by Catherine Pugh, Opinion Contributor
Published 6:42 a.m. ET May 20, 2021
The Breonna Taylor raid team should have worn department-issued body cameras, but did not. Now, Taylor is dead, and the “neutral” record of her killing comes from seven men risking prison if that killing was against the law.
Supervisors knew or should have known of the loss of a key accountability tool and ignored it. That failure travelled through no fewer than seven firewalls of oversight to reach Springfield Drive. The lost opportunities for oversight were, themselves, telling.
Do Louisville Metro Police Department officers use excessive force? Do they report truthfully? Do they police with race bias? Does LMPD put competent agents in Louisville communities, or did it build more machines like the one that killed Breonna?
Had supervisors enforced departmental policy, there would have been days and weeks and months of footage to answer those questions. Now, those answers — like Taylor — are forever gone. But, not the supervisors. More than a year later, all except one are still with LMPD.
The Taylor event is insufficient to prompt a Department of Justice “pattern or practice” investigation, but the sustained failure of supervisor accountability is not. The Justice Department will run that to ground, and that will not be difficult to do. The public record from the Taylor shooting alone shows open and notorious professional apathy among LMPD sergeants, lieutenants, captains, majors, colonels and higher.
Residents, impacted families, attorneys and activists fight even now to protect themselves from their own police department. They do so under the polite doctrine of “problem solving for police reform.” But the city will solve nothing by compensating for LMPD leadership shortfalls through creative solutions. Justice’s announced investigation signals that lack of faith.
Done well, badly, or not at all, officers are the product of their supervision. The city need not wait for DOJ to point out the obvious and long overdue. It must clear its house of subpar leaders or expect LMPD’s plague of violence to leave citizen safety and city liability uncapped.
Supervisors knew, did nothing and walked away unscathed
As was also true on March 13, LMPD requires its officers or members to use cameras during law enforcement activities, particularly when executing warrants. No one on the Taylor raid complied, despite the leadership being on notice of their failure.
For example, on one end of the supervision spectrum, then Police Chief Steve Conrad knew his officers were non-compliant. He admitted as much. Some “of the officers assigned to [the Criminal Interdiction Unit] do not wear body-worn video systems,” Conrad said on March 13.
A message to America’s chiefs of police: American policing has left the building; the fault is yours — do you have what it takes to fix this?
Moreover, beyond the relatively new task force raid team, CID includes the Violent Crime, Focused Intelligence, Complaint Response and Support Units. That could mean dozens of additional non-responsive leaders.
On the other end of the supervision spectrum is Sgt. Jon Mattingly, who certainly knew members were non-compliant. He was on the raid team and ignored LMPD’s camera policy as well. He was also both the only supervisor on the team and the only raid team member cleared of all procedural wrongdoing. That raises even more flags of accountability and bias.
In between sergeant and chief, the CID supervision chain knew or should have known officers were non-compliant. LMPD policy holds supervisors accountable their subordinate supervisors. If a junior supervisor knew or should have known, his or her superior supervisor is similarly obligated.
Members have been disciplined for the raid itself but LMPD has released no record of disciplining a single supervisor whose subpar oversight put the Taylor raid team into Taylor’s sleeping Louisville community.
Changing police chiefs is not enough
Non-performing supervisors must be disciplined or terminated.
Consider former LMPD supervisor Bridget Hallahan, speaking to officers about George Floyd protesters: “Don’t make them important because they are not,” she says. They “do not deserve a second glance or thought from us.”
Or, consider former LMPD supervisor Mattingly, describing Taylor protesters to officers as “thugs” who “get in your face.” The “criminals,” Mattingly says, have “total autonomy.”
Now consider the LMPD officer who punched Taylor protester Denorver Garrett in the face. Repeatedly. His chief, Erika Shields, says his response “raises serious questions and is not consistent with LMPD training.”
Sergeants, Lieutenants, Majors and Up: What do you think the American police culture would look like if the culture-makers — the first-line supervisors — were themselves policed?
That officer hammered Garrett in full public view, with incautious abandon, during a protest for excessive policing. Is that not the living manifestation of policing an “unimportant thug”?
That officer did not beat Garrett despite supervisory guidance. It was their attitude that built him. How much cleaner a line between bad supervision and bad policing does LMPD need?
To Shields’ credit, LMPD is investigating both the officer and his on-scene supervisor. Still, this is not about training, and the response must transcend the palliative.
All city police officers are trained. If training was adequately dispositive, those tasked with keeping the peace would not also be the catalysts for the two greatest periods of sustained unrest in the nation’s modern history.
Shields’ investigation must go deeper. It must include whether her on-scene supervisor supervised down as a matter of routine and was supervised from above just the same.
Then, Shields must severely discipline supervision failures on a loop until the top of that chain hits the bottom of her own. Shields must, for the immediate future, embrace LMPD’s conduct-unbecoming policy as a guiding principle:
Conduct unbecoming — whether through incompetence, inefficiency or neglect of duty — adversely affects operations, destroys public respect, discredits the department and impedes efforts to achieve its goals.
The reason is simple: supervisors set a department’s culture.
They have the greatest influence on a department’s culture and resulting overhead from risk. Addressing their compliance is the most effective way to grow the force, change its culture and protect LMPD. And, that is what transforms community policing.
Forget about the union; the department is the problem
Defective supervision is easier to sustain against a union challenge than police misconduct. In fact, defective supervision can compound officer non-accountability to the extreme. In that fixing the former eliminates the latter, LMPD’s failure to process out bad supervisors is that much greater an offense.
The issues are straightforward. What does policy require and was it done?
The evidence is straightforward. The “witnesses” are LMPD’s files and computers. The city owns both and LMPD now reports directly to Mayor Greg Fischer.
LMPD body camera supervision leaves a paper trail. Various LMPD policies require that supervision be documented. The chief’s office maintains member personnel files. All other supervisors can maintain a separate file for informal discussions, reviews, notes, counselling sessions and so on. The department and city officials have complete access to both.
LMPD body camera supervision leaves a digital trail. LMPD’s data retention software has an audit feature that automatically tracks who accesses videos. Once police upload current data per policy, and after supervisors review their feed, the system independently notes the review. Again, LMPD and officials have access to that data.
The process is uncomplicated. A charge of non-supervision is largely a policy violation paper fight. Review the files and data for all subordinates on a supervisor’s roster. The case rests in the supervisor’s paper trail and the absence of material is the lion’s share of non-performance proof. Summarize the failure and initiate discipline.
Disciplining supervisors still requires due process, including a hearing, counsel and a right of defense. But this is not the prickly minefield of officer misconduct with protracted investigations, lab reports, field studies and difficult witnesses. These are neater, direct and largely a matter of time.
Not to forget, LMPD’s non-performing supervisors make officer accountability all but insurmountable. Supervisors drive much of the paper trail used to prove chronic bad performance. When a supervisor does not properly supervise, that paperwork is unlikely to exist. That means bad supervisors “help” bad officers stick to Louisville communities.
Given the relative simplicity and potential gain, that LMPD has done little to move derelict supervisors off its own roster approaches the unconscionable.
LMPD’s Taylor raid should stand as a ghastly cautionary tale of supervisory incompetence. Addressing supervisor compliance is all upside, and relatively easy upside at that.
It works. According to LMPD’s first and second Southern Police Institute body camera studies, the department saw a 23% decrease in use of force, almost 30% decrease in force against officers, a decrease in civilian complaints, and an increase in police chief oversight in its first two years.
It is not the slow melt of “’reform’ by (the occasional) cop.” That has an imperceptible impact.
It stops the bad cop shop. When bad police are gone, bad supervisors will simply manufacture more, then loose them on Louisville communities.
It is faster. The Department of Justice’s work is exceptional. It is a formidable trencher, with some of the best forensic law enforcement examiners in the nation. But that work is slow, and it will take the department an optimistic year to prepare, investigate, compile and report its findings.
It is an outcome multiplier for existing reforms. Creative solutions like Breonna’s Law, civilian review boards, no-knock bans and state-investigated shootings will not survive a supervision chokepoint. It will defeat any initiative that leadership can sweep aside when no longer scrutinized. Removing the incompetence or obstruction makes room for initiatives to thrive.
It is cheaper. The city has already paid $94,000 in officer security, $190,000 for an outside inspection and $12 million for one of two pending lawsuits with no neutral body camera evidence to cap its liability. Walking down the hall and pulling files is ‘free.’
LMPD has a duty to police competently. It will fail until it staffs its rosters with competent supervisors. Begin with sergeants. Make the top march down until the bottom rises up to meet hardline performance expectations and LMPD will beat the Justice Department to the punch.
Be the force motivating the driver,
Before you engage me or others, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Catherine Pugh is an Attorney at Law and former Adjunct Professor at the Temple University, Japan. She developed and taught Race and the Law for its undergraduate program, and Evidence, Criminal Law, and Criminal and Civil Procedure for its law program. She has worked for the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Special Litigation Section, and was a Public Defender for the State of Maryland. View her Race and Profiling Lecture Series appearance here. The view expressed here are personal. Nothing in this or any Medium writing is a legal recommendation, legal advice, or a legal opinion.
To my sweetest of loves: I am the wall for them; you are the wall for me. And nothing — nothing — has ever gotten past you. You are my everything. #CubanKitchen.
“It takes the wisdom of the elders . . .” Thank you for teaching us, loving us, leading us all: Mary Stovall Davis Budd, Andrea Tucker, Lorenzo Pugh, Dorris Pugh, Jacqueline Wallace, Roger Wallace, Kenneth Davis, Sandra Davis, and Karen Davis.
Keywords: racism, police misconduct, police accountability, police reform, society, culture, leadership.