LOUISVILLE, Ky., (WDRB) – The Louisville Metro Police Department is investigating an audio recording purported to be of a 2015 traffic stop in which a white officer repeatedly curses three black men and calls them “f---ing monkeys.”

The audio was recorded on a cell phone by one of the men, Marcel Williams Jr., after he and two others were approached by officers near the Big Four Bridge on March 21, 2015. WDRB News obtained it last month and played it for police officials on Tuesday.

“This absolutely deserves a formal investigation,” Deputy Chief of Police Michael Sullivan said after listening to the audio. “Everybody will have feelings about this (but) we need to find out the full facts before we pass any sort of judgment and make any decision on what has actually occurred in this situation.”

Williams, a substitute teacher, said he, his cousin and a friend were recording themselves rapping when an officer approached his vehicle, opened the door and “smacked” him, believing Williams had put drugs in his mouth.  They were all charged with possession of marijuana. Williams was also cited for misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance.

WDRB is not naming the two officers listed on the citations because it is unclear whether they are the only officers who responded. Williams also did not know the name of the officer who made the offensive remarks, but said he was white.

The phone was still recording and captured the interaction, according to Williams.

“What did you just put in your mouth?” an officer is heard saying on the recording. “Open your mouth.”

“I don’t have anything in there,” said Williams, his voice muffled.

Williams said the officer dug his fingers into his mouth at the time. Williams denied putting any drugs in his mouth.

“Stupid mother f---er,” the officer is heard saying, according to the audio.

“Dang sir,” Williams said.

“Yeah, ‘dang,’ I saw what you did,” the officer responds. “Over what? Some weed, is that what is was? Or the pills right there? You didn’t get them all, you stupid f---”

Williams said he had legal prescription pain pills after suffering a spinal cord injury playing football for Central High School in 2004.

“Put your hands on the ceiling, every one of you,” the officer said.

“Yes, sir,” Williams responded.

 In an interview with WDRB this week, Williams said the officers pulled their weapons.

“Let’s see what the f--- did you just put down in there,” the officer said. He does not identify himself at any point during the audio, which played for 45 seconds before the interaction and then in silence for several minutes after the men were handcuffed and sat on a curb.

“You f---ing monkeys, you know?” the officer said, according to the audio.

Williams said in an interview that the actions of the officer were upsetting, but that he didn’t initially think too much about it until he later learned he had recorded the incident and played it for friends, family and his defense attorney.

“He said ‘monkey’ like that meant something to him, like old times back in the 40s and 50s, like, ‘I’m insulting you and I want you to know it,’” Williams said. “Kind of made me feel just small, real low.”

One of the officers listed on the citation did not return a phone message seeking comment.

In a brief telephone interview, the other officer said he reviewed the case after WDRB asked police in an open records request whether there was any body camera or dash cam video of the incident.

“There is no video or audio (of the incident) because we were on an ATV,” he said.

When told that Williams was recording on his phone, the officer said, “Ok, well, I can’t tell you anything about it because we are not allowed to talk to the media. Have a good day, sir.”

"Felt my life was in danger"

Initially, Williams said he had no interest in bringing the audio to light.

He said he is a substitute teacher in Indiana who works with kids with disabilities and just wanted the criminal case to go away as quickly as possible.

“Me being a black male, stuff like that, it seems kind of regular,” he said. “When it first happened, I was just frustrated about it, mad. I wasn’t really feeling like I needed to take a stand.”

Williams said he told his defense attorney, Sarah Clay, about the audio and she informed prosecutors. Clay declined to comment on the case.

The police citation said the men were smoking marijuana when officers approached and Williams attempted to put 1-1/2 Xanax pills” in his mouth. The pills fell on the floor of the vehicle and officers found a “large” bag of marijuana, according to the citation.

Thomas Stigall and Terrell Harris both pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana and paid a fine. Stigall, 21, acknowledged he had marijuana on him but said the actions by the officer – smacking and cursing Williams - were out of line.

“We got called monkeys,” he said in a phone interview. “They treated us like we wasn’t nothing. … I felt my life was in danger.”

Harris could not be reached for comment.

Williams denied he put anything in his mouth or that he was smoking marijuana. He said the pills police found were pain medicine, for which he had a prescription.

Williams’ criminal case was delayed as his defense attorney attempted to get body camera video of the incident, according to court records.

In response to an open records request, police told WDRB in April that neither body cam nor dash cam video of the stop existed.

“The arresting officers are bike officers who ride a variety of apparatuses, none of which are equipped with dash cams,” police spokeswoman Alicia Smiley said in an email. LMPD officers were not equipped with body cameras until months later, she said.

Eventually, the charges from the March 21, 2015 case were dismissed and merged with another misdemeanor case in which Williams was found to have four hydrocodone pills not in the proper container after being stopped for speeding. He pleaded guilty to that charge and paid a fine.

Williams said he is on pain medication because he broke his neck when he was a 16-year-old football player for Central High School in 2004. He was paralyzed when he tried to tackle a runner headfirst, according to news reports.

Doctors said Williams broke two vertebrae in his neck, injuring his spinal cord. He was initially paralyzed from the neck down.

After rehabilitation, he is able to walk, though he staggers a bit. Williams, who has two young children, said he graduated from Spalding University in 2014. He said he is now working towards getting a Master’s degree.

Williams said he decided to come forward with the audio recording after talking with friends and family, feeling he has a responsibility to shed light on what happened.

“Everything they were doing was not protocol,” he said. “Just totally unnecessary. It was not called for.”

Investigation launched

On Tuesday, WDRB played the audio for Sullivan, the deputy police chief, and two LMPD public information officers.

Sullivan said he could not comment in detail given it was the first time he had heard the audio, that he didn’t have any “context” and he didn’t know which officers were involved.

However, he said what he heard warranted an immediate investigation that would be initiated by LMPD Chief Steve Conrad.

While not speaking about this specific incident, Sullivan said cursing is a violation of police policy.

“Courtesy is something we absolutely think is important,” he said. “That is something we expect our officers to do, is treat people with respect.”

And any type of racial slur, if proven, would be “unacceptable behavior” and a violation of the department’s bias-based policing policy.

“We don’t tolerate policing based on race,” he said.

Sullivan could not say how long the internal investigation would last. It depends, in part, on how cooperative witnesses, including Williams, are.

“We are beyond transparent on how we deal with the public,” Sullivan said. “I’m confident that when we have these issues, any issue that is brought to our attention, we will investigate it fully and address it as it needs to be addressed.”

Williams said he would give police the same account of the incident he gave to WDRB.

But he said he doesn’t know the name of the officers who approached him and may even have trouble identifying them.

“I was really in shock,” Williams said. “It was kind of like a movie. You hear of stuff happening like this, you hear about it, but until it comes to your front door …"

Asked if he feels LMPD owes him an apology, Williams said he instead hopes police will take the issue seriously and try to prevent it from happening again.

“What I want to hear is that it will never happen again, not only to me, but to others,” he said. “I’m calm, laid back, collected. I’m glad I was able to keep my composure. But I don’t feel everyone else would. I know my father, If my father had been sitting in that car, he’d be dead.”

Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville chapter of the NAACP, offered the following statement in response to this story:

It is regrettable that incidents such as the one shown continue to occur today.

It appears there will be an investigation by LMPD.  Will the officers involved be placed on modified duty or removed from street assignment while the investigation is being conducted?

I would hope that the LMPD investigation and report would:

- Reveal all police officers at the scene

- Reveal the years of service of each officer on the scene

- Reveal the amount of diversity and sensitivity training received by each officer

- Reveal what and if any policies were violated by the officers

- Reveal the disciplinary measures for violation of the policies

I would also hope LMPD would review its diversity and sensitivity training of officers to insure that it is up-to-date and punish, up to firing, the officers if they have violated policies.

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