LMPD Chief Steve Conrad | Photo by Sarah Kelley

Chief Steve Conrad updated Metro Council on the first six months of a controversial reorganization of the Louisville Metro Police Department on Monday, telling committee members that overall crime and property crime has gone down in the first four months of this year, though there has been a “slight increase” in violent crime.

Several council members took issue with Conrad’s interpretation of those statistics, noting that both murders and aggravated assaults have increased in 2017 — a fact made all the more disturbing by Louisville’s record-breaking violence in 2016.

Testifying before the Public Safety Committee, Conrad cited preliminary crime statistics comparing the first four months of this year to the same time period last year, which show that total incidents of crime are down nearly 3 percent and property crimes are down by roughly 3.4 percent. Conrad suggested these statistics show last year’s reorganization has moved the city in the right direction, “with the exception of homicides.”

Through the end of April there were 41 criminal homicides within LMPD’s jurisdiction, nearly 14 percent more than at this point in 2016 — a year in which there were a record-high 124 murders in Jefferson County. As of Tuesday, there have been 48 murders in Louisville. Aggravated assaults also have increased by 4 percent, with 924 incidents through April, though there has only been one more violent crime in this year’s period compared to last year, as robberies have decreased by 8.4 percent.

Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton, D-5, questioned Conrad over his suggestion that the city is headed in the right direction on crime, noting that she has not seen positive results in her district from the department’s reorganization last year. Much of her district is made up of the LMPD’s Second Division, which witnessed only one homicide in the first four months of 2012, but has increased each subsequent year and has reached 18 this year, or 44 percent of Louisville’s total homicides.

Hamilton told Conrad that she feels the LMPD reorganization has “taken our eye off the ball” on violent crime, but Conrad replied that “there are so many independent factors that you cannot lay that at the feet of the police.”

“The police officers out there are working very, very hard to do their best to address the factors,” said Conrad. “But we are not going to be able to prevent every homicide… 37 percent of those homicides happened indoors. You’re never going to prevent those sorts of homicides.”

Several times throughout the meeting, Conrad cited the example of a homicide last weekend, in which a 16-year-old allegedly chased and shot at four people, killing 18-year-old Jaylin Hobbs. Conrad said that tragic incident resulted from years of compounded systemic factors that the city must continue to address in order to truly reduce violent crimes.

“There were 16 years of intervention opportunities to change the course of that young man’s life,” said Conrad. “That happens all the time. This is the reason that we need to quit talking and focusing on what the police can do, and start talking about what we as a community can do. And that requires getting everyone involved, including the work of the Office of Safe & Healthy Neighborhoods.”

Conrad also defended the reorganization of the department, which established a full-time SWAT unit and added narcotics officers, but also disbanded each division’s “flex platoon,” which had allowed officers to be dispatched quickly to a specific incident. Criticism of this move has been bipartisan within Metro Council, but both Conrad and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer have stated it needs time to show results.

“I think we’re getting good use of our personnel, as opposed to the way we were deployed before,” said Conrad. “I did not see great value in the way the flex units were being used. I feel we’ve seen significant value since the reorganization.”

As both he and Fischer have reiterated over the past year as homicides rise in Louisville, Conrad said this is part of a national trend that is affecting most big cities.

“Sixty-four percent of the major cities in America have all experienced an increase in homicides,” said Conrad. “53 percent of them have seen an increase in overall violent crime. This isn’t just happening in Louisville, it’s happening across the country.”

Asked by Councilman David James, D-6, if he has reached out to officials in the 35 percent of cities that have managed to contain their homicide rates to find out what they’re doing right, Conrad said LMPD has done so but has not been able to identify any strategies that are different from what LMPD has tried.

In her questioning of Conrad, Councilwoman Angela Leet, R-7, said that even though total incidents of violent crimes had remained relatively constant this year, if the city is comparing itself to the record totals of last year, “that’s a darned shame, because we’re saying that’s the new standard and that’s OK.”

Leet — who recently called for Chief Conrad to resign — repeated that point after the meeting, saying “iIf we’re basing our success on having two less murders than last year, which was a record year, we’re not even following the right compass.” She also noted that the main objective and impetus of the reorganization was to reduce violent crime, which suggests this has been a failure so far.

After the meeting, Conrad disagreed that the reorganization was primarily about reducing homicides, saying “that’s not the only measure of success. But it is frustrating to me that we’ve not been able to address it. We’re going to continue to work in that area, but our ability to truly impact homicide is limited.”

Property crime stats and responsibility

Councilman Brent Ackerson, D-26, took issue with Conrad’s assertion that crime is down, citing statistics from his district that show both violent and property crimes up.

“To make the assertion that somehow crime is going down in this city is the wrong assertion to make,” said Ackerson. “I feel like publicly, everyone here is hearing that things are down, you should feel good and you should feel warm and fuzzy… That’s not the case.”

Councilman Brent Ackerson, D-26

Responding to Ackerson, Conrad said that just as it is unrealistic to expect the police to prevent a homicide, so too is the expectation that LMPD can reduce property crime, as “thefts for the most part sort of require people to do a better job of keeping up with their property.” Conrad said people should keep their car doors locked, not leave property unattended and participate in neighborhood watches if they want to stop burglaries and thefts.

Ackerson took issue with that explanation, saying “it sounds like you’re shifting the onus over onto residents, that they should now become the police officers of neighborhoods… You can’t say that’s their fault. So now we’re going to blame the neighbor of the neighbor who wasn’t looking out their window the entire time? Or somebody down the street who didn’t look out their window and notice a car they didn’t recognize? That’s ridiculous to say that.”

Conrad replied: “I’m not shifting blame, I’m assigning shared responsibility. We all have a responsibility to watch out for one another. We have a responsibility to report crime.”

That explanation did not assure Councilwoman Jessica Green, D-1, who said it sounded like “horrible messaging” that left the impression that “you’re on your own… so you’re pretty much screwed and S.O.L.” Conrad apologized for any miscommunication, noting that shared responsibility “doesn’t mean that the police don’t have a responsibility.”

Conrad asked Fischer for 50 extra officers, got 16 in budget

Councilman Ackerson, who recently called for up to 100 additional police officers from current staffing levels, repeatedly pressed Conrad on how many more officers he thinks the department needs. Noting that Fischer’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year adds a net 16 officers after accounting for attrition, Ackerson asked if Conrad had requested more, to which he answered affirmatively.

“I asked for 50, I got 16,” said Conrad, who added that he also received a “continuing commitment” from Fischer to increase that number in future years, as well as eight civilian employees next year to help with crime scene investigations.

“I appreciate your candor,” replied Ackerson.

Asked by Leet how he would have deployed the extra 34 officers he “needed,” Conrad replied: “I didn’t say I needed 50, I said I asked for 50. That was an ask, it was a wish list… I was given 16, I’m happy with the 16 I got. There’s a commitment in that direction.”

Conrad: Incarcerate the dangerous, help the addicted

Councilwoman Barbara Sexton-Smith asked Conrad if the city needed a larger jail, as Metro Corrections has been at full capacity for the past year. Conrad noted that the state needs to take more of its own prisoners to their own state facilities, but also added that local space should be reserved for dangerous and violent criminals, not those nonviolent offenders who are addicted to drugs — a segment of the local prisoner population that is rapidly expanding.

“We need to have room in that jail for people that are truly dangerous, people that we are truly afraid of, as opposed to someone who’s suffering from the sickness of addiction,” said Conrad. “Quite frankly, unless that person has also broken into your house or robbed you to get the money to do that, that person is sick. And I believe that they can be helped, and I don’t know that jail is necessarily that help.”

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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]