US Justice Department launches civil probe of Louisville police

(WDRB Louisville) - The U.S. Department of Justice will launch a sweeping federal investigation of the Louisville Metro Police Department's policing and practices, Attorney General Merrick Garland said Monday.

US Justice Department launches civil probe of Louisville police

The "pattern or practice" review will target officers' use of force, including against people participating in First Amendment-protected activities. It also aims to determine if the department makes unconstitutional stops, searches and seizures on patrols and when executing search warrants at private homes.

Among other things, the probe will include a comprehensive review of policies and training and assess "systems of accountability," Garland said.  

Federal officials said their work wasn't prompted by a single event but instead will look broadly at police conduct over time. However, Garland did mention Breonna Taylor, whose 2020 death thrust Louisville into the national spotlight, during an announcement from Washington.

Investigators ultimately will decide if the Louisville department has committed systemic violations of citizens' constitutional rights or other federal rights. If such issues are discovered, the Justice Department will work with the city and LMPD to determine "mutually agreeable steps" to correct the violations, Garland said. If no agreement is reached, the federal agency can sue to force the department into changes.

"We will follow the facts and the law wherever they lead," Garland said.

The Justice Department probe is the second into a police agency in as many weeks, joining a review of the Minneapolis department a day after a jury found former officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murder in the death of George Floyd.

The Louisville department has been under scrutiny for its handling of the fatal raid on Taylor's home since last year, including how officers acquired a search warrant for her apartment following a narcotics investigation. 

The detective who petitioned a judge for a “no-knock” search warrant acknowledged that information in his affidavit was not accurate.

Taylor's mother, Tamika Palmer, tweeted Monday: "I can’t wait for the world to see Louisville Police Department for what it really is"

The River City Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents LMPD officers, said in a statement that it is "confident that at the conclusion of the investigation the division will find no systemic violations of constitutional or federal statutory rights by the officers of the LMPD." 

"The investigation may reveal administration and leadership failures that have culminated in a critical manpower shortage and record spikes in violent crime," the statement said. "The FOP has repeatedly pointed out these leadership issues."

In a statement, the Louisville branch of the NAACP said it "strongly endorses" the investigation.

"This investigation is long overdue because problems within the department have persisted for years. The fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor last year laid bare the problem in the most tragic way," the statement continued. "The NAACP also welcomes the Justice Department's recommitment to examining civil rights cases — a long-held practice it had backed away from in the recent past."

Besides the Taylor case, LMPD has also faced criticism in recent years for a series of controversial traffic stops of Black citizens. Video of the stop of teenager Tae-Ahn Lea went viral. The teenager was pulled over near 18th Street and Algonquin Parkway, handcuffed and detained for allegedly making a wide turn, according to police. He was pulled from his car, handcuffed for nearly 20 minutes and made to wait for a drug search with a police K-9.  

In addition, the DOJ plans to investigate whether the department "unlawfully executes search warrants on private homes."

In February, WDRB and KyCIR highlighted a series of questionable tactics used by LMPD officers to obtain search warrants. The investigation found that officer Brian Bailey obtained more residential search warrants than any other LMPD officer between January 2019 and June 2020, according to an analysis of all 472 publicly available warrants from that period. He obtained more search warrants than the next two officers combined.

Attorneys have raised flags about Bailey’s use of confidential informants, accusing him in court of relying on “boilerplate” affidavits and, in some cases, making up information.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said Monday that he will "strongly welcome" the Justice Department review, saying that it will help the city become safer and more equitable. 

"Good officers will welcome this announcement and see it as an exciting time to be part of reform and transformation," he said.