U.S. NewsPolice Misconduct


After Louisville Police Shooting Deaths, Cases Quietly Closed

Newsy/Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting probe finds Louisville officials don't keep families of those shot and killed by police informed.
Posted at 10:07 PM, Oct 20, 2020

It was Isaac Jackson’s parents who called the police who shot and killed him.

The 42-year-old, known to everyone as Uncle Isaac, is remembered as a funny, charming guy who loved to sing in the church choir and got a music scholarship to college. But a car accident several years ago led to seizures, his siblings say, which led to mental health issues and a string of arrests

The night of April 25, 2018, Isaac showed up at his parents house, on drugs, acting erratically. They said they’d kicked him out the night before for causing a disturbance, and now he was back.

Isaac broke in and started smashing things. He fought with his father. He stabbed his brother A.J. in the arm. His mother hid in the bathroom and called the Louisville Metro Police Department once, and then a second time when she felt they weren’t responding fast enough. 

Isaac started striking matches, threatening to burn down the house with his family inside. The police arrived and the family fled the house, worried for their brother and the officers. Isaac’s sister Annetta Jackson showed up.

Then they heard gunshots. 

They knew Isaac didn’t have a gun, but the police wouldn’t tell them what happened, or who was shot. Annetta wanted to comfort their elderly mother, who was outside barefoot, but LMPD separated the family. They put A.J. and Annetta into separate squad cars.

Photo of Isaac Jackson, courtesy of Sonya Brown

"I’d ask questions, you know like, 'What’s going on? Can you tell us anything?'" Annetta remembered. "And nothing was being said."

Terrified, she tried to get in touch with her other sister, but she said police took her phone away. She was baffled by the way the police were treating them. 

Inside a neighboring squad car, while being treated for his stab wound, A.J. overheard the police radio: His brother had been shot.

Fatal shootings at the hands of LMPD officers have gotten national attention this summer in the wake of the killing of Breonna Taylor. Celebrities, politicians and protesters across the country have demanded information about LMPD’s investigation into the officers who shot and killed the 26-year-old emergency room technician. Taylor’s family got a sit-down with the Kentucky attorney general to discuss the case, and his office released periodic updates about the status of the investigation.

But that’s the exception. Usually, when LMPD kills someone, families are left entirely in the dark about how the police are handling the case, an investigation by Newsy and the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found.

Reporters attempted to contact family members for all 19 people shot and killed by LMPD since 2015. Representatives and family members of 11 people killed by LMPD spoke with Newsy and the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and shared stories of various ways LMPD and the Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office have failed to keep them informed.

Some said they were never contacted by officials when their loved one had been killed, or weren’t told it was the police that killed them. Many have been waiting years for the police to finish their investigation, with no idea that LMPD had already closed the case and the Commonwealth’s Attorney had decided not to file charges against the officers. 

"That's awful," said Greg Simms, an attorney currently suing LMPD on behalf of one of these families. "You've got people who are victims of crimes or potential victims of crimes, and this government agency doesn’t let them know that they're not pursuing it. Of course they should do that. They should let them know."

The Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office said in most cases they trust LMPD to notify the family of any decisions. A spokesperson for LMPD said they “do their best” to communicate with families.

Legally, that's all they have to do. Under Kentucky law, someone is only considered a victim after a perpetrator is formally charged with a crime, according to a spokesperson for the Kentucky Attorney General. And no LMPD officer has been charged for fatally shooting a civilian since 2004; even when one officer was arrested in the Breonna Taylor case, the only charges were for shooting into her neighbor’s apartment.  

The night police killed Isaac Jackson, A.J. and his parents were taken to the police department for several hours. They were interviewed by LMPD’s internal investigators — they don’t remember who — and told they could pick up a police report and claim Isaac’s body. 

“After that, they sent us on our way,” A.J. said. “And that's about it.” 

A.J. can understand why the officer shot his brother, whose actions made him a danger to himself and others. But he wonders what might have been different if the police had shown up sooner. His sisters want to know if and how the police tried to de-escalate the situation, and whether LMPD has learned anything from this case. 

But everything they know about that night came from LMPD’s 30-minute press conference the day after the incident, where they showed excerpts of body camera footage, including when Isaac Jackson had thrown a knife, striking one officer. Then-Police Chief Steve Conrad addressed the shooting, the latest in a string of such incidents. 

"We are committed to doing rigorous and thorough investigations in each of these incidents," Conrad said. "Over the past several years, we have responded to the concerns of the community by committing to transparency."  

But to this day, the Jacksons have heard nothing from LMPD about any investigation. 

Some families not notified about death

Tammy Riggs was at work on February 1, 2018, when she got a notification on her phone from a local news station. There had been a police shooting, and the TV station was streaming live video from the scene. 

"I went on and was watching it," she said. "I watched it for hours and I didn’t know it was my son."

That afternoon, as officers walked toward a car during a traffic stop in the Buechel neighborhood, one of the passengers shot at the officers. An officer returned fire, killing the shooter at the scene and striking Billy Ray Riggs, who was sitting in the back seat. 

Tammy Riggs said no one from LMPD or the hospital ever told her her son had been shot, or that he was on life support. Eventually, her daughter found out from Facebook. 

"He’s been in jail before...they know who he was. All they had to do was look on his jail records and see what address he used. All they said was, 'We’ve been looking for you,'" she said. 

"[They] wasn’t looking hard enough," she said. 

Photo of Bill Ray Riggs, courtesy of Tammy Riggs

LMPD’s standard operating procedure says the hospital should notify the next-of-kin “whenever possible.” Carolyn Callahan, a spokesperson for University of Louisville Health, said they couldn’t comment on specific cases, but said they notify next of kin as the situation requires. 

When Tammy Riggs eventually got to see her son, about 24 hours after he was shot and he was already on life support. A police officer was standing outside his door. 

"He was a prisoner, lying there half dead," Tammy said. 

When the family finally decided to take the 38-year-old father off of life support, they were dealt another devastating blow. They’d wanted to donate his organs, but learned that he’d been on life support too long to make them viable. 

Ever since, Tammy has wondered what might have been different if she’d been notified swiftly about her son’s condition. 

"It really should be, quite honestly, everyone's responsibility, and certainly can't be no one's responsibility," said Meg Garvin, executive director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute. "Someone should be telling the family, 'You have a loved one who's injured.' And then along the way, someone should be saying, 'You know, an investigation is happening.'"

Families waiting on long-closed cases

At the hospital, Tammy Riggs met with Sgt. Nick Owen, who was then with LMPD’s Public Integrity Unit, before she was allowed to see her son. She said Owen probably told her something about the next steps in the case, but she doesn’t remember anything other than sheer panic. LMPD did not respond to a request to interview Owen. 

She said that was the last time LMPD reached out to her. She said she called the Public Integrity Unit once, sometime that summer, hoping to get her son’s possessions. 

"I would like to have the little stuff he had," she said. "He carried around a little bitty pocket knife with his name on it that I bought him in Gatlinburg, and I'm sure he had that."

Photo of Tammy Riggs, Carrie Cochran/Newsy

She said she was told she could get his possessions back after the case was closed. So she carries Owen’s business card in her work jacket, waiting for the day he would call her and tell her the case is closed. 

But according to a letter obtained by Newsy/KyCIR through an open records request, her son’s case is closed. It was closed August 24, 2018, more than two years ago.

"I haven’t been notified about anything at all," Tammy said after reviewing the letter. "Probably now they don’t even know where [his stuff] is at, because I’m sure the clothes they didn’t keep. So the little stuff, who knows where it’s at?"

Riggs is not alone in this. More than half of the families and family representatives interviewed had no idea LMPD had closed the investigation into their loved one’s death.

D’Juantez Mitchell was killed by Louisville police in May 2019. The case was closed without charges for the officers in February.

Greg Simms, a lawyer for the family, said neither he nor the family knew the case was closed until a reporter told them.

Simms said he didn’t wait for that investigation to proceed with a lawsuit against LMPD. But he noted that the statute of limitations on wrongful death lawsuits is one year. In some cases, he said, delaying the investigation or not telling a family the case is closed could mean families are unable to get a lawyer to take their case in time. 

“It’s upsetting that they wouldn’t come out and tell the public. It’s upsetting that they wouldn’t notify the family,” he said. 

De’Mon’Jhea Jordan’s family got a lawyer and filed a wrongful death lawsuit against LMPD for shooting and killing the 21-year-old in April 2018. They have been anxiously awaiting the outcome of LMPD’s investigation; they even held a press conference in June demanding answers. 

They had no idea that LMPD had closed its internal criminal investigation, and the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office cleared all the officers of wrongdoing in January 2019.

“They give you what they want you to have,” Jordan’s father, Larry Jordan, said. “They don’t want to give you the rest of it. If you're so convinced that this truly happened, where’s the rest of the evidence? Let us see it for ourselves. But they've never done that.” 

If these families looked to LMPD’s own database of police shootings for answers, they’d be out of luck. LMPD posts that database online in a show of transparency, but nine of the open cases listed in that database are actually closed.

Two of the cases have been closed for more than two years and have already been reviewed by the Citizens Commission on Police Accountability, Louisville’s citizen review board. The board found the investigation into the police shooting of Billy Ray Riggs to be “adequate and complete.” They issued no recommendations to the department.

Under Ky. law, these families aren’t victims

Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Wine said in an emailed statement that “communicating a decision not to prosecute...is particularly emotional.”

When the Commonwealth Attorney’s office is contacted by a family or their lawyer during the investigation, he said his office will make sure they tell the family once it’s concluded. Otherwise, his office leaves that task to LMPD’s Public Integrity Unit, which he feels “has some rapport with the families and is in a better position to communicate this difficult message.”

LMPD spokesperson Lamont Washington said communication “varies on a case to case basis,” and that “given the nature of police involvement in these types of incidents, we continue to evaluate how we communicate with victim’s families.”

They wouldn’t say if they kept any of the families informed about the status of the investigation, but two weeks later, they gave us a different response: our “current practice” is for the victim services staff to offer these families “information and support.”

Wine said he is “certainly willing to review how other jurisdictions notify families in cases such as these and make changes in our processes if it seems appropriate.”

But LMPD and the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office are not required to do anything to keep these families informed about the investigation and where it stands. 

Kentucky’s Crime Victims Bill of Rights requires law enforcement and prosecutors to keep victims — or their family, if they’re deceased — updated about the status of their criminal case.

But in Kentucky, you’re only legally considered a victim once charges are filed, according to a spokesperson for the Kentucky Attorney General. That doesn’t apply to the families of the 19 people killed by LMPD since 2015, because no officer was ever charged for any of those deaths.

Meg Garvin, from the National Crime Victim Law Institute, thinks that’s too narrow of a definition to serve people who may never get their day in court. 

“It doesn't matter the type of crime, we can … presume victim status and afford rights of dignity, fairness and respect to any person who alleges a criminal incident,” Garvin said. “That's the ideal.”

Take the Breonna Taylor case as an example. Because LMPD Officer Brett Hankison was charged with three counts of wanton endangerment for shooting into Taylor’s neighbor’s apartment, the neighbors would qualify for crime victims rights under the law. 

Taylor’s family would not, even though she’s the one who is dead. 

In practice, law enforcement and prosecutors often make victims' services available before charges are filed. But they don’t have to, and according to families of those killed by LMPD, when it comes to police shootings in Louisville, they don’t. 

State Sen. Whitney Westerfield is the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a former prosecutor. He said he was stunned to learn that families are not being told that these cases are closed. 

“It shouldn't take an act of the General Assembly to fix that, I wouldn't think,” he said. “I don’t understand what's stopping you from just picking up the phone or sending out a form letter or something. You ought to do more than that, but that's easy to do. That's a pretty low bar.” 

Metro Council President David James saw this system firsthand when he started working with the family of Shelby Gazaway. Gazaway was shot and killed by LMPD in November 2019.

Photo of Shelby Gazaway, provided by the Gazaway family

His family only found out that the officers who killed their son had been returned to active duty when a local TV station contacted them; they were doing a story about one of the officers, Patrick Norton, shooting someone else in June. 

Gazaway’s parents had been trying for months to get their son’s cell phone and car back from LMPD, and eventually, James said he had to personally intervene. 

“It's ridiculous,” said James, a former LMPD detective. “It's unacceptable.”

The Louisville Metro Council passed a resolution in August that encourages more transparency from LMPD. But beyond that, James doesn’t think there’s much the council can do other than take the call when a family needs them to intervene on their behalf. 

But he acknowledges that’s an imperfect system that puts too much burden on the families of those killed by police. 

“They want answers and they deserve those answers,” James said. “Those answers should be given to those families as soon as the police department knows anything about it. And that's not what happens.” 

According to Wine, his office directly communicated their decision to the families of three people killed by LMPD since 2015, including William Allen Young, Jr.

Young was shot and killed by LMPD in February 2017. Like in every other police shooting in Louisville during that time period, Wine’s office determined that the officers used the appropriate amount of force and no criminal charges were necessary. 

Wine sent Young’s mother a personal note, hand-signed, expressing his condolences the day before his office sent the determination letter to LMPD. The letter says it is his “professional responsibility” to tell her that he has decided not to file charges, and it directs her on how to obtain records about her son’s death. 

“I did not want you to find out through a third-party that there would be no criminal charges filed or Grand Jury investigation conducted in this matter,” Wine wrote. 

In response to our reporting, Mayor Greg Fischer’s spokesperson, Jean Porter, told Newsy and KYCIR in an email that LMPD Chief Yvette Gentry and the mayor “agree that families in cases like this deserve our empathy and support” and that they “need a more consistent and formal protocol for communicating with them.” 

She said the mayor and the chief would be reviewing their procedures with Commonwealth’s Attorney Wine “so that no family experiences this again."

Carrie Cochran is a visual journalist at Newsy/Scripps she can be reached at carrie.cochran@scripps.com; 

Maren Machles is an investigative journalist at Newsy/Scripps she can be reached at maren.machles@scripps.com; 

Karen Rodriguez is an investigative journalist at Newsy/Scripps can be reached at karenrodriguez@newsy.com; 

Maia Rosenfeld is a data reporter at Newsy/Scripps she can be reached at maia.rosenfeld@scripps.com;

Eleanor Klibanoff is an investigative reporter with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. She can be reached at eklibanoff@kycir.org