April 13, 2018. Courier-Journal.
Whenever there is a police shooting in our community there is much back-and-forth commentary and disagreement about whether the shooting could have been avoided. When the victim is a person of color, questions and disagreements become even more acute.

When the health problems of mental illness or addiction are involved, additional questions about avoidability arise. As a community that identifies itself as one of compassion, this topic is one that we must discuss and work on together for improvement, for the sake of our citizens and police officers alike.

In 2016, a police shooting occurred which resulted in the death of a man with a history of mental health and addiction issues who held up a saw when confronted by three Louisville Metro Police officers. When the officers were cleared by the Commonwealth’s Attorney of any criminal wrongdoing, in March 2017, Mayor Greg Fischer made this public statement: “As we move into the next phase of this process, LMPD will now conduct a thorough investigation to determine if the officers involved followed all department policies and procedures. I have asked Chief [Steve] Conrad to take a close look at the steps that the officers took and did not take in this shooting. He must also rigorously evaluate our police training, policies and procedures, including those related to de-escalation and individuals with mental illness or drug abuse problems.”

We assume there was some reason on Fischer’s part to make this directive to the police department in this particular case, because such directives had not been made after other previous cases. We strongly agreed with his decision to make that directive at the time.

What concerns us one year later is the fact that it seems to have had no effect to determine whether the officers involved had to act in the way that they did, or if other less deadly tactics could have been used in this case, or should be used in similar cases in the future.

The three officers involved in this shooting were cleared of having violated just the basic departmental policy on use-of-force. However, the LMPD has state-of-the-art training and best-practice policies and procedures on the books, including ones related to how officers should deal with persons suffering from mental illness, addiction, and other conditions that classify them as persons of “diminished capacity” and persons with “excited delirium,” etc.

Upon studying the 2016 case and other cases since, we found that these policies and procedures are omitted from LMPD’s internal investigations in cases where they may apply.

Our organization, Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together (CLOUT) submitted an Open Records Request to the LMPD in February, asking for copies of the final findings of all internal investigations of use-of-force by LMPD since 2012. We reviewed all 68 cases that involved use-of-force over that time period, and were surprised and concerned to learn that in none of these cases did the investigation examine whether or not the officers followed the department’s excellent policies and procedures related to dealing with mentally ill or addicted people.

Another problem our research uncovered is related to the second part of Fischer’s directive to Conrad. He said the department would now “rigorously evaluate” the department’s actions in this area in general. CLOUT, along with other members of the Safe City Roundtable — a gathering of top local officials and service providers — sent two letters to Fischer last year asking him for the status of this evaluation. Fischer has yet to reply to either letter.

Four months after the letters were sent, we were finally told by an LMPD spokesperson that this evaluation may have never been intended to be a written document, but could have just been a “conversation” among LMPD leadership. We do not feel that anything less than a written document should satisfy the mayor’s request, not to mention the public interest.

CLOUT is calling upon Fischer to follow through on the leadership he showed when he made his statement last year, and to work with CLOUT and other interested parties in the community to improve LMPD’s use of de-escalation tactics. The consistent use of such tactics will help preserve the safety of some of our most vulnerable citizens and police officers alike. Studies have shown that police officers involved in physical use-of-force place themselves more at risk of physical injury, as well as sometimes career-ending emotional disorders (such as PTSD, anxiety, etc.).

This is not just a public safety issue, but an officer safety issue. It would also further enhance the public image and credibility of the department, and potentially save the city from expensive legal liability that often results from such cases.

Another police shooting occurred just this past week, resulting in another death. While the investigation of that case is just now underway, initial indications are that the victim had mental health and addiction issues. Such cases highlight the urgency of this issue.

On next Tuesday, April 17, CLOUT will convene the largest public gathering this year to address this issue and other important public safety issues. We call upon our public officials to join us in committing to proactive solutions. For more information, CLOUT can be reached at (502) 583-1267 or clout@bellsouth.net.

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