June 19, 2020 6:00am

Police, protests, racism and leadership

The past is finally catching up with all of us. What will we do about the future? Part one.

Photo of Pam Platt
Louisville, KY Correspondent

Maybe it was different because we could see George Floyd with our own eyes, forcibly kept on the ground by law enforcement as one officer knelt on his neck until he was dead. Onlookers with cell phones recorded the 8-minute, 46-second encounter on May 25 that killed Mr. Floyd. One Minneapolis, Minn., police officer was charged with second-degree murder and three others at the scene with aiding and abetting that murder. Mr. Floyd, 46, was suspected of using a counterfeit $20 bill.

The recording by onlookers was stunning and sickening: An African-American man, on the ground, a white police officer pressing his knee into his neck. Until the subdued man  stopped breathing. Forever. These are things we see and hear and read about in the news, but the pictures put us right there, this time. 

The reaction from coast to coast was immediate, and passionate. Maybe it was because a country that had long turned its back on its history of lynching that lasted over decades, in which thousands of African Americans were killed by bigots, vigilantes and mobs also from coast to coast, finally witnessed something that for them, seemed ripped from the pages of textbooks they’d rather not read. In today’s language, we couldn’t “un-see” how Mr. Floyd’s life was taken from him by tax-paid officers sworn to protect and serve. Protests and demonstrations erupted throughout the country, from small towns to big cities. 

Including in Louisville, where we were in the middle of one story, and about to enter a second, with similar themes. 

By now, Breonna Taylor’s name has been added to the list of people killed by police in the United States, and her life and death in Louisville became part of the weeks-long protests here. On March 13, the 26-year-old African-American EMT was fatally shot to death in her own apartment by three Louisville Metro Police Department officers serving a no-knock warrant in the middle of the night. Various reports say the police claim they announced their identities, but attorneys say Ms. Taylor and her boyfriend, who was present and licensed to carry a firearm, thought they had intruders, and the man shot at what he thought was an intruder; Ms. Taylor was unarmed. Unlike Minneapolis, the three Louisville officers who shot and killed Ms. Taylor have not been arrested, nor have they been suspended without pay. Also, more than three months after she was shot eight times in her own home, an investigation into the event is “ongoing,” and has been taken over by the Kentucky Attorney General’s office, no ETA on its conclusion. A week ago, the Louisville Metro Council voted unanimously to ban no-knock warrants. It is called Breonna’s Law.

During the early protests and demonstrations that rocked Louisville, as so many other cities were rocked in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s death, the National Guard was called out in the city for the first time since 1975. Responding to protests he said had gone “way beyond peaceful,” as well as downtown property damage, Mayor Greg Fischer imposed a curfew and made the request for the Guard activation; Gov. Andy Beshear granted it. Two nights later, in the West End of Louisville, police and Guard members showed up to disperse a crowd that was not protesting. In the next minutes, the situation would escalate, and David McAtee, a 53-year-old African-American chef who ran a popular barbecue stand, was dead on June 1, felled by a Guard’s bullet after police said Mr. McAtee shot a firearm under circumstances still under independent inquiry. Gov. Beshear promised a quicker and thorough investigation into what happened with Mr. McAtee, including a sharing of police bodycam video — a promise that had to be walked back the same day when Mayor Fischer announced there was no police bodycam footage because the police cameras were not on when they were supposed to be. The mayor also announced that LMPD Chief Steve Conrad had finally been relieved of duty, shortly before he was scheduled to retire. 

For a city that likes to be known for its compassion, a competing narrative, this competing narrative, cannot and will not be ignored. Nor should it be. It is past time for not only our nation, but for cities, communities and citizens, to reckon with how and when racism affects and infects our institutions and what we need to do about that.

So, this month, we asked: 

What do we think of what has been happening in the city over the past month? The Guard coming into Louisville for the first time in 45 years? Some of the methods used by law enforcement to quell protests? The leadership we’ve seen? Police tactics? Was firing the chief enough for the police department? Do you trust the police department? What should the city consider in the next chief? 

This was our first attempt to see what you think about the profound engagements in Louisville over the past month. There will be more questions in future months. This is a cause and a commitment that demand the best of all of us, and the fullest extent of our attention. 

For now, the results of the latest poll, with 21 percent of 245 Poll members responding:

— 51 percent thought the National Guard should have been activated in Louisville during the protests; 37 percent said no; 12 percent said they didn’t know.

— 69 percent of the respondents said they had not participated in one of the recent protests or rallies; 31 percent said they had.

— 51 percent were against banning the use of tear gas and rubber bullets by law enforcement in protests; 37 percent said they supported a ban; 12 percent said they didn’t know

— The majority of respondents — 77 percent — assigned Mayor Greg Fischer a grade of C or lower for leadership during the protests. The rankings: 37 percent said C; 24 percent said D; 22 percent said B; 16 percent said F; 2 percent said A. 

— 41 percent said at this moment they did not trust the Louisville Metro Police Department; 33 percent said they did; 25 percent said they didn’t know.

— 78 percent said the mayor’s firing of LMPD Police Chief Steve Conrad was not enough to start a new day for the department, 12 percent said they didn't know, 10 percent said it was.

—  Presented with four options to best describe how they feel about what needs to happen next with the LMPD, 53 percent said reform (not remake), 43 percent said a complete housecleaning, top to bottom; 4 percent said none of the above; and no one responded “nothing, it’s fine.”

— When asked “Aside from being fully qualified for the job, what should the top quality be for the new chief of LMPD,” respondents had six options and answered this way: 61 percent said community policing and community building; 16 percent said someone coming from outside LMPD; 14 percent said conflict resolution; 8 percent said a person of color; 2 percent said someone coming from inside LMPD; no one said none of the above.

Comments about this month’s poll from several respondents:

— “A young, smart, intelligent, and articulate leader preferably from outside of law enforcement might really be the best course for many police departments. The concept of the police chief is changing and perhaps the qualifications for the next person to hold the position might have a background in psychology, health care or even sociology.”

— “Reform means to me more hours of training, more cultural humility training, more counselors to provide support to the officers after traumatic experiences (shooting someone, accidents, domestic violence interventions, especially if involves children as victims).”

— “The questions don't admit of much nuance, which is important in dealing with these issues of policing and race. For example, on the use of chemical agents and rubber bullets, one might be justified under certain conditions; the latter, very rarely. Clear rules of engagement and of de-escalation (not wearing riot gear, prior coordination with demonstrators, etc.) are needed. In the future, more gradation in the questions allowing more than just a "yes" or "no" would be helpful. Thanks.”

Thanks for participating, and for the thoughtful feedback.

See you in a month. Everybody take care out there.

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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