DOJ rebukes Louisville police for pattern of civil rights abuses

The U.S. Justice Department issued a damning review of the Louisville Police Department in Kentucky on Wednesday in the wake of Breonna Taylor's fatal shooting nearly three years ago. The findings lay out a pattern of abuses against Black citizens and routine violations of their rights. Kristen Clarke, an assistant attorney general for civil rights at the DOJ, joins Geoff Bennett to discuss.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Good evening, and welcome to the "NewsHour."

    The U.S. Justice Department has issued a damning review of the Louisville, Kentucky, Police Department in the wake of Breonna Taylor's death. She was shot and killed during a no-knock raid on her apartment nearly three years ago.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Findings released today found a pattern of police brutalizing Black citizens and routinely violating their rights.

    U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland spoke in Louisville.

  • Merrick Garland, U.S. Attorney General:

    This conduct is unacceptable. It is heartbreaking. It erodes the community trust necessary for effective policing. And it is an affront to the vast majority of officers who put their lives on the line every day to serve Louisville with honor. And it is an affront to the people of Louisville, who deserve better.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Garland announced the city will sign a negotiated consent decree to undertake major reforms.

    Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg said he strongly supports the effort.

    Craig Greenberg, Mayor of Louisville, Kentucky: And I know that there will people who will look at this report and they will be eager to find some way to minimize it or dismiss it. They will say it's all politics or that you could find examples like this in any city.

    No, this is not about politics or other places. This is about Louisville.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    The city has already banned so-called no-knock warrants and paid $12 million to Breonna Taylor's family to end a wrongful death lawsuit.

    Kristen Clarke is the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Department at the Justice Department, and she joins us now from Louisville.

    Thank you for being with us.

    And this announcement is the result of a two-year investigation following the shooting of Breonna Taylor. The attorney general said today that a Louisville Metro Police Department official told the DOJ shortly after this investigation opened that Breonna Taylor "was a symptom of problems that we have had for years."

    Based on your investigation, why were those problems so persistent?

  • Kristen Clarke, Assistant U.S. Attorney General:

    The problems are — have been persistent because they have gone unaddressed.

    And, today, we issued a 90-page report that lays bare many severe and significant problems with the Louisville Metro Police Department. We found evidence of use of excessive force, we found warrants that were issued without a legal basis. We found that warrants were executed without knocking and announcing.

    We found discriminatory policing and evidence of practices that disproportionately impact Black people in Louisville. We found unlawful stops, detentions and arrests. We also found that people who engaged in peaceful demonstrations and protest had their First Amendment rights infringed upon, particularly when the subject matter of their protest concerned the police department.

    These problems are significant and severe. And our consent decree here will help put the city and the police department on a long overdue path to reform.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    You mentioned the report.

    I want to read an excerpt from it. It reads this way: "Some officers have videotaped themselves throwing drinks at pedestrians from their cars, insulted people with disabilities, and called Black people monkeys, animal and boy. This conduct erodes community trust and the unlawful practices of LMPD and Louisville Metro undermine public safety."

    It again raises the question of how and why this kind of behavior was condoned. The report cites poor oversight. Tell me more about that.

  • Kristen Clarke:


    I mean, sometimes, you find that there are policies in place, but no training behind those policies. Sometimes, you find that there is training but no accountability, when policies are broken.

    Part of our consent decree will be about putting in place new systems that will help ensure that these kinds of problems never happen again. I noted a number of issues that we found. We also found that the police department discriminated against people with behavioral health disabilities and, in particular, response — problems with respect to dispatch responses.

    So now's the time where we're going to engage with the law enforcement agency here. We're going to engage with the community and put the community and police department on a path to reform.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    On that point, I mean, there is a reason why you were in Louisville, are in Louisville right now, but earlier today appeared with the attorney general and Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta.

    Also there were local leaders, the members of the police department. It was to show that there is broad agreement at the federal and local level that there is this need for change. There are people in Louisville who are wondering if local leaders are really up to the job of implementing that change, when many of these violations happened on their watch.

  • Kristen Clarke:

    You know, I'm hopeful and encouraged.

    Today marks a new day for the city of Louisville. The mayor and the police chief joined us and committed to working with us to put in place a consent decree. We will have court oversight. We will have an independent monitor.

    And at every stage, we're going to engage with the community. Today, I have been meeting with community leaders. I have met with law enforcement leaders today. Now's the time where we roll up our sleeves and figure out, what are the reforms that help ensure that the kinds of incidents that we have seen in the past and resulting tragedies never happen again?

    And I say that with full acknowledgement that being a police officer is not an easy job. And most officers carry out their jobs with duty and integrity. But what our 90-page report makes clear is that there is a systemic problem, that there has been a pattern and practice of conduct that runs afoul of the Constitution, that violates federal law, and that disrespects people's civil rights.

    And we're putting an end to that. And today marks a new day for the city.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    You are a lifelong civil rights attorney. Why does it take the police killing of a Black person, whether it's George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Freddie Gray, to spur federal action?

    Is there anything that can be done preemptively?

  • Kristen Clarke:

    You know, these tragedies, the tragic death of Breonna Taylor — and I met with her mother today — George Floyd, these people should be alive today.

    Breonna Taylor should be alive today. George Floyd should be alive today. The Justice Department's work to ensure law enforcement accountability and constitutional policing is one of our highest priorities. We will not turn our back on this work. It is hard work.

    It is hard work. And we are in it for the long haul. And we look forward to working and engaging with the community and with the police department and city to ensure that tragedies that unfolded in the past never happen again.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And, lastly, what is the record on these consent decrees? How much do they effect change, and how do they work in the long term? How well do they work in the long term?

  • Kristen Clarke:


    The consent decrees that we have secured in the past have proven successful. We have seen success in places like Seattle and Baltimore, where there have been reductions in the use of force against ordinary citizens, where there have been efforts to de-escalate situations to prevent violent outcomes.

    So we are very confident that the consent decree that we put in place here will help to put the city and the police department on a path to reform, on a path to ensuring that people's civil-rights are respected, and on a path to ensuring that the police department can carry out their job of ensuring public safety, and do so in a way that garners trust from the community, and doing so in a way that complies with the Constitution.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Kristen Clarke is the assistant attorney general for civil rights at the U.S. Justice Department.

    Thanks so much for your time.

  • Kristen Clarke:

    Thank you for having me.

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