LMPD Officers Given Commendations, Back On Patrol Before Shooting Investigation Is Complete

Jul 1, 2020

Credit Louisville Metro Police Department

It was around 6 p.m., but the late autumn sky was pitch black when Louisville Metro Police Department officers Patrick Norton and Alexander Dugan responded to a call of an active shooter inside a Kroger in Portland.

As the two officers ran toward the front door of the Kroger with guns drawn, a bystander pointed the officers to a man in a red hoodie in the parking lot. Officer Norton yelled out — “Hey!” — and took cover behind a pillar. A hail of gunfire erupted. At least five bullets struck and killed Shelby Gazaway.

It all happened in less than 40 seconds.

Norton and the other officer were immediately placed on leave after the Nov. 7, 2019 shooting, and a Public Integrity Unit (PIU) investigation began, as LMPD policies require.

What exactly happened in those 40 seconds, and whether the officers’ actions warrant criminal charges, is still being determined. The investigation is still considered open, according to the LMPD.

But the officers have already received commendations — including nominations for the department’s Medal of Honor — for their response to the Kroger incident, where they killed Gazaway, a 32-year-old Black man. And Norton is back on patrol.

On June 1, Norton shot someone else: a 25-year-old White man in the East End who had allegedly pointed a gun at officers, and who survived the injury. 

Norton has been placed back on administrative reassignment. History indicates he may be back on patrol again before the internal investigation into that shooting is complete.

LMPD data show that police shooting cases often remain open for months or years. The Gazaway shooting is one of at least 37 shootings since 2011 that are still under investigation. The department has closed only one of its PIU investigations into police shootings in the last two and a half years, according to LMPD’s database.

With cases stretching on for years, the family of Shelby Gazaway says the handling of PIU cases acts as a roadblock to transparency. And Gazaway’s family was shocked to find out Norton was back patrolling Louisville neighborhoods, since their own attempts to learn more about the events that lead to Gazaway’s death have been blocked due to the open investigation.

“We would assume that if Patrick Norton was out to shoot somebody last week, that means the investigation is over,” Sharon Gazaway Bell, his aunt, said during a June 7 press conference the family held outside the Kroger. “So if they have already closed the investigation on (Norton) and found him to be innocent, why won’t they release what they found to the family?”

Officers under PIU investigation are placed on administrative reassignment in order to keep potentially dangerous officers off the street and avoid complicating the inquiry. The investigation’s findings aren‘t public until the case is closed.

The Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office reviews the cases to decide whether charges will be filed against officers, or if the investigation cleared them of wrongdoing, according to LMPD’s standard operating procedures. If charges aren’t warranted, the Commonwealth’s Attorney will send a confirmation letter to LMPD, and the officer can return to duty.

Jeff Cooke, a spokesperson for Jefferson Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Wine, said the case review of the case is “near completion.” 

Wine’s office has not sent a letter clearing the officers of potential wrongdoing, but officer Norton was placed back on regular police duty, anyway. 

LMPD did not respond to questions about the current investigations and the criteria the department uses to allow officers to return to regular duty, so it’s unclear how many officers listed in LMPD’s 37 open cases are still on leave.

KyCIR has raised questions about the report that contains the data on open cases. The “officer involved shooting statistical analysis report” published in early June contained numerous inaccuracies about police shootings and omitted some case information about high-profile deaths. But LMPD has not responded to questions about that report or corrected it, so it’s the only data currently available on the agency’s investigations into police shootings.

LMPD said it would need 60 to 75 days to fulfill to KyCIR’s request for a list of officers who have been placed on administrative reassignment as well as whether and under what criteria they have returned to duty.

Unanswered Questions

When Shelby Gazaway stopped at the Kroger on West 35th Street, he was driving his mother’s car so he could fill up the tank while he ran some errands for her. The car was already full of groceries from Sam’s Club.

Shelby Gazaway and his mother, Semone Stephenson Carter. Courtesy of Stephenson Carter

That’s the kind of guy he was, his family says: A homeowner, member of the Bates Memorial Baptist Church, and family pillar with no criminal record.

“To know Shelby was to love Shelby,” said his mother, Semone Stephenson Carter. “He was a hard worker. He was very, very ambitious. You could almost ask him to do anything.”

Which makes the LMPD’s version of events from the night Gazaway was killed even more difficult for the family to swallow.

The day after the shooting, LMPD officials held a press conference to lay out what allegedly happened the previous night. There was a fight inside the Kroger between Gazaway and another individual, who pulled out a knife, said Maj. Jamey Schwab, commander of the special investigations unit. Schwab said witnesses saw Gazaway fire several gunshots into the ceiling, causing a water line to burst.

Then-Police Chief Steve Conrad said he was “personally grateful for the brave and swift response from our officers, because this could have been a very different press conference today if not for their efforts.”

Conrad said Gazaway came out of the Kroger firing at bystanders and officers Dugan and Norton. 

The officials then played body camera footage that wasn’t as clear-cut as LMPD’s version of events.

The footage shows Dugan and Norton arriving on the scene and shouting at Gazaway, who was walking into the parking lot. The officers duck behind pillars as they shout, “hey,” repeatedly. Gazaway appears on the camera for less than two seconds. He appears to be holding something in his right hand and to look over his shoulder while walking away from the officers. They never identify themselves as police or tell him to drop his weapon until after firing several rounds, according to the body cam footage. And when gunshots ring out, it’s not clear on the video who fired first.

First responders tried to save Gazaway, but he was pronounced dead at the scene.

LMPD says they interviewed the individual Gazaway allegedly fought with inside the store, but the department has yet to provide any information to the family about the individual or what he said during the interview.

Martina Kunnecke was inside Kroger that night. She said during the family’s June 7 press conference that Gazaway’s actions before police arrived scared her; she didn’t elaborate. But she didn’t feel like Gazaway “deserved to be gunned down at the end of that night.”

Kunnecke said officers should have tried to de-escalate the situation when they encountered Gazaway outside.

“We do not see evidence that Mr. Gazaway had the gun pointed when he came out front,” she said “It may have been; many of us believe that it was not, and until we have evidence that he actually was aiming at the crowd coming out, there are a lot of questions to be answered.”

Search For Accountability

Semone Stephenson Carter
Credit J. Tyler Franklin

Back in November, the Gazaway family simply wanted to know what happened in the minutes before Shelby Gazaway was shot and killed. 

Gazaway Bell watched Conrad’s initial press conference where he showed the only body camera footage that has been made available. The footage left her and the rest of the family unconvinced of the police narrative.

“All of this stems from the fact that, what Conrad said, standing at that podium, in no way matched what we saw on the video,” Gazaway Bell said.

They met with members of the Public Integrity Unit and asked to see other video evidence LMPD had, such as surveillance footage from Kroger, that allegedly showed Gazaway firing at officers.

“There are TV screens in the room, so we said, ‘Okay, can we just see what happened? … Let’s just watch it with you. And they said that we would be able to do that after the investigation was finalized,” Gazaway Bell said.

Months went by with no answers. In December, the family hired attorney Laura Landenwich to try to obtain information about the investigation and prepare for a possible civil rights lawsuit. But they only have a year after the shooting to do so. 

Landenwich’s subpoenas and open records requests seeking forensic reports, witness statements and the rest of the footage from the investigation have all been denied because of the open PIU investigation. The family and Landenwich say they believe the department is using the open PIU case as a way to run out the clock.

The family sued LMPD on June 25 in an attempt to compel the department to release those records. Landenwich said in the suit that LMPD failed to offer meaningful explanation of how the disclosure of the document could cause harm to an ongoing investigation in some “significant and concrete way,” as the law requires.

“There cannot be accountability without transparency. And there can’t be transparency until Louisville Metro Police Department starts complying with open records laws and telling families what has happened to their loved ones,” Landenwich said. “Regardless of what the facts are, we just want to know.”

More than seven months after the shooting, LMPD still has Stephenson Carter’s car, which Gazaway drove to the Kroger. They told her they couldn’t return it until after the investigation was closed.

Return To Duty

Although the case is still under review by the commonwealth’s attorney, both officers involved completed a “return to duty qualification firearm training” on January 29, almost three months after the shooting, according to LMPD personnel files. It’s clear Norton returned to duty, since he was involved in the June shooting, but LMPD didn’t respond to questions about when he returned to duty, or whether Dugan is also back on patrol.

The day before that training session, each received a letter of commendation for their actions the night of the fatal shooting. The letter says they responded to a shooter firing “indiscriminately” in the Kroger. The commendation letter also informs the officers they have been nominated for the Medal of Honor.

“You are to be praised and recognized for your exceptional bravery,” the commendation letter reads. “You placed your own lives at risk of serious physical injury or death confronting the shooter and engaging in a deadly fire fight when the shooter began to fire his weapon at you.”

The nomination form also notes that video of the incident is “locked due to a PIU investigation.”

To Stephenson Carter, the fact that the department awarded the officers a commendation letter before closing her son’s case and letting her family know more about what happened that night is like rubbing salt in her wounds.

“Why can’t we have closure? Why can’t we just call it what it is?” Stephenson Carter said. “If you’re wrong, man up. Accept the fact that you’re wrong. If we’re right, give us that peace… Prove it to me that Shelby did anything wrong other than to protect himself and get out of harm’s way.”

Nicole Carroll, the director of LMPD’s victim services unit, emailed the family’s attorney three days after the family held their press conference. “Officer Norton’s return to duty is an internal personal [sic] matter and the decision of the LMPD is beyond the investigator’s scope of knowledge,” the email said.

The email also reiterated that requests for evidence were denied because the case is considered “open and active.”

“We all say justice”

According to LMPD’s operating policies, officers are placed on administrative reassignment when they are involved in use of force actions or motor vehicle collisions that result in death or serious physical injury. During that reassignment, LMPD policy states that “police powers are limited and (officers) may be reassigned to desk duties or relieved from duty entirely.”

Officers can return to duty when they are directed by the Assistant Chief of Police, after meeting any one of the following criteria: A recommendation of LMPD’s mental health professional, a release by a physician, the status of the administrative or legal review of the incident, meeting firearms qualifications or “given circumstances.”

LMPD did not respond to questions about this policy and the criteria used to release officers from administrative reassignment.

At the very least, Gazaway’s family wants to see the rest of the evidence in order to better understand what happened the night he was killed and possibly clear his name. Stephenson Carter thinks her son’s race played a role in the officer’s reaction, and she is doubtful that the officers who killed her son will be arrested, even if it turned out they acted inappropriately. 

But she hopes that, in this moment, with the world seemingly more attuned to police violence against Black people, they might get answers. They decided to hold their press conference as protests against police violence and the killing of Breonna Taylor hit their second week, and the week after David McAtee was shot and killed by law enforcement in the West End. They shared the microphone with the family of De’mon’jhea Jordan, who was killed by LMPD in April 2018.

“You know, we all say justice. And I know justice can be something broad, but I do want them officers to be accountable for what they did,” Stephenson Carter said. “It’s unbelievable how some people can get away with so much — and some people can’t.”