Louisville’s Two-Decade Fight For Civilian Oversight Of Police

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Over the last 20 years, Louisville has developed a call-and-response that seems to echo through the decades — police shoot and kill a Black person in a manner that shocks the conscience. Protests erupt across the city, and city officials offer up an antidote to the furor: increased civilian oversight of the police department. 

It happened in 1999, when police killed Desmond Rudolph and the Board of Aldermen tried to pass an ordinance creating a civilian review board. 

It happened in 2003, when police killed James Taylor and the city got the Citizens Commission on Police Accountability. 

And it’s happening again, in 2020, as Mayor Greg Fischer proposes creating a new civilian review mechanism in response to the police killing of Breonna Taylor.

Taylor family

Breonna Taylor

Protesters are calling for this increased oversight because previous efforts to create meaningful civilian review of the police department never really succeeded. 

And people who were around back then worry that, if city leaders don’t learn from the past, civilian review is doomed to fail again — and we’ll be having this same discussion, years from now, after the killing of another Black person.

“A whole new generation is rediscovering civilian review, which is good,” said local civil rights leader K.A. Owens, who advocated for civilian review in 1999. “I encourage the current city officials to study the prior ordinance and consult with people who were around at the time.”

Lawsuit stops first attempt 

On May 13, 1999, 18-year-old Rudolph attempted to flee from police in a stolen car. The car was stuck in an alley when two police officers on foot fired 22 rounds into the car, saying they feared Rudolph was going to run them down. 

He died four days later. A grand jury did not indict the officers, but the city’s public safety director found several problems with the officers’ response, according to an AP story at the time. 

The serious outcry, though, came months later, when the two officers were honored with awards for exceptional valor for their role in the shooting. Then-Mayor Dave Armstrong fired the police chief, leading nine commanders to step down and call for Armstrong’s resignation. 

A group called Citizens Against Police Abuse had already been advocating for civilian review, but in the fallout from the Rudolph killing, the idea began to gain support across the city. 

“We were having bad shootings, similar to what we’re having now,” remembers Owens, who helped organize the group. “We were seeing just abuse of people by the police, mainly in the Black community.” 

Owens said civilian oversight was intended to increase accountability for police officers, help root out systemic issues and rebuild trust between police and the communities they serve. At that time, before the city and county governments merged, Louisville was more than a third Black but the police force was only 16 percent Black.

More than 30 civil rights groups helped organize protests, sit-ins, door knocking and postcard campaigns to build support for civilian review. In 2000, a majority of the 12-member Board of Aldermen, the equivalent to today’s Metro Council, passed an ordinance. 

The ordinance created a Civilian Police Review Authority, with its own administrative and investigative staff. The 11-member board would investigate any complaints of use of excessive force, inappropriate language or demeanor, discrimination, theft and other police misconduct. 

Most crucially, the ordinance said the board would be granted subpoena power, through the Director of Public Safety. Subpoena power would allow the committee to compel witnesses or police officers to testify, or produce evidence, under threat of legal action. If someone doesn’t comply with a subpoena, they can be legally charged with contempt of court. 

Mayor Dave Armstrong opposed all forms of civilian review, with or without subpoena power, according to a Courier Journal article from the time. Armstrong, who died in 2017, vetoed the 2000 ordinance. But the Board of Aldermen overrode the veto. 

Right away, the River City Fraternal Order of Police sued the city, claiming the subpoena power clause was illegal. 

The representative for the FOP on the lawsuit? David James, who today serves as Metro Council president and an advocate for stronger civilian review. 

James led the FOP at the time. He said in a recent interview that he supported civilian review then and now. 

“The Board of Aldermen didn’t have subpoena power, so they couldn’t grant subpoena power to the board,” James said. “I opposed the illegal parts of the ordinance.” 

He said he supports giving the board subpoena power now — assuming it comes through the legislature as it legally would need to. 

In May 2001, two years after Louisville police killed Rudolph, a judge ruled in favor of the FOP, striking down the ordinance over the subpoena power aspects. 

Judge Tom McDonald wrote that because the Board of Aldermen didn’t have subpoena power, it “didn’t pass constitutional muster” for them to grant that power to a civilian board, according to the Courier Journal. 

That ruling was later struck down by an appeals court that said the lawsuit had no standing.

“There’s no way to know, but you just have to wonder what could have been prevented if we’d managed to get real civilian review then,” said Bill Allison, an alderman who fought for the ordinance. “How much money could we have saved if we’d gotten rid of those rogue cops? And, how many lives, maybe?”

In the end, the board never went into effect. Meanwhile, the city and county merged, meaning all ordinances had to be re-passed by the new Metro Council. By then, though, there was already another police killing of a Black man that sparked protests — and calls for increased civilian oversight of the department. 

Member: Current board ‘is a sham’

In December 2002, just weeks before the new Louisville Metro government was officially created, Louisville police shot and killed James Taylor, 50. Police said he lunged at them with a boxcutter while handcuffed behind his back; they responded by shooting him 11 times. 

Amid the protests, then-Mayor Jerry Abramson responded by promising to create a civilian oversight board. This time, the emergency ordinance passed quickly —  albeit without investigative or subpoena power. 

The 11-member Citizens Commission on Police Accountability is still in effect today, and reviews only “closed police investigations in all police shooting cases and incidents involving loss of life due to police action.” 

Their role is to review the adequacy of internal investigations, not make determinations about the incidents themselves; they are able to make recommendations to the mayor and police chief about policies, training and procedures, but not about action in individual cases. 

At the time, Abramson said he would appoint people who were “not on the extremes” of the issue, and said subpoena power was not necessary because he and the police chief would require officers to cooperate. But nothing in the order was codified to that effect. 

“I fear the commission has extremely limited authority, to the point I think they might get frustrated and the community won’t feel any better about police-community relations,” Jeff Vessels, then executive director of the Kentucky ACLU, told the Courier Journal at the time. 

That has, in many ways, proven to be true. 

“The current board is a sham,” said Ricky Jones, a current member of the board and the chair of the Pan-African Studies department at the University of Louisville. “It was intended to be a toothless tiger. They delivered the most flaccid, sanitized, powerless version of civilian review they could offer.”

Jones’ nomination to the board in 2017 was controversial, as he was seen as anti-police. He said he had hoped to enact real change, but with the lengthy wait times for the board to get access to closed cases, it’s hard for the board to be relevant. 

LMPD has only closed one internal investigation related to a police shooting in two and a half years, KyCIR has found.  

A 2017 Courier Journal investigation found that the board had reviewed more than 70 cases but only five had resulted in recommendations, most recently in 2008. Nearly all of the recommendations were adopted, the investigation found. 

One of the first recommendations the commission voted on, according to a 2003 news report, was requiring officers involved in a fatal shooting to be tested immediately for drugs and alcohol. It did not go into effect. Last week, Metro Council proposed a similar ordinance. 

Working Group Hopes For Strong Oversight

Once again, Louisville finds itself in the same position — answering protests about police killings with the promise of civilian oversight. 

In some ways, this time is different. The mayor and council president have come out in support of a new and separate board that would offer serious civilian oversight, and they have put together a working group of community members to design the mechanism. 

The Louisville Civilian Review Board work group is made up of city and state officials, police representatives, community leaders and some members of the current civilian review board. They are currently considering different approaches to oversight — creating a position of inspector general or internal auditor, building a body that does their own, concurrent investigations, or taking a post-investigation review approach.

Fischer has specifically called for the board to have subpoena power. James of Metro Council and formerly the FOP, has echoed that call, though he said waiting for the legislature to grant subpoena power may take longer than they would like.

State Sen. Gerald Neal and state Rep. Nima Kulkarni, both Democrats from Louisville, are serving on the working group. The state legislature will not be in session again until January. 

Hollie Hopkins, the legislative services director for the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office, wrote in a memo to the work group that neither Metro Council nor the Mayor can just give subpoena power to the board. But the legislature can grant subpoena power to a board or agency, Hopkins found, and has in some select cases. 

Metro Council’s Government Oversight and Audit Committee has been granted subpoena power, and has been permitted to delegate that authority to the ethics commission as well. The oversight committee recently announced it will investigate Fischer’s handling of the Taylor case, subsequent protests and the fatal shooting of David McAtee by law enforcement. 

The legislature has also granted subpoena power to the Louisville Police Merit Review Board, which reviews appeals of disciplinary action against officers. According to state law, any body conducting a hearing about a police officer accused of wrongdoing “shall subpoena and require the attendance of witnesses” and the production of documentary evidence at the request of the officer. 

But for all this talk about subpoena power, experts say it’s just one very small piece of the puzzle.

“Bodies that have [subpoena power] very rarely use it,” said Liana Perez, director of operations with the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. “And if it gets challenged, you end up fighting that in court and don’t get much else done.” 

Perez said if an oversight body can get subpoena power, they should, because it can be a useful tool. But if not, leaders can also push to get mandatory cooperation written into the union contract or required by state law. 

The bigger question is how to create a board that meets the community’s needs long-term, she said. She said the most effective civilian oversight boards are also the rarest: those that are created proactively, before there is an issue, rather than in response to a crisis. 

While there is little data that shows these kind of boards actually prevent police incidents, Perez said, they can be very effective at lending credibility and community trust to the subsequent investigation. 

“Take your time,” Perez advised. “Don’t create something just as a measure so you can say you have it. Consider the stakeholders and their needs and hoped-for outcomes, or you may create something that doesn’t work for your community.”

Perez said she would not expect an effort like this to take less than six months. 

But the working group currently helping design Louisville’s new civilian oversight mechanism is planning to move much faster than that. They have said they plan to have a legislative proposal to Metro Council this month.

Contact Eleanor Klibanoff at eleanor@kycir.org