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Activists Welcome DOJ Investigation Into Louisville Police Department

Ryan Van Velzer

“It’s just a blessing that somebody is finally listening,” said Denorver “Dee” Garrett, a 29-year-old Louisville protester, fighting back tears. “That somebody is finally hearing our voices — after over a year.”

Garrett was speaking in Jefferson Square Park on Monday afternoon, not far from where an LMPD officer last week punched him in the face multiple times while police officers restrained him on the ground during an arrest. Garrett’s sense of relief follows news that the U.S. Department of Justice will investigate the Louisville Metro Police Department and Louisville Metro Government. 

The investigation means the highest levels of the federal government will soon focus their scrutiny on Louisville.

The news came as long-awaited relief to Louisville protesters who have decried police misconduct since 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was killed by LMPD officers in her home in March 2020.

For Shameka Parrish-Wright, a protest organizer and mayoral candidate, the announcement is a vindication of sustained efforts by activists, including the thousands who have marched in the streets of Louisville for racial justice. 

“It’s giving people hope,” she said. “We want to trust the judicial system. We want to trust the process. We want to trust the police, we just need inklings of hope to hold onto that it’s going to get better.”

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said the investigation will include a comprehensive review of LMPD’s policies, training, and measures for accountability. If the investigation uncovers a “pattern or practice” of excessive force or unconstitutional behavior, the federal government can pressure Louisville to agree to reforms — or even sue the city for them.

Last week, Garland said the DOJ will undertake a similar investigation in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed by local police last year. That announcement followed the murder conviction of former officer Derek Chauvin.

Sam Aguiar, a Louisville-based lawyer for Breonna Taylor’s mother Tamika Palmer, said he and Palmer talked last week about drafting a letter to Garland, to encourage him to investigate LMPD. That letter was preempted by Monday’s announcement.

“I’m really happy for Tamika Palmer today—for someone who, for over a year, has had to plead for some sort of action against this department,” Aguiar said. “It’s steps like what’s being done today that warms my heart and shows the effort of her and so many others isn’t going unnoticed.”

Aguiar said he has faith in the integrity of the investigation, which he predicts will eventually lead to meaningful change in LMPD. 

“I’d be really surprised if we don’t see a cultural shift in the way some of these officers engage with the community,” he said.

Fischer said he welcomes the investigation. The federal review will benefit residents, including police, making the city more just and equitable, he said. 

But Louisville attorney David Mour, who has represented many protesters in court, balked at the mayor’s characterization of the investigation as a “positive thing.” He called Fischer “insincere.”

“Why does it take the United States Department of Justice coming in here and saying, ‘We’re going to investigate your police department’?” Mour said. “I think he’s a politician. I think he’ll say anything to keep himself in office.”

Fischer is serving his third term as mayor, and under state law, cannot run for this seat again. Louisville will elect a new mayor in 2022.

Mour said the city needs not only reform, but accountability. 

In a tweeted statement, the River City Fraternal Order of Police said it is confident the DOJ investigation will find “no systemic violations of constitutional or federal statutory rights” by LMPD officers.

“The investigation may reveal administration and leadership failures that have culminated in a critical manpower shortage and record spikes in violent crime,” the FOP said. 

In contrast, Ted Shouse, a Louisville attorney who has represented many protesters, said he thinks the investigation will uncover systemic racism in local policing.

“It’s an opportunity to reverse the failures of our state prosecutors,” Shouse said. “I hope this is a thorough and far-reaching investigation, and I have every reason to believe that it will be. The attorney general strikes me as someone committed to following the facts where they lead.” 

“Merrick Garland is not some left-wing radical,” he added. “He’s steeped in law enforcement, and he thinks this is a problem that needs to be addressed.”

The investigation could take a year or longer to conclude, based on past investigations elsewhere. If it turns up systemic wrongdoing, attorneys for the federal government could try to negotiate a settlement with the city to induce local reforms, a settlement known as a “consent decree.” If those negotiations fail, the federal government can file a civil lawsuit.

For local protesters like Dee Garrett, the strained relationship with police won’t get fixed overnight. 

Police “act like they in war, like this is war,” Garrett said. “And all we doing is standing for what’s right. Standing for our right to protest, our right to speak, our right to do what’s right.”

Eleanor Klibanoff contributed to this story. 


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