A study released last week by a think tank claimed that 85 percent of murders in Louisville last year were gang related, but LMPD’s spokesman has called that finding into question, as the study relied on anonymous and anecdotal sources within the department.

The Pegasus Institute — a conservative, millennial-led think tank created in November — examined Louisville’s record-high 2016 homicide totals and developed policy recommendations to reduce crime in its study. One of the study’s main findings was that while Louisville’s opioid epidemic has coincided with the spike in murders over the past two years, “gangs and gang culture, not drugs, have been the main cause of our violent crime epidemic,” as it claimed that 100 out of the 118 criminal homicide investigations by LMPD last year were “gang related.” Stating that “fighting the heroin crisis will not directly reduce violence and murder,” the study cites these gang statistics in its policy recommendations to identify and target street gangs, along with state legislation to enhance the prosecution of gang members, as “most of the violence in Louisville is (perpetrated) by gangs.”

While many of the statistics in the study were cited among its 41 footnotes, there was no such reference for the figure suggesting 85 percent of homicides were gang related. In an email to IL, Pegasus co-founder Josh Crawford said this number “was sourced and then separately confirmed by multiple individuals within LMPD,” though their names and ranks would remain anonymous. He added that these unnamed individuals “were confident in that number.”

Elsewhere in the study, it was stated that “no reliable information about drug related murders was available at the time of this report,” and while LMPD keeps no official numbers on motives, unnamed “sources” within LMPD say “the majority” of homicides were “motivated by one of the ‘Three Rs'” — respect, reputation and retaliation, which research shows are key features to violence within gang subculture.

Told that Pegasus was using anonymous sources for its 100 gang-related homicides figure, LMPD spokesman Dwight Mitchell replied “my God,” dismissively laughing off the inaccuracy of such an anecdotal statistic.

“Here’s the thing about it… we solved about 56 percent of those (homicide cases), and I don’t know — based off of that — how you can even come to that conclusion,” said Mitchell. “I really can’t answer that question to defend those numbers when I don’t know where they come from.”

Mitchell said that LMPD does not keep an official internal figure of how many homicides are gang related, as it is difficult to quantify. As an example, he cited the murder in late May at Waterfront Park in which the victim “may have been associated with (a gang), but we don’t know if that’s the reason” he was killed. However, Mitchell said LMPD has “already been addressing some of the things (Pegasus) came up with in their recommendations,” citing the INTEL joint task force it created in partnership with the FBI, ATF and DEA in January to combat violent crime, even though the department does not have its own squad specifically devoted to street gangs.

When Pegasus released the report last week, Councilwoman Angela Leet, R-7, issued a press release hailing the study and its recommendations. Leet — who was the first among the now-growing number of council members to call for the firing or resignation of LMPD Chief Steve Conrad — stated while the approach of LMPD’s current leadership has failed, “the Pegasus Institute’s proposed initiative is backed by extensive research and data, thorough analysis, and proven solutions.”

“Having worked with this group for several months, I’ve been nothing but impressed by their approach in providing comprehensive strategies and written plans to solve our community’s toughest problems,” stated Leet. “I hope that others will join me in encouraging Mayor Fischer and LMPD to implement this plan as soon as possible to begin addressing and reducing violent crime in Louisville.”

While acknowledging that the study used anonymous sources for the 85 percent figure, Leet told IL “I’m not going to invalidate an entire study because of one line,” adding that she continues to endorse a renewed focus on gangs, as LMPD has “been hesitant to even admit they have a gang problem” until recently.

“I guess some of it would depend on the semantics of how people are going to define ‘gang related,'” said Leet. “You could put a lawyer definition on that, you could put a federal definition on that. I think there is probably some room for interpretation there. I think the main point is that a significant number of the killings that are occurring are related to gangs.”

Councilman David James, D-6

Councilman David James, D-6, a former LMPD narcotics detective, told IL that the 100 gang-related homicides figure seems greatly inflated, though he shares the same concern of Leet — that LMPD leadership continues to downplay the extent of gang-related violence, at the expense of public safety.

“I think 100 out of 118 is pretty high,” said James. “I would (estimate) anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of our homicides were gang-related.”

In comparison, James estimated that “probably about 75 to 80 percent” of homicides are drug related, but “some of those are intertwined” with gangs that are funded by the drug trade and hold onto geographic territory for their business.

“I would say that the general public would probably be shocked at the large number of shootings and homicides that are in some way gang related,” said James. “Whether the victim was a gang member or the suspect was a gang member, or once was a gang member, or pissed off a gang member… that kind of thing. Not anywhere near 85 percent, but I would say it’s a lot more than the chief alluded to.”

As recently as December, Chief Conrad told Metro Council members that “a relatively small percentage” of shootings are gang related. James added when he asked Conrad at the last Public Safety Committee meeting how many homicides and shootings are gang related, the chief told him that LMPD “does not track the motives” of such incidents. However, James said he has since talked to a couple of homicide detectives who told him “that was by design, that they don’t want those numbers out there because it makes them look bad.”

“They intentionally do not set up a database to keep track of (gang-related violence),” said James. “They know anecdotally because they take notes, but it’s not set up in an organized fashion where they actually track the motives for the incidents, which to me seems to be stupid. That is part of my charge against Chief Conrad, because the people that suffer from that are the community.”

As for the gang-related statistics in the Pegasus study, Dr. Viviana Andreescu — a criminal justice professor at UofL — tells IL that “policy recommendations should be based on theory-informed social research and reliable statistical information,” but “there is no basis to assert” that 100 of the homicides in 2016 were gang related. While she says anonymous tips or suppositions related to gangs could be discussed as a possible explanation for events if such information is verified, “you shouldn’t include them in a report as a ‘fact.'”

Andreescu adds that gang-related activity may have been a factor in the spike in homicides and shootings last year but should not be regarded as the sole contributing factor, as potential changes to many different socio-economic conditions at the neighborhood level must be examined.

Dr. Ryan Schroeder, associate professor and chair of the UofL sociology department, adds that he would be suspect as to the accuracy of the study’s gang-related homicide data, as any statistic based on anonymous anecdotes “is likely problematic.” He added that the source of the data “would be scrutinized heavily in a peer-reviewed process, especially with the small percentage of cases that have actually been closed.”

Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]