It could be so easy.
It could be a slam-dunk, kumbaya decision that helps move Lexington forward.
But so far, on the issue of banning no-knock warrants, the Lexington Police Department (and its ever active union, the Fraternal Order of Police Bluegrass Lodge 4) and the Urban County Council have decided to get into a muddy old slapfest instead.
Here’s what I mean. The Lexington Police could take no knock warrants, a tool they rarely use, and hand them over as a willing sacrifice on the altar of police brutality reform. They’ve used the practice four times in five years, according to Lexington Police Chief Lawrence Weathers. Thanks to the reporting of Beth Musgrave, we know that in 2015, they royally screwed up, busting into someone’s house without knocking only to find it wasn’t actually the right house. Regulations have since tightened up. They’re just lucky no one got hurt, unlike in the case of Louisville’s Breonna Taylor, a $12 million mistake that took the life of an innocent woman and helped galvanize the entire country into a racial reckoning that in many communities included banning no knock warrants. The Lexington police could have given this up and by doing so, showed our community and many others that they are willing partners in the struggle to improve policing. It could have moved us away from such nebulous, difficult concepts as “defund the police,” and onto tangible change.
The six Urban County Council members who voted against the ban last week could still switch their votes and gain huge political points for having done so. The proposed ordinance, after all, doesn’t just ban no knock warrants, but it sets out new guidelines for all warrants and ensures that anyone serving warrants wears (and turns on) their body-worn cameras. These six members might make some police angry, but they’d get new support and respect from the many, many voters who understand that without no knock warrants, Breonna Taylor would still be alive.
Mayor Linda Gorton could say to Police Chief Lawrence Weathers, “I respect you and your position, but on this one, we’re going to have to split because I need to show this city that I respect the Commission on Racial Justice and Equality THAT I COMMISSIONED, in which a lot of volunteers worked very hard on a report that concluded the city had a lot of work to do on racial justice and that included ban no knock warrants.”
Gorton has been a sincere advocate for change, including increased body-worn camera for police, and larger issues such as hiring and city contracts. But, fair or not, this much smaller issue could taint all that progress.
Nine council members voted for the ban, and as their reward, are getting a barrage of pressure, mostly from the FOP to try to flip their votes and hold the other six members firm for the final vote on June 24. The FOP is also trying to tie this year’s high homicide rate to those advocating for the no-knock ban, which seems particularly, um, despicable. The Herald-Leader obtained copies of past no-knock warrants in 2020. None were used to apprehend a murder suspect. All were drug related.
FOP attorney Scott Crosbie said that police believe the no knock warrants will keep them safe, and that they should be part of the ongoing collective bargaining with the city, not pulled out separately as a policy item.
“The FOP has formally requested negotiations with LFUCG about this ordinance,” Crosbie said. “So far, those requests have been denied. The FOP feels a refusal to collectively bargain this policy change is an unfair labor practice, prohibited under KY law. After speaking with FOP President Jeremy Russell this week, I anticipate the FOP will likely pursue available legal remedies if the ordinance is enacted without collective bargaining.”
But you know who else is standing firm? An organized group of Black ministers who’ve parried every FOP feint because they know they’re on the right side. As they’ve said numerous times, these kinds of warrants have been and can be misused, and that misuse will almost always end up hurting people of color. They understand this is a small but achievable goal, a symbol of progress and power for a formerly powerless segment of the population.
“It is an easy win and it’s troubling that it’s being said by those supposed to protect the citizens of Lexington that the only people you should listen to are the police,” said Rev. L. Clark Williams. As they said in one statement, “it could not be clearer that the possible benefits associated with executing no knock warrants are far outweighed by the potential loss of life and the community’s cry for police reform.”
Next Thursday is the final vote and the final test. There are plenty of rumors that the pressure campaign has already worked and members have already agreed to change their votes. Depending on where council members live, FOP endorsements can carry some weight, but not as much as you might think. In 2018, they endorsed Gorton’s opponent, former police chief Ronnie Bastin. Four years earlier, the FOP endorsed their former chief, Anthany Beatty, but he was also defeated, this time by Mayor Jim Gray for a second term. The FOP did endorse Gray in 2010.
Let’s hope enough council members can stay strong and prove that they listened to the communities that are policed the most. If the ban fails, many months of progress, of listening, of moving forward will be lost. This vote is a relatively small thing that could have enormous consequences for our community.