Transparency Questions Follow KSP’s Handling Of LMPD Shooting

Nov 24, 2020

Credit Michelle Hanks

In late July, as protesters demanded more transparency and accountability in the wake of police shootings, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer made a big announcement: going forward, the Louisville Metro Police Department would no longer investigate itself when an officer shoots someone.

“We will contact the Kentucky State Police to do an independent investigation, rather than LMPD investigating themselves,” Fischer promised.

That announcement, apparently, came as a surprise to KSP, which told the Courier Journal in August that it had not been asked to investigate police shootings for LMPD. As recently as this month, city officials said they had an agreement with KSP — and KSP said they were still negotiating the partnership.

This was a matter of semantics and hypotheticals until late Sunday night, when an LMPD officer shot and killed 49-year-old Brian Allen Thurman during a traffic stop. It was the first fatal police shooting in Louisville since June, and in a brief video statement just after 1 a.m., Interim Police Chief Yvette Gentry confirmed that KSP would be leading the investigation — and in fact, was already on the scene.

“This reform is the result of us listening to the concerns that you – the community – had about your police department conducting investigations into its own members in such matters. We have heard you,” Gentry said in a statement Monday evening.

But that reform could have major repercussions for transparency and accountability — the exact issues this change was intended to address.

Neither LMPD nor KSP responded to questions about whether the city and KSP have a formal agreement. But KSP Sgt. Billy Gregory said in an email Monday that KSP will follow its own investigative protocols — not LMPD’s.

LMPD’s Transparency Policies No Longer The Rule

Most of Kentucky’s smaller police departments already rely on KSP to investigate their police shootings. But LMPD, the largest police department in the state, has instead used its own Public Integrity Unit and Professional Standards Unit to investigate potential misconduct, including police shootings.

In the last few years, law enforcement experts and academics have begun encouraging police departments to stop investigating themselves, and instead turn to independent third-party reviews of possible police misconduct. But it wasn’t until two high-profile law enforcement killings — Breonna Taylor by LMPD in March and David McAtee by the National Guard in June — that Louisville offered up that change, alongside a top-to-bottom audit of the LMPD and increased civilian oversight.

By bringing in an independent investigator, cities can indicate that they take these cases seriously and aren’t just trying to protect themselves, said Samuel Walker, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha.

“A police chief and a mayor can say everything they want, but they’re not going to overcome decades of mistrust that has built up,” said Walker. “The appearance of independence is as important as the actual fact of independence.”

Walker said it’s essential that these departments have a formal agreement — at least in writing, if not in state law — laying out their relationship before they begin handling each other’s cases. Otherwise, he said, it’ll be unclear who has what authority.

But last week, KSP told KyCIR no formal agreement was in place yet.

After Fischer announced that KSP would be taking over that role, his spokesperson qualified that commitment, saying any changes are temporary.

“There are many ideas for how this might work, including a multi-agency task force idea,” Jean Porter wrote in a November email to KyCIR. “It’s important that our new permanent chief is involved in this long-term decision, but for now, there is an agreement between LMPD and KSP that KSP will be notified when such an incident occurs and asked to lead the investigation.”

On Friday, KSP challenged the idea that there was an agreement. Sgt. Billy Gregory said in an email to KyCIR that the two agencies were still in “ongoing discussions…regarding the specific details of the partnership.”

By Sunday night, they were on the scene investigating an LMPD shooting.

Though LMPD has touted its commitment to transparency in the wake of police shootings in recent years, KSP indicated Monday that those policies will no longer be the rule.

It’s LMPD policy to hold a press conference in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, which Gentry did in this case, and release the officer’s name within 24 hours “when feasible.” It is also agency practice, Gentry said, to release body camera footage within 24 hours.

KSP has determined that logistics and variances in practices have made [releasing body camera footage within 24 hours] unrealistic in this case,” Gentry said Monday. “We defer to KSP on the specific timing in this case, and we will be evaluating how this works going forward.”

Gregory said it is KSP policy “not to release details of the investigation until vital witnesses have been interviewed and pertinent facts gathered.” That can usually be done in 72 hours, he said.

As of Monday night, the public did not know the identity of the officer who shot Thurman, or the circumstances surrounding his death.

KSP Investigations Rarely Find Wrongdoing

The unit likely responsible for investigating LMPD’s shootings is KSP’s Critical Incident Response Team, created in 2017.

Louisville attorney Greg Belzley has reviewed several of the team’s investigations during lawsuits, and he doesn’t think bringing in KSP is a magic bullet for rebuilding trust in the investigative process in Louisville.

“I have absolutely no faith in the ability of the Kentucky State Police to investigate an officer-involved shooting involving any department and rendering a honest, reliable and transparent result,” Belzley said.

He has sued several police departments, including LMPD and KSP, after shootings. He said the same issues plague both agency’s investigative processes, including a lack of transparency and accountability for the department and the officers.

“Whenever there is an officer involved shooting, even when it is flagrant misconduct, and even when it is captured on film, the brick wall descends,” Belzley said. “This apparatus of investigators and Commonwealth’s Attorneys and all that, stands between private citizens and accountability.”

Belzley learned about the outcome of the agency’s investigations during a deposition of a former KSP investigator as part of a lawsuit he brought on behalf of the family of Christopher McClure. He was killed by a Fulton City Police officer in January 2017, and KSP investigator Lonnie Bell led the inquiry.

In the deposition, Bell said he had investigated at least 11 shootings in his two and a half years on the Critical Incident Response Team. He did not know of any officers who had been disciplined as a result of those investigations, nor did he believe any of the officers had violated any laws.

He also told Belzley that he did not believe any of those shootings indicated an opportunity for additional training.

Ultimately, it is the Commonwealth Attorney who determines whether a crime has been committed. But they base those decisions on information provided by the investigating agency.

Hardin County Commonwealth’s Attorney Shane Young said he doesn’t see too many police shootings come across his desk, but when he does, he’s very satisfied with the investigation that KSP does.

“They’re very thorough,” he said. “They’re the most thorough investigations I’ve ever seen.”

Kenton County Commonwealth Attorney Rob Sanders agreed, calling KSP’s CIRT and other special investigations teams “the best of the best law enforcement in Kentucky.”

Jeff Cooke, a spokesperson for Jefferson County Commonwealth Attorney Tom Wine, said their office was not consulted about LMPD handing investigations off to KSP, but he does not anticipate it would change the prosecutor’s role at all.

Wine’s office has not indicted an LMPD officer for a police shooting since 2004.

It’s difficult to know how often KSP investigations result in criminal charges for police officers, because the agency has failed to provide records that would answer that question.

In July, KyCIR requested all KSP investigations into fatal police shootings since 2015; KSP said it would provide them in September. When KSP had not provided the records by November, KyCIR appealed to the Attorney General.

KSP told the Attorney General’s office that it had failed to provide, or even search for, the records “due to an accidental clerical oversight.”

This is not an aberration. A 2018 investigation by WDRB found that KSP violated the open records act more often than any public agency in the last five years.

Graham Ambrose contributed to this story.

Contact Eleanor Klibanoff at eleanor@kycir.org.