The Washington Post
Calling out police racism in Louisville is only a start
The Justice Department’s finding that the Louisville Metro Police Department “unlawfully discriminates against Black people in its enforcement activities” is stunning. But it’s not surprising.
Nearly six decades after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, racism in policing still mocks this nation’s promise of equal treatment under the law. Sometimes, the disparities are trivial; sometimes, they are tragic. In all cases, they are wrong.
Attorney General Merrick Garland was visibly angry on Wednesday when he announced the conclusions of the Justice Department’s investigation into the Louisville department, launched after the 2020 police killing of Breonna Taylor. He seemed especially offended by instances in which officers called Black people “monkeys,” “animal” and “boy” — vile disparagements straight out of the Jim Crow lexicon.
Even more infuriating, though, is the report’s analysis showing the systemic racism — there are no other words for it — in the way Louisville police treated African Americans. Citizens whom officers had sworn to protect were instead targeted because of the color of their skin.
If you were a Black person driving on Louisville’s streets between 2016 and 2021, you were nearly twice as likely as a White motorist to be pulled over by police, often for a minor violation such as having a broken taillight or making a “wide turn.” Many of these stops were “pretextual” — made not out of genuine concern for traffic safety but as excuses to pull over Black drivers.
Of all drivers stopped by police, African Americans were more than twice as likely as Whites to have their cars searched. And for Black motorists, the searches were much more thorough: African Americans and Whites are equally likely to be marijuana users, but Blacks were more than three times as likely to have a traffic stop result in charges for marijuana possession.
This pattern of disparity — this systemic racism — is probably even worse than these numbers show, the report notes. In most neighborhoods, almost all of the traffic stops that police officers reported to their dispatchers were later documented in official records. In Black neighborhoods, though, many or even most stops went undocumented: “In December 2018, officers reported about 1,600 traffic stops to dispatch in 42majority-black neighborhoods, but they documented only about 400 stops in LMPD’S stop databases.”
Justice Department investigators found much bigger problems than traffic citations in the way the Louisville police department operates. Justice reported that the department uses excessive force; conducts searches without valid warrants; executes legitimate search warrants unlawfully by not knocking or making any announcement; violates the free-speech rights of citizens who protest police actions; discriminates against people with disabilities when responding to crisis situations; and is deficient in the way it handles cases of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Given all of this, you will not be surprised that the Justice Department also found that when presented with allegations of officer misconduct, the Louisville department has swept them under the rug. The report detailed the case of one woman who was shot during an argument and believed the department’s investigation of the shooting was insufficient. When she called the department to complain, she received a voice-mail message from a detective who said he would halt any further attempts to investigate the shooting “since you’re trying to file a formal complaint on me.”
But there is a direct line between massive, tragic failures involving the use of deadly force and the loss of life — such as the killing of Taylor, who was unarmed and asleep in her own apartment when officers on a misguided drug raid burst in and shot her — and the everyday, systemic racial bias revealed in the statistics about traffic stops.
The Louisville Metro Police Department, as an institution, did not see African Americans as citizens, taxpayers, members of the community who deserved respect and consideration. They saw Black people as targets and suspects.
The city government has pledged to cooperate with the Justice Department in negotiating a court-approved consent decree that will set a detailed agenda for trying to fix what is wrong. A similar “pattern or practice” review of the Minneapolis Police Department, sparked by the police murder of George Floyd in 2020, is ongoing.
Also on Wednesday, Justice announced a less-ambitious review of the use-of-force policies of the Memphis Police Department, prompted by the death of Tyre Nichols earlier this year. Nichols, a Black man pulled over in a traffic stop, was severely beaten by Memphis police officers and died three days later.
I salute Garland for what he is doing. But there will be no justice, and no peace, until police chiefs reform the culture in their departments and draw the “thin blue line” where it belongs — between the officers who are true public servants and the officers who behave like thugs.