LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – A Louisville police officer's actions in a widely condemned 2018 traffic stop of a Black teenager were "concerning" and "problematic," the city's former police chief said.
Steve Conrad also said he didn’t think about whether the teen, Tae-Ahn Lea, was treated differently by officers because he was a young Black male pulled over in the West End.
"I don’t know that I necessarily considered that," Conrad told attorney Sam Aguiar in sworn testimony taken as part of Lea’s civil suit against the city and the Louisville Metro Police Department, according to a copy of the deposition obtained by WDRB News.
But Conrad said he would not have been wanted to be treated as Lea was during the stop, which went viral after officer-worn body camera video was posted online.
Those previously unreported statements shed light on Conrad's view of the stop of Lea, who was pulled over for allegedly making a wide turn, forced from his car and handcuffed for about 20 minutes while police and a K-9 searched his vehicle.
No drugs were found.
Conrad, who was fired as the Louisville Metro Police Department's chief last year, also acknowledged during the Feb. 18 deposition that officers too often used minor traffic violations to search for drugs.
The former chief noted that officers had no indication Lea had drugs or weapons on him when he was pulled over on Aug. 9, 2018. However, he largely defended "pretextual" traffic stops by officers, meaning pulling drivers over for minor infractions to ask questions and look for more potential serious crimes.
The Lea investigation took nearly two years to be completed. Conrad said he did not have an issue with how long it took and didn’t find fault with officers who handcuffed Lea and openly criticized him and his mother at the scene.
Asked again if he ever thought about whether young Black males in the city's western neighborhoods were treated differently than white males in eastern Louisville, Conrad responded that he had never "pondered that."
"Our obligation is to treat people with dignity and respect and follow policy ... and that should happen no matter where you're at," Conrad said.
The former chief said he never looked at police traffic data to see if Black males were stopped and searched more often than white drivers by the Ninth Mobile Division, the heavily scrutinized unit formed in 2015 to reduce violence and focus on getting guns and drugs off the street.
Several lawsuits over alleged improper traffic stops and racism are currently pending against officers in the Ninth Mobile Division.
Conrad also said he didn’t have a problem with an officer handcuffing Lea, who was stopped on 18th Street and Algonquin Parkway.
Lea, a past homecoming king at Central High School with no criminal record, was released with a citation that was later dismissed in court.
While the incident sparked calls for police accountability and helped change LMPD traffic stop policies, the internal investigation languished for months, and no disciplinary action was taken against any officer involved.
Police did not try to interview the lead officer, former Detective Kevin Crawford, until after he had resigned nearly a year after the traffic stop and would no longer cooperate, according to the 285-page investigative file obtained by WDRB News.
"I wish that Officer Crawford had behaved differently," Conrad said in his testimony.
Police did not investigate the actions of Detective Gabe Hellard, who handcuffed Lea, called in the K-9 unit and accused the teen and his mother of having an "attitude" during the encounter. Hellard also said he handcuffed Lea, in part, to "calm him down."
Conrad said in his deposition that Lea was handcuffed because the K-9 had a positive indication on the vehicle, and he didn’t have a problem with it.
"My recollection of the video is Mr. Lea wasn’t handcuffed until after the dog had indicated there was drugs in the car," Conrad said. "I realize there were no drugs found, but that was what the dog had indicated. At that point I believe there was reasonable suspicion to believe that there was narcotics in that car based on the indication of the dog. … I don’t know that I would have done it, but it wasn’t unreasonable."
Asked why he didn’t open an investigation into Hellard’s actions, Conrad said, "based on what I saw in the video, my concerns, as I’ve indicated before, were with Crawford’s actions."
Aguiar also asked Conrad why he didn’t order investigators to look into the actions of the K-9 officer, Detective Jeffrey McCauley, who said at the scene that Lea’s mother, who took video of the stop, would "make stuff up" and "spill that over the internet. She’ll get a thousand likes. It’s a disease."
Conrad responded: "I don’t know Officer McCauley from Officer Hellard. I don’t know who those officers are."
But Conrad said he watched body cam videos of the stop and remembered the statements, telling Aguiar he did not consider them biased.
In addition, Conrad defended police using traffic stops as a pretext for further investigations, saying they are a "tool" officers have to "try and address" crimes "that have nothing to do with traffic laws."
Numerous studies have shown minorities are unevenly targeted in these kinds of stops.
Asked if officers don’t need "reasonable suspicion" a crime has been committed before using a minor traffic violation to pull someone over, Conrad said "not necessarily."
"The traffic violation in and of itself provides justification" for the stop, he said.
The former chief did say that when he decided to make changes in the department’s traffic policies, in part because of the Lea stop among others, he learned that officers were only finding guns or drugs in one out of every 10 stops.
"Is it fair to say that, you know, when you got a chance to look at the information, that traffic stops were overused?" Aguiar asked.
"Yes, sir, I believe that is accurate," Conrad responded.
Conrad launched the initial investigation of the Lea stop on Feb. 18, 2019, ordering investigators to find out why the teen was removed from his vehicle and frisked and look into the duration of the stop.
But he said he never reviewed the interviews in the internal investigation because it was still ongoing when he was fired on June 1, 2020, after Mayor Greg Fischer learned officers did not have their body cameras turned on during the fatal shooting of David McAtee.
In his deposition, Conrad said Crawford pulling Lea out of his vehicle was "concerning" and that Crawford searching the teen without permission was "problematic."
But Crawford took a job with another police department in June 2019, before he was interviewed.
Investigators notified Crawford through memos in February and March 2019 that he must answer questions under the city’s contract with the police union.
Sgt. Tiffany Tatum did not try to interview Crawford until June 12, nine days after he resigned, according to a timeline of the investigation. He did not respond to voicemail and text messages, records show.
On July 26, 2019, Tatum wrote to a commander that the case was being "cleared by exception" because Crawford had resigned a month earlier to take a job with the Jeffersonville Police Department.
Tatum wrote that Crawford resigned "before this investigator was able to interview" him for the case.
She also said attempts to interview Lea and his mother were unsuccessful.
It then appears the case sat for six months until Jan. 17, 2020, when Maj. Jamey Schwab, special investigations commander, recommended to Conrad that the case be closed because Crawford had resigned and "was unable to be interviewed regarding policy violations related to this incident," according to a letter in the file.
But in February 2020, eight months after the investigation had initially been completed, Conrad ordered it reopened so investigators could go back and ask specific questions.
In his deposition, Conrad repeatedly said he didn’t remember why he re-opened the case.
He also did not agree that internal investigations dragged on too long during his tenure.
"I know that there were a significant number of investigations; there was a finite number of investigators," Conrad said. "I think everyone wanted to see those case resolved more quickly that what they were. … But the cases can only move as fast as they can move based on the workload."
The findings from the follow-up investigation did not change the result of the Lea complaint being dismissed because Crawford resigned before he could be interviewed.
This conclusion was sent to the department’s legal advisor and then-interim chief Robert Schroeder in June 2020, but the investigation again stalled until October.
During this time, the department was in the national spotlight, engulfed in daily protests surrounding the March 13, 2020, fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor and the June 1 death of David McAtee, who was shot and killed by the state National Guard during a joint operation with LMPD.
In mid-October, about two weeks after Yvette Gentry took over as interim chief, a note next to her signature in the file pointed out that Crawford had resigned in 2019 and asked if "we should close case and notify state as well as check no-rehire alone or if this is to be retroactive as a reform."
As part of the $12 million settlement of a lawsuit filed on behalf of Taylor, the city agreed to stop the practice of closing internal investigations when an officers resigns, which has for years allowed officers to join other departments without any findings on alleged wrongdoing.
On Nov. 6, Gentry officially closed the case, concluding that based on the available information "it appears the finding would have been 'Not Sustained that'" anyway, meaning police did not find enough evidence to prove Crawford had violated any policies in place at the time.
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