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DOJ issues scathing rebuke of Louisville police in report launched after Breonna Taylor killing

The Justice Department issued a scathing critique Wednesday on the Louisville Metro Police Department after a nearly two-year review it launched into the force following the botched raid that killed Breonna Taylor. (Photo: Luke Sharrett for The Washington Post via Getty Images/FILE)

(CNN) — The Louisville Metro Police Department routinely uses excessive force and practices “an aggressive style of policing” against Black people, the Justice Department said Wednesday after an investigation launched following the botched raid that killed Breonna Taylor.

The scathing assessment paints a shocking portrait of racist and abusive conduct in the Louisville police that harkens to practices more commonly seen in some southern cities during the civil rights era.

Investigators identified a pattern of police leaders in recent years commissioning reports that documented disproportionate violence directed toward African Americans and ignoring the findings or burying the internal reports. The abuses extended to the treatment of the disabled and even sex assault victims.

“For years, LMPD has practiced an aggressive style of policing that it deploys selectively, especially against Black people, but also against vulnerable people throughout the city,” the report said.

“LMPD cites people for minor offenses, like wide turns and broken taillights, while serious crimes like sexual assault and homicide go unsolved,” the report added. “Some officers demonstrate disrespect for the people they are sworn to protect. Some officers have videotaped themselves throwing drinks at pedestrians from their cars; insulted people with disabilities; and called Black people ‘monkeys,’ ‘animal,’ and ‘boy.'”

Louisville police use “unreasonable tactics” including unjustified neck restraints, police dogs and tasers, DOJ found. The report also found that the police department executes search warrants without knocking and announcing.

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the results of the investigation Wednesday.

“This conduct is unacceptable. It is heartbreaking. It erodes the community trust necessary for effective policing and it is an affront to the vast majority of officers who put their lives on the line every day to serve Louisville with honor,” Garland said at a news conference. “And it is an affront to the people of Louisville who deserve better.”

Taylor’s death was a ‘a symptom of problems’

The DOJ’s probe found that “police officers’ forcible and violent entry into a person’s home strikes at the heart of the constitutional protection against unreasonable government intrusion.”

“But Louisville Metro’s and LMPD’s unlawful conduct did not start in 2020. As an LMPD leader told us shortly after we opened this investigation, ‘Breonna Taylor was a symptom of problems that we have had for years,'” the report said.

The department’s leaders failed to curb the “unacceptable” conduct, the report found.

“Failures of leadership and accountability have allowed unlawful conduct to continue unchecked,” the Justice Department said. “Even when city and police leaders announced solutions, they failed to follow through. In LMPD, officer misconduct too often goes unnoticed and unaddressed. At times, LMPD leaders have endorsed and defended unlawful conduct.”

As a result of the misconduct, the police department has paid more than $40 million to resolve claims of police misconduct over the past six years, according to the report.

The Justice Department review was launched after the botched raid that killed Taylor.

Four current and former Louisville police officers involved in the deadly raid — including detectives who worked on the search warrant and the ex-officer accused of firing blindly into her home — have been federally charged with civil rights violations. One of the former officers, Kelly Goodlett, pleaded guilty to conspiring to falsify an affidavit for a warrant to search Taylor’s home and to covering up the false document by lying to investigators.

Rebranding of ‘VIPER’ team to ‘Ninth Mobile Division’

The report details how an anti-crime unit created by LMPD in 2012 that became known for its “aggressive tactics” later rebranded in the face of intense community scrutiny. But the unit continued engaging in unlawful policing activities under its new banner, according to the report, underscoring how the department for years avoided implementing meaningful reforms.

“The Violent Incident Prevention, Enforcement and Response (VIPER) Unit focused its enforcement on ‘hot spots’ of violent crime, including by stopping people in certain neighborhoods for minor traffic infractions and other low-level offenses,” the report said, adding that residents “called VIPER officers ‘jump out boys’ for their aggressive tactics, and protesters demonstrated in front of police headquarters to demand an end to the unit.”

The department rebranded VIPER as the Ninth Mobile Division in 2015, the report said, and pulled most of its members from VIPER.

The result, according to DOJ, was that the new unit committed similar abuses to the ones that happened under the VIPER banner.

“Despite VIPER’s failures, LMPD leaders again failed to monitor Ninth Mobile. Neither Chief (Steve) Conrad nor Ninth Mobile’s leader analyzed enforcement activities for signs of discrimination. Federal and state courts found that Ninth Mobile officers violated residents’ Fourth Amendment rights, and we reviewed incidents in which Ninth Mobile and other patrol officers engaged in unlawful street enforcement activities,” the report said in part.

Similar units have come under fire in recent months, including one in Memphis, Tennessee, after five of its members were charged in connection with the January death of Tyre Nichols, whose brutal beating after a police traffic stop was seen on video. The five officers pleaded not guilty last month.

City leaders promise reforms

Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg vowed on Wednesday to work with other city officials to “correct the mistakes of the past,” and stressed that the report’s findings should not be politicized.

“This is not about politics or other places. This is about Louisville. This is about our city, our neighbors, and how we serve them,” he said during the news conference with Garland. “We will make progress — continued progress towards improvement and reform. Towards making sure LMPD delivers services that respect the Constitution, increase trust and promote public safety and officer safety.”

“The United States Department of Justice is demanding that we take action. The people of Louisville are demanding that we take action,” Greenberg said, noting that his office and DOJ reached an “agreement in principle that will help guide us as we implement next steps.”

LMPD interim Police Chief Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel said on Wednesday that the report marks an “extremely challenging and pivotal point for our city, our department, and for our officers.”

Gwinn-Villaroel said that improvement “will not occur overnight,” and that the department is committed to working towards the goals set by the report.

“We will not falter in this effort,” she said. “We are committed to ensuring police practices not only reflect constitutional principles, but the values of the communities served by LMPD. We recognize that the process of reform is complex and requires a sustained effort.”

Under the Biden administration, the Justice Department significantly ramped up efforts to address abusive policing, and the systemic issues that contribute to police misconduct. The Justice Department has initiated several similar probes, including into the police departments in Minneapolis; Phoenix; and Mount Vernon, New York.

Garland said that the city of Louisville signed an agreement to work with the DOJ, police officers and community members to address the problems highlighted in the report.

He also noted that the city already banned no-knock warrants, started a pilot program to send behavioral health professionals to some 911 calls, and expanded community-based violence prevention services. The police department will also revamp its training.

Their efforts are “commendable,” Garland said, but “more must be done.” He called for comprehensive training on constitutional boundaries, better equipment and facilities, and a clear chain of command amongst officers.

The mother of Breonna Taylor said the findings released Wednesday “are an indicator that Breonna’s death is not in vain” in a statement to CNN’s Jason Carroll.

“What was confirmed today is that I should still be able to to (sic) pick up the phone and reach my oldest daughter Breonna,” Tamika Palmer, the mother of Breonna Taylor, wrote. “It took us having to fight day in and day out for years simply because I deserved justice for my daughter’s murder to kickstart this investigation, but today’s findings are an indicator that Breonna’s death is not vain.”

“Our fight will protect future potential victims from LMPD’s racist tactics and behavior. The time for terrorizing the Black community with no repercussions is over,” Palmer’s statement added.

Police must document and review stops

The report outlines three dozen steps that LMPD should take to reduce instances of misconduct. Every police stop should be documented and reviewed by supervisors, the report says, and body worn cameras should be consistently reviewed.

Officers should also better prepare when executing search warrants, the report says, and police department guidelines should require that officers “knock and announce their presence” when executing a search warrant.

The report also advises that LMPD should “ensure that anyone who wishes to submit a complaint about an officer’s conduct is able to do so,” better emphasize the “rules of engagement” when dealing with protests, and that Louisville should establish an external review panel for sexual assault investigations.

This story has been updated with additional details.

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