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DOJ's Louisville policing probe confirms what Scripps News found there

The DOJ's probe into policing in Louisville, Ky. confirms much of what Scripps News and KyCIR reporters found in their own investigation last year.
Posted at 8:49 PM, Mar 09, 2023

Nearly three years after the police killing of Breonna Taylor sparked months of daily protests in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, the Department of Justice announced Wednesday it had “reasonable cause” the city of Louisville and its police department had engaged in a longstanding pattern of violating its citizens’ constitutional rights. The announcement comes a year after Scripps News aired its own investigation, “The Model City.” The DOJ’s probe confirms much of what reporters found. 

Model depiction of the town of Louisville, Kentucky

The Model City: How Police Reform Failed In Breonna Taylor's Hometown

Scripps News and KyCIR investigate how Louisville went from a national leader for police reform to the face of a national movement protesting police.


Our investigative documentary, produced in partnership with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, uncovered a troubling history of city leaders publicly touting police reform, but failing to meaningfully change how it policed. The project, which was also a six-part podcast while under the Newsy banner, was a nominee in last year's Peabody Awards.

In its report, the DOJ outlined a long list of police reforms the city should implement to “address the legal violations – and the root causes” its investigation found. On the list were recommendations to better train officers in use-of-force, improve officer health and wellness programs, strengthen community relationships to address and prevent violent crime, and enhance policies for handling protests. Scripps News previously reported the city had claimed to have implemented those reforms and hundreds more by 2017.  

Since the release of the report, Attorney General Merrick Garland said Louisville officials agreed informally to enter a consent decree, which would make Louisville implement reforms by court order. At a press conference held in Louisville, Garland said, "shortly after we opened the investigation an LMPD leader told the department Breonna Taylor was a symptom of problems that we have had for years."

Scripps News and KyCIR reporters spent months reviewing hundreds of documents and many hours of body-camera and surveillance videos. Dozens of current and former Louisville police officers spoke to reporters, as did community leaders, politicians, and residents of the heavily policed West End neighborhood. Tragically, before the piece aired, some individuals reporters interviewed became victims of the city’s record homicide count. 

We found Louisville relied on controversial policing tactics, did not support officers, and fostered a culture of abuse in the city’s majority-black neighborhood, known as the West End. 

The documentary revealed how this endangered both officers on the street and its Black community, reaching a breaking point in what the DOJ called “one tragic case.” David McAtee, a barbeque owner beloved by community members and police officers alike, was killed in 2020, days after protests erupted in Louisville. The mayor called in the Kentucky National Guard, escalating the city’s protest response. Louisville police led the guard to the West End to disperse what the DOJ stated was "a peaceful crowd assembled on private property." An LMPD officer fired pepperballs "without warning" at the crowd and at McAtee’s niece. 

McAtee fired his weapon and two LMPD officers and two guardsmen returned 19 rounds at McAtee. One round hit his chest, a fatal blow. Scripps News reporters raised questions over the official police account. The report confirmed what community members told reporters all along: McAtee “fired twice in the air,” not at police. 

Carrie Cochran / Scripps News

Will Pitts, left, comforts David McAtee's mother, Odessa Riley, on June 1, 2021 – a year after McAtee was killed by the National Guard in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Carrie Cochran, Scripps News)

“I don’t think anybody was surprised by the findings,” McAtee’s childhood friend, Will Pitts, said Thursday of the DOJ’s announcement. Pitts was featured prominently in “The Model City.”   

“Still, it’s been a long time coming,” he said.  

Contact the lead reporters on this story at Carrie.Cochran@Scripps.com and Karen.Rodriguez@Scripps.com