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A closer look at the findings from DOJ's investigation of Louisville police

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we're going to take another look at that scathing Department of Justice report on the Louisville Police Department. The report followed a two-year investigation prompted by the police killing of Breonna Taylor. And it described a litany of disturbing practices, practices the DOJ said the Louisville Police Department employed selectively, mainly against Black people but also against, quote-unquote, "vulnerable people" throughout the city.

Kristen Clarke is the assistant attorney general for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Justice. In that role, she leads the department's efforts to enforce civil rights laws across the country and was involved in the DOJ's efforts to investigate the Louisville Metro Police Department. And she's with us now to talk more about the findings and what needs to happen now. Assistant Attorney General Clarke, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

KRISTEN CLARKE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: During the press conference to announce your findings, you said, quote, "our investigation found that the police department and city government failed to adequately protect and serve the people of Louisville, breached the public's trust and discriminated against Black people through unjustified stops, searches and arrests. The police used excessive force, subjecting people to unlawful strikes, tastings and canine bites and it, of course, goes on. Before you entered government, you had a long career in civil rights law. Given that, is there something in particular that stood out to you from this investigation?

CLARKE: Yeah. You know, the problems are extensive. One thing that really stood out here are issues that we encountered with respect to the treatment of people with behavioral health disabilities. This is the first time that the Justice Department has used the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA, to find that the way that the police responds to people who are experiencing a crisis is unlawful and discriminatory. It turns out that in Louisville, they have a pilot mobile crisis team. They have experts that could accompany police officers out when someone is experiencing a crisis. And instead, what we have found is that they almost exclusively rely on an ordinary 911 law enforcement response in these situations, which are dangerous and risky and puts people with disabilities, particularly behavioral health disabilities, in harm's way.

MARTIN: So I get that. I do want to talk about what should happen next and what the future holds. And I do recognize that you said that over the course of this investigation, which started in 2021, that you had access to a lot of information. You interviewed people. You went on ride-alongs. You had access to, you know, hours of body-worn camera footage and so forth because this is a pattern-and-practice investigation. You were trying to determine if there's a pattern and practice of a certain kind of conduct.

But I am interested in whether you have any thoughts about why the department gets to the point where there is this kind of conduct, given, especially, that there has been scrutiny of law enforcement conduct for years now. There is a lot of research available to police leaders, law enforcement leaders about best practices. I don't know if the report sheds light on this, but I guess I'm still interested in this question of how does it get to this point?

CLARKE: Policies, training, accountability - these are kind of the core criteria that you need to really get this right. And one without the other, you know, can result in the kind of situation that we've encountered in Louisville. You need strong policies, you need the training to back it up and you need accountability, so when there are missteps, when there is misconduct, when officers run afoul of the law and the rules, there is immediate corrective action that can take place. And our goal with the consent decree that follows here will help ensure that some of those systems that weren't in place in Louisville are there going forward.

MARTIN: Can you give us an example of what some of those are?

CLARKE: Well, one of the things that we're going to really focus on in the consent decree concerns search warrants. We found that many officers were issuing warrants under dangerous conditions, issuing them at night, were not knocking and announcing. And going forward, our consent decree will require reforms to address many of the issues here.

MARTIN: You know, there's this ongoing story about issues like this. When atrocities like this happen, what you often hear is, there are the rules, and then there's how it really is. You know, there's what people are taught in the academy, and then there's what they're taught on the street, when they're in the course of doing their jobs. How do you ensure that those things are in alignment? You know, because you hear this over and over again. There's - in the case of George Floyd, that the person who's most culpable in his death was the training officer. So I'm just interested in how you bring what the goals of the department, what people are taught, what the rules are, what are considered to be best practices - how do you actually bring that into alignment to actual practice? Do you have a mechanism for that?

CLARKE: This is really now turning to the road ahead and the consent decree that we are going to work to institute. And a few things about that - one, the consent decree will have real teeth and require that this department makes some hard changes in order to ensure that we don't see a repeat of the kinds of problems that we've encountered here, including the discrimination against Black people, discrimination against people with disabilities and more. An independent monitor will provide oversight every step of the way to make sure that the police department is staying on track and hitting the goals.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, this report arrives, and these investigations are taking place at a time when many parts of the country are experiencing an increase in violence. Protestations to the contrary - many of these increases are taking place in jurisdictions of all different types, jurisdictions led by Republicans, jurisdictions led by Democrats. But are you concerned at all that the strides that you hope to make - as you describe it, constitutional policing - will be thwarted in part by public fear?

CLARKE: Here, we're focused on a very specific problem that also relates to public safety. And when you don't respect people's civil and constitutional rights, you undermine the end goal of ensuring public safety. So, you know, that is part of the context of what we are dealing with here and wrestling with here. It also underscores why there's no cookie-cutter approach to this work. The consent decree that we put in place here will be very mindful of what's happening on the ground in Louisville and all of the issues that this community is uniquely dealing with and wrestling with.

MARTIN: That is Kristen Clarke. She's the assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Department of Justice, and she spoke to us from her office there. Assistant Attorney General Clarke, thank you so much for talking with us today.

CLARKE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.