In 2019, the KyCIR team broke news on politics, horse racing, criminal justice and more. Take a look back with us at some of the year’s biggest and most impactful investigations.
Louisville’s public nuisance ordinance is intended to provide a way to bust up drug houses and crime dens. But police and code enforcement officials have been increasingly focused on residential locations where crimes are reported — regardless of whether the victim or the offender lives there.
Reporter Jacob Ryan found examples where grieving families were issued nuisance violations after a murder or fatal overdose. Domestic violence victims got violations after calling police for help. And city officials encouraged landlords to evict drug users who committed minor offenses.
Louisville Metro Police Department and city code enforcement officials have vowed to examine how they’ve been using nuisance violations, particularly when it comes to victims of crime.
Kentucky law allows law enforcement agencies to keep the cash seized by officers: 85 percent goes to police and 15 percent to prosecutors. Critics say these laws create a perverse incentive for police to seize, which they can do whether or not they bring criminal charges as long as they’ve got reason to believe cash is related to drug trafficking.
Ryan dug into the use of asset forfeiture and found that seized money provides leverage in resolving drug trafficking cases and has become an ingrained aspect of the justice system in Louisville. When officers seize money, they’re required by law to use it for direct law enforcement purposes. But Ryan reviewed $3.7 million in spending records and found that agencies take varied interpretations of that law.
Officers said thermal images showed a heat signature “indicative of cultivating marijuana” at Tyrone Evans’s house. When they returned a few days later, early in the morning on New Year’s Day, they did not find any physical evidence of a “grow” operation. Instead, they found Christmas lights. Evans and his family were traumatized by the police search.
KyCIR intern Jewél Jackson examined this case and LMPD’s use of helicopters and thermal imaging to find suspected grow houses.
Sexual Assault Investigations
LMPD asks prosecutors to review their rape cases and decide whether they should make an arrest. More often than not, the prosecutors say no. In this yearlong investigation — the subject of the first season of Dig — we share what reporter Eleanor Klibanoff learned: here, the police defer to prosecutors on rape cases, and prosecutors reject the vast majority of cases presented to them. It’s a very different system than most similar cities, where the police decide who to arrest.
In Louisville, our investigation found, most people accused of rape here will never face consequences. Most won’t be arrested or convicted. And the case will be closed anyway.
Though many local politicians saw cause for concern in our investigation, Mayor Greg Fischer said he’s “confident” LMPD is prioritizing justice for rape victims.
Klibanoff shined some light on other issues related to sexual assault. She learned that some emergency rooms were turning away rape victims, in violation of state law, when they didn’t have a specially trained nurse on staff. And Kentucky has essentially created a new backlog of rape kits while clearing out the old backlog: kits are averaging seven months to testing.
Government and Politics
Early this year, reporters R.G. Dunlop and Ryland Barton obtained a document few people outside the statehouse had seen: the sealed deposition of a former legislative staffer describing in detail what she called sexual harassment and assault by the then-Speaker of the House, State Rep. Jeff Hoover.
The deposition included new details about the staffer’s allegations against Hoover and a few other Republican legislators that led to a secret settlement, an ethics investigation and resignations. Three legislators filed a lawsuit against the staffer, Marissa Espinosa, alleging she disclosed details of a secret settlement dealing with the harassment allegations. They dropped the suit in September.
Kentucky is widely considered to be the center of the thoroughbred horse-racing world. But reporter Caitlin McGlade found in a story this June that our state was among the most secretive when it comes to horse deaths.
A Horse Racing Commission official cited a Kentucky state law that protects competitive information from disclosure in refusing to turn over details from the necropsies, and said releasing that information could put trainers and owners at a competitive disadvantage.
After our investigation, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission began releasing details about horse-racing fatalities.
Eighty Kentucky dams have deficiencies and are deemed high-hazard, because a breach would threaten lives or property. Only six of those dams had complete emergency plans when reporter Caitlin McGlade went looking for them this summer.
State records and more than two dozen interviews with local emergency management officials showed that emergency responders largely lacked detailed plans for responding to a crisis at those dams. Precisely how many people in Kentucky are living at risk is unclear without those plans, as one of their functions is to scientifically identify where the flood waters would go during a breach.
Mike and Pam Oakley talked for years about how Kentucky’s worker safety agency failed their 17-year-old son, Grant Oakley, who died on his second day of work. State officials never listened. They’re listening now.
After our “Fatal Flaws” investigation revealed serious failings in the state’s investigations of worker deaths, the agency promised to raise the bar with pay raises and more training. Then, the state’s safety commissioner acknowledged these problems and promised a culture change.
And when Workers Memorial Day came around, the state’s top safety officials drove to Garrard County to pay their respects to the Oakleys and assure grieving families they mean what they’ve said.
This year brought some big successes when it comes to collaboration and growth.
We joined ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, and R.G. Dunlop is hard at work on our ProPublica collaboration. We became a host newsroom for Report For America, and the new reporter will cover social issues in Kentucky. We look forward to welcoming our first RFA fellow next spring. And we launched our new podcast: Dig will take on a brand new investigation each season.
Ideas for what we should investigate in 2020? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.