Attorney General Merrick Garland on Monday announced a Justice Department investigation into the practices of the Louisville Police Department.
The impending probe will come a little over a year after officers with the department shot and killed Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old aspiring nurse, in her own home during a botched raid. The department came under intense scrutiny following the incident and her killing, along with that of several other Black Americans, led to widespread protests in the US over policing and racial injustice.
Garland, speaking at the Justice Department’s headquarters, referred to Taylor during his announcement of the investigation, which he said “will assess whether (Louisville Metro Police Department) engages in a pattern or practice of using unreasonable force, including with respect to people involved in peaceful expressive activities.”
“It will determine whether LMPD engages in unconstitutional stops, searches and seizures, as well as whether the department unlawfully executes search warrants on private homes,” he said, adding that “it will also assess whether LMPD engages in discriminatory conduct on the basis of race, or fails to perform public services that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Investigation will include comprehensive review of the Louisville police department policies and training.”
The attorney general said that “if there’s reasonable cause to believe there is a pattern or practice of constitutional or statutory violations,” the department “will issue a public report of our conclusions” and that it will “aim to work with the city and police department to arrive at a set of mutually agreeable steps that they can take to correct and prevent unlawful patterns and practices.”
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said in a news conference Monday that he “strongly” welcomes the investigation while outlining the steps the city has taken to provide “a higher level of police community legitimacy.”
“Thirteen months ago a horrible tragedy took place in our city with the killing of Breonna Taylor. Since then, Louisville and the entire country have been coming to a heightened reckoning with the need for police reform and racial justice,” Fischer said.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said later Monday that he had spoken with the Department of Justice and “just like the mayor, who has pledged his full cooperation, to the extent anything is asked of the state, we will fully cooperate as well.”
“Policing is almost a sacred responsibility, where we convey such power and authority on individuals to keep us safe. It means that with that power and authority, those individuals need to be making right and just decisions all the time. And because of that level of authority that we convey, we always need to be open about ensuring that we are doing things right,” the Democratic governor said. “We’ve got to acknowledge when we have such a sacred responsibility that we’ve got to welcome scrutiny.”
The investigation will mark the second pattern or practice investigation announced by Garland’s Justice Department. Last week, he announced an investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department following the police killing of George Floyd last year, with the two probes reflecting Garland’s commitment to tackling the complex issue of policing in the US and high-profile incidents in which people have died during encounters with law enforcement officers.
The probe announced on Monday will be led by the department’s civil rights division, which will be assisted by staff in the US Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Kentucky, Garland said.
“This is absolutely wonderful news,” Sam Aguiar, attorney for the Taylor family, told CNN on Monday. “We’ve known for a long time that our police department is plagued by issues that are continuously swept under the rug.”
Last week, the trial for the former Louisville police officer charged in connection with Taylor’s March 2020 shooting was pushed back to February 1, 2022.
The former officer, Brett Hankison, was indicted last year on three counts of wanton endangerment in the first degree, for allegedly firing blindly through a door and window, with bullets entering an adjacent apartment where a pregnant woman, a man and a child were home, according to the state attorney general.
The three felony counts are for endangering the people in that neighboring apartment, the state attorney general’s office said.
Hankison pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Two other officers who also fired shots during the botched raid were not indicted, meaning no officer was charged with killing Taylor.
Community activist reaction
Chanelle Helm, an activist for Black Lives Matter Louisville, said the DOJ investigation proves their voices were heard.
“It’s really phenomenal that this is taking place,” Helm said. “For the vast majority of the Black community here in Louisville, this is just one more step toward really being heard. … This is a moment that they have absolutely been waiting for.”
Christopher 2X, a community activist in Louisville, said he has seen firsthand the effects on families who have lost a loved one to gun violence and at the hands of Louisville Metro Police Department officers, including Taylor’s.
“… If the goal is to increase the trust following the summer of 2020 as it relates to Breonna Taylor, then this investigation by the Justice Department is an excellent step,” he added, telling CNN he has been in contact with DOJ officials.
“To have the federal eyes over the situation here in Louisville, is welcoming to the citizens who feel the lack of trust with law enforcement and it may take a minute for law enforcement to adjust to this,” Christopher 2X said. “I’ve been working with the community for more than 20 years and this has never happened before. Unfortunately, the death of Breonna Taylor has created many conversations and it is clear that Attorney General Merrick Garland sees that Louisville needs to be looked at just like Minneapolis.”
Keturah Herron, a policy strategist for ACLU Kentucky and a Louisville activist, said there have been far too many complaints from citizens about civil rights violations and excessive use of force that have not been properly investigated.
“I think this is exactly what we need,” Herron said. “I think this is exactly what people have been asking for and screaming for not only in this past year but for a long time.”
This story has been updated with additional developments and comment.