicide tally with months left on the calendar and a spike in retirements and other departures that have thinned the force.

LMPD officer Christian Lewis wipes tears away after hugging a few citizens as hundreds gathered to protest the death of David McAtee, a beloved BBQ owner who shot and killed amid gunfire by LMPD and Kentucky National Guard early Monday morning near 26th and Broadway in West Louisville. June 1, 2020
LMPD officer Christian Lewis wipes tears away after hugging a few citizens as hundreds gathered to protest the death of David McAtee, a beloved BBQ owner who shot and killed amid gunfire by LMPD and Kentucky National Guard early Monday morning near 26th and Broadway in West Louisville. June 1, 2020

Lewis and fellow Black officer Desroches work out of the West End. They've stood side by side at the protests, often the target of hostility and jeers labeling them as traitors.

“Hurt people do hurtful things," Lewis said.

In a statement late Thursday, Kentucky State Fraternal Order of Police President Berl Perdue Jr. said an LMPD officer told him individuals were confronting police and calling officers "the next Nick Rodman" or "the next Deidre Mengedoht" — references to two LMPD officers killed in the line of duty.

"There is no place in peaceful assembly and expression of speech where threats such as these should be tolerated," Perdue wrote.

LMPD officers are dealing with pressure and shifting ground on many fronts, with more likely to come as the movement sparked by Taylor’s killing continues its drumbeat for change.

“I am very concerned about the safety of our officers,” interim Chief Robert Schroeder said in a news briefing Wednesday evening from outside the hospital where Desroches and Gregory were being treated for their wounds.

Louisville protests: Despite Louisville protesters' efforts to be nonviolent, 2 LMPD officers were shot

Metro Council President David James, a former police officer, said he knows officers are under "a tremendous amount of stress."

"Some are scared," he said. "Some are concerned, wondering if they should stay in this profession. There’s some that are thinking these people have some valid points, and we have to create change here."

Shifting rules of engagement

Louisville police union leadership for months has warned that many officers are exhausted, feel stretched thin and crave consistent orders from those in leadership.

Ryan Nichols, president of the River City FOP Lodge 614, told The Courier Journal earlier this month that with protests stretching on for months, officers haven’t had an adequate chance to recharge.

A slew of retirements and departures from the department this year, through July, have outpaced those seen in the last two years, according to department data.

Besides responding to protests and adapting to new realities posed by COVID-19, officers are facing a spiking violent-crime wave that has shattered Louisville’s homicide record, with more than 120 killings this year so far.

More than 400 people have been hurt in shootings through mid-September, double the number at this time last year.

Background:As homicides soar to record numbers, Louisville still lacks firm plan to stop the violence

Nichols said officers have had to constantly adjust to shifting rules of engagement during this summer’s protests.

“They would embrace some clear and consistent guidelines and knowing what their actual expectations are,” Nichols said.

During a Metro Council committee hearing earlier this month, Maj. Paul Humphrey, commander of LMPD's training division, said there’s been a lot of frustration over changing, conflicting priorities and stances from department leadership and the mayor’s office.

“It's a constant battle to understand and make decisions about what steps should be taken and what steps shouldn’t,” he said. “There are times when us as commanders are not willing to put our officers in positions where we feel like they will not get public support for taking the actions that we're asking them to take.”

Louisville Metro Police Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly
Louisville Metro Police Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly

Humphrey spoke of the scrutiny officers are under, saying the current local and national environments lead them to act as though there’s a “stand-down” order.

“We understand that there’s a lot of things that the public right now, this council, the mayor's office … don’t have the appetite for,” he said. “It's not limited to what's going on in relation to protests, right? We see on the street. We know that officers are not taking the proactive steps that they've taken in the past.”

In his letter to more than 1,000 of his colleagues sent the day before the grand jury decision, Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly said officers "did the legal, moral and ethical thing” the night of Taylor’s death and called protesters “thugs.”

"You DO NOT DESERVE to be in this position," wrote Mattingly, one of two officers who Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron's investigation found returned fire into Taylor's apartment, striking her, after Taylor's boyfriend fired a shot that struck Mattingly.

"The position that allows thugs to get in your face and yell, curse and degrade you. Throw bricks, bottles and urine on you and expect you to do nothing. It goes against EVERYTHING we were all taught in the academy."

In another message to officers sent in August by Fifth Division Maj. Bridget Hallahan, she decried “ANTIFA and BLM people” who criticize officers without having facts, saying “our little pinky toenails have more character, morals and ethics, than these punks have in their entire body.”

On Friday, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer announced Hallahan was relieved of her commanding duties and would retire Oct. 1.

Concerns over officer safety

The department previously reported threats have been lodged against the officers involved in Taylor’s death — Mattingly, Detective Myles Cosgrove and former Detective Brett Hankison — whose faces have been plastered across homemade wanted posters.

Hankison was the only one to be indicted Wednesday, but his three counts of wanton endangerment deal only with him allegedly firing his weapon into Taylor's neighbor's apartment.

Speaking with The Courier Journal in August, a source within LMPD familiar with security provided to the officers — who asked for anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak with reporters — said the spreading of misinformation about the case on social media has helped fuel anger and vitriol directed at officers.

This incorrect information, such as assertions that officers were at the wrong house or that Taylor was asleep in bed when police opened fire, wasn’t quickly corrected by Fischer, contends union president Nichols.

Breonna Taylor's death: Autopsy report reveals how Louisville police bullets killed her

A Fischer spokeswoman said last month the office has made dozens of calls to local and national media to reiterate correct information, though a scan of social media shows misinformation about the case abounds.

In her message to officers last month, Hallahan claimed officers and their families were being doxed, though she didn’t provide specifics.

Movement toward police reform

While the loudest demands at demonstrations on Louisville streets have been for criminally charging the officers involved in the death of Taylor, protesters have called for other systemic changes, largely directed at the police department.

Just a few weeks after protests started in late May, the Louisville Metro Council unanimously passed Breonna’s Law, which bans Louisville police from using no-knock warrants, as was used the night Taylor was killed, and sets guidelines for executing search warrants, including having body cameras recording.

Kentucky Rep. Attica Scott, D-Louisville, prefiled a bill in August that would ban no-knock search warrants in Kentucky, and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, has also filed the “Justice for Breonna Taylor Act” that he says would effectively end their use nationwide.

Fischer also formed a work group tasked with developing a proposal on creating a civilian review board, with the aim of adding a new layer of oversight to the department.

A slew of reforms were also included in the $12 million settlement with Breonna Taylor’s family reached earlier this month.

Related: The inside story of how Louisville's $12 million Breonna Taylor settlement came together

James said officers seem to be receptive to the settlement's reforms.

"I don’t think they have any heartburn really about the reforms that were in the settlement," James said, though he added officers would have appreciated advance notice.

Changes include:

  • Early action warning system to identify officers with red flags.

  • Mandatory commanding officer review of all search warrants.

  • Mandatory written approval of SWAT matrices before search warrants are executed.

  • Overhaul of processes for simultaneous search warrants.

  • Mandatory EMS/paramedic presence for all search warrants.

  • Encouraging officers to perform at least two paid hours a week of service in the communities they serve.

  • Housing credits for officers to live in select low-income census tracts.

  • Hiring a team of social workers to help with dispatched runs.

  • Commitment to bargain for increased drug and alcohol testing in the next FOP contract.

  • Elimination of designating internal investigations into officer conduct "closed by exception" when officers retire or resign before the inquiry is finished.

  • Personnel files: Metro will negotiate with the FOP in 2021 to expand on the records it may maintain in officers’ personnel files.

Fischer on Thursday did not readily have details on the progress toward each of the reforms in the settlement but said updates would be forthcoming.

Bridging the divide

Though the highly anticipated grand jury decision in the Taylor case has passed without delivering the justice many protesters have called for, other investigations continue, and systemic reforms are still in the works.

The FBI continues its investigation into possible civil rights violations.

In the wake of Taylor’s death, Fischer hired a Chicago-based consulting firm to conduct a “top-to-bottom” review of the police department, an effort to which James said he hopes officers will offer their candid thoughts.

Through his conversations with officers, James said he believes there's resentment by some officers that the Metro Council is involving itself in policing matters, though he also said some officers think the council is taking up issues that need to be discussed.

Top leadership has changed, as Fischer fired LMPD Chief Steve Conrad in June after learning officers at the fatal police shooting of David McAtee, a West End barbecue chef, didn't have body cameras turned on.

His replacement, interim Chief Robert Schroeder, recently announced his retirement.

LMPD’s next interim leader, former deputy chief Yvette Gentry, has signaled she wants to help usher in change for the city’s police force and the residents of west Louisville.

Who is Yvette Gentry?: What to know about Louisville's interim police chief

"People are just so far apart,” she said earlier this month. “And maybe, I can be in the middle, and I can bridge it.”

She’ll be the first woman and the third African American to serve as chief of Louisville Metro Police when she assumes the role of interim chief on Oct. 1.

In an interview, Gentry told The Courier Journal the department “has got work to do” to restore Black residents’ faith and that "law enforcement has to grow" but noted that changes to the department aren’t the only solution to systemic racism.

"I will just say: That is just a glimpse of how a lot of people have been feeling for a long time, and we can't go back," Gentry said of the months of protests. "I think our city is at a point of reckoning that only truth can bring us out of."

Meanwhile, the search for her successor has included a citizen survey and listening sessions with elected officials, the business community, religious leaders, activist groups and LMPD employees.

The city has hired Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit research organization, to spearhead the search.

Fischer said he anticipates naming a permanent chief by year’s end.

Lewis said he joined the force about a year ago wanting to spur change within the department.

LMPD Officer Christian Lewis was emotional while helping control the crime scene where beloved David McAtee -- owner of YaYa's BBQ, who he had known most of his life -- was shot and killed by law enforcement early Monday morning. "Mr. D always looked out for me, fed me and always loved that I became a Black Officer of change," Lewis wrote on a Facebook post.

With "a foot in both worlds," Lewis said, he's been having difficult conversations with white officers as well as family and friends. He expects those conversations will continue as the department and community navigate a path forward.

“You’re always trying to be the explainer,” he said. “You’re always trying to help people get understanding. But unfortunately, still to this day, we all as people still don’t have a good understanding with each other.”

Contributing: Darcy Costello, Louisville Courier Journal. Follow reporter Matthew Glowicki on Twitter: @mattglo.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Louisville cops in crisis after Breonna Taylor, COVID-19, homicides