LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville police charged Black people with felonies at more than double the rate as their white counterparts during the first four months of protests over the death of Breonna Taylor.
Between May 29 and Sept. 28, Louisville Metro Police recorded 871 protest-related arrests, including 252 with at least one felony charge, according to data released through a Kentucky Open Records Act request.
A Courier Journal analysis of the data found that Black people made up 53% of the total arrests and 69% of arrests with a felony, including burglary, assault of a police officer and criminal mischief.
Black people also received 66% of felony rioting charges in that time.
The data speaks to concerns from local activists who have accused police officers of doling out the strongest charges to Black protesters amid demonstrations against systemic racism and aggressive policing on the heels of the March 13 death of Taylor at the hands of Louisville police officers.
“This is a call to action for local and state elected officials to look at the over-incarceration of Black people and the growing incarceration of women across the commonwealth,” state Rep. Attica Scott of Louisville, who was one of 18 people arrested on felony rioting charges last month, told The Courier Journal in an interview.
“They hurt our futures with these felony charges. It’s to try to quiet down the dissent and protest. … It’s intentional, it’s by design and we can’t stand for it.”
An LMPD spokesman told The Courier Journal the department does not use race as a “motivating factor” when deciding who to arrest.
But O’Connell said his office is reviewing all protest-related charges — and prosecutors will keep potential racial inequities in mind.
O’Connell’s office has already dismissed more than 100 felony charges against protesters and has dropped 173 cases in their entirety.
“Those cases that Mike ultimately made the decision to dismiss were cases where we did not see any violence, any property damage, no hindrance of roadways or bridges,” said Ingrid Geiser, O’Connell’s first assistant. “They were essentially victimless crimes.”
O’Connell said his office is still reviewing protest-related charges as records come in, sorting them into categories based on individuals’ number and level of listed offenses.
“Prosecutors are ministers of justice,” said Josh Abner, executive administrator in O’Connell’s office. “It’s important they work to do the right thing, not just to seek the victory in court. Part of that is serving as an independent check in the system on these charges by reviewing them individually … restoring trust in the system that somebody is looking at these and making an independent analysis.”
As an example of racial discrepancies, protesters have frequently pointed to the arrests of video livestreamers Chea K. Woolfolk, a Black woman, and Jason Downey, a white man. On June 30, both were arrested at Jefferson Square Park as police attempted to clear the area. Though the two says they were standing near each other on the sidewalk when they were taken into custody, each was issued different charges: misdemeanor failure to disperse for Downey and felony rioting for Woolfolk.
Both cases remain open in Jefferson District Court.
Sgt. John Bradley, commander of LMPD’s public information office, said in an email that charges are issued based on an individual’s actions, “not another’s action.” And “whether two or more people are arrested at or near the same time is not a consideration while determining charges.”
Bradley added that a person’s race or other protected characteristics are not taken into account when issuing charges.
“Biased law enforcement practices impair investigative effectiveness, alienate citizens and foster a distrust of law enforcement,” he said. “The protection and preservation of the constitutional rights of individuals remains one of the paramount concerns of LMPD.”
Lorie Fridell, founder of the Fair and Impartial Policing program, which provides implicit bias awareness training to officers nationally, said it’s “very challenging to measure racial bias in policing” because there’s not always a clear answer as to why disparities exist.
“When we find disparities in statistics, those could be produced by bias in policing but those could also be produced by legitimate factors, such as differential behavior,” said Fridell, a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida.
Attorney Ned Pillersdorf, who represents four Black protesters, however, said he believes there’s one reason behind the his clients’ arrests: the color of their skin.
“None of these four fit the profile of people who would be violent,” he said. “One guy runs a cheerleading institute. … These people were involved in peaceful protests and they were rounded up, my clients said, because they were Black. I haven’t seen any evidence that disputes that.”
Pillersdorf said misdemeanor charges have already been dismissed against two of his clients, though the remaining two still face felonies.
The attorney is encouraging protesters to fight all charges they receive because even pleading guilty to unlawful assembly, a misdemeanor, could negatively affect a person’s future.
According to Kentucky law, a person is guilty of unlawful assembly when they assemble with five or more people for “the purpose of engaging or preparing to engage with them in a riot.”
“That has collateral consequences,” Pillersdorf said. “Try getting into a cheerleading program, and you’ve got a conviction for preparing to riot.”
In addition to the racial disparities, The Courier Journal’s analysis found 66% of the total people arrested live in Louisville — contradicting statements made early in the protests by Fischer, who blamed out-of-town protesters for breaking windows and looting businesses.
Of 44 people arrested on burglary charges in the first week of protests, just two lived out of state.
Other findings include:
Black men were arrested the most, at 280 times, followed by white women, at 208 times. Black women were arrested 184 times, and white men were arrested 172 times.
Forty-three people were arrested multiple times, including several activists who traveled to Kentucky from other states.
Of 252 arrests with at least one felony charge, 174 people arrested were Black, while 72 were white. Just one Asian person was charged with a felony, and the race was not known or not listed for five people with felonies.
Most out-of-town protesters who faced arrest were taken into custody during large demonstrations, including two organized by the New York-based social justice organization Until Freedom. Fifty-nine out-of-town protesters were arrested during the sit-in at Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s home in July; 46 were arrested during a march near Churchill Downs in August; and 57 were arrested on Sept. 23, after Cameron announced that none of the police officers who shot Taylor at her apartment in March would be charged in her death.
Arrests with burglary charges were most often made in groups — with four people arrested on May 30 at a Sprint store on Bardstown Road; at least eight people arrested on June 2 at a Walgreens on West Broadway; at least four people arrested on June 2 at a City Gear on Cane Run Road; and at least six people arrested at a Davis Jewelers on Forest Green Boulevard.
David Mour, who represents several protesters and often participates in marches, said he believes some felony charges issued amid the demonstrations are warranted. But for the most part, he thinks police have strapped people with stronger charges simply for protesting.
“The people who need the police the most are the people that are down at the square,” Mour said. “And we allow this police department just to brutalize people and to basically do whatever they want to these people. And it’s disgraceful that we as a community have allowed that to happen.”
“I looked at the big picture and what I saw, what information was provided to me up front on those matters … I decided not to prosecute those cases,” he told The Courier Journal. “I decided it would not be in the best interest of all concerned.”
Many protest-related cases remain open in the Jefferson County court system amid a backlog of cases stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.
O’Connell said he understands that people are frustrated with how long the process is taking. But it’s his office’s job to thoroughly review each case individually.
“There are a multitude of reasons why this is a slow process,” he said. “… As a result, we find ourselves trying to deal with this at the pace that we’re trying to deal with it.”
Jean Porter, a spokeswoman for Mayor Greg Fischer, said in a statement it is up to O’Connell’s office to decide whether charges are appropriate after reviewing the facts of the case, but “certainly, the Mayor is concerned about any potential bias in policing, which is why the (city-hired consultant) Hillard Heintze top-to-bottom review of LMPD will include looking at demographic data concerning traffic stops, arrests and other police encounters.”
Porter noted many days through the 22 weeks of protests saw zero arrests, and she added Fischer has repeatedly said that “the strength of the protests is how they have drawn together such diverse parts of our community — it is important that all people understand the need for reform, and the need to get involved in making that reform happen in a positive, peaceful way.”
At the press conference Thursday, protest leader Aaron Jordan called on O’Connell and other officials to “stand on the right side of history.”
“Every charge from nonviolent, First Amendment-expressing protesters should be dropped, especially since the officers were using excessive force all summer,” he said.
Reporter Hayes Gardner contributed to this story. Reach reporter Bailey Loosemore at[email protected], 502-582-4646 or on Twitter @bloosemore.