LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The Louisville Metro Police Department did not try to interview the lead officer in a controversial 2018 traffic stop of a Black teenager until after he had resigned nearly a year later and would no longer cooperate.
A different officer involved in the stop of Tae-Ahn Lea — who was forced from his car, searched and handcuffed after allegedly making a wide turn — accused the teen and his mother of having an “attitude” during the encounter. The same officer said he handcuffed Lea to "calm him down."
And other officers were questioned only briefly about the August 2018 incident before police investigators recommended closing the case, which then lingered for 16 months before it was officially ended.
Those are among the findings from the 285-page investigative file obtained by WDRB News. The department has declined to provide the full report through an open records request, so far turning over an initiating letter, the conclusion and 22 pages of heavily redacted pages of interviews, summaries and findings.
The file sheds new light on how police viewed Lea, then 18, and his mother when she arrived at the scene near 18th Street and Algonquin Parkway on Aug. 9, 2018. The stop went viral after body camera footage was made public on YouTube.
Police have not responded to questions about the case, including why the top officer on the scene, Detective Kevin Crawford, wasn’t interviewed before he resigned to take another law enforcement job and why the investigation wasn’t ended sooner.
Attorney Sam Aguiar, who represents Lea in a lawsuit against the city and LMPD, criticized the department for allowing the investigation to remain open for nearly two years and not looking into the actions of other officers.
“It’s just a failure to do due diligence,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “The fact is LMPD has a pattern of trying to find a sacrificial lamb for these cases as opposed to going after all of the officers responsible. It needs to stop.”
‘It was so odd that he had this attitude’
A detective who handcuffed Lea for about 20 minutes and called for a K-9 unit to search his vehicle for drugs repeatedly shifted blame to the 18-year-old and his mother for any issues with the stop, the investigative file shows.
Detective Gabe Hellard told investigators that Lea was “verbally aggressive” and “had an attitude the whole time over the whole stop.”
“It all comes back to this attitude,” Hellard said in a March 8, 2019, interview, according to a transcript. “It was so odd that he had this attitude.”
And Lea talking to his mother, Tija Jackson, on the phone after he was pulled over — and her subsequent arrival at the scene — prolonged and escalated what Hellard maintained was still a “quick traffic stop.”
“It’s fine that she’s there and it’s fine that she’s recording but it just throws a whole nother, uh, factor into the whole traffic stop that’s not called for and it was unnecessary,” Hellard said, adding that Jackson also had an “attitude.”
In fact, Hellard accused Jackson of “interfering with government operations,” preventing police from doing their jobs more quickly.
The K-9 officer called to the scene, Detective Jeffrey McCauley, also said Jackson was “agitated and didn’t want to listen to what I had to say,” according to a June 17, 2019, interview with police investigators.
After video of the stop went viral, LMPD was widely criticized and scrutinized for how officers in its Ninth Mobile Division treated Lea, including questioning him about why he was nervous, breathing heavily and had such “a negative view toward the police.”
No drugs were found and Lea, a past homecoming king at Central High School with no criminal record, was released with a citation that was later dismissed in court. He has a pending lawsuit against the city and police.
While the incident sparked calls for police accountability and helped change LMPD traffic stop policies, the internal investigation languished for months at a time and no disciplinary action was taken against any officer involved.
‘Clearly trying to provoke him’
In his interview, Hellard tells investigators that Lea was “slow to stop” when police pulled him over, which the detective said is often an indication the driver is trying to conceal evidence.
But body camera video suggests otherwise: Lea quickly puts on his blinker, changes lanes and begins to pull over after Crawford turn his lights on.
In the body camera video, Lea's car is stopped 20 seconds after sirens are heard. After Lea was pulled over, Hellard said he spotted a baseball bat in between the seats and the teen was doing “something with his right hand,” according to his internal interview.
At the same time, Hellard said Lea was on his phone talking to his mother while Crawford was trying to question him.
“When people are on the phone while we’re trying to conduct a traffic stop, we’re not in a controlled environment at all,” he said.
After Crawford removed Lea from the vehicle, Hellard said the teen declined to allow officers to search him or the car and was “vague” in answering questions.
The body camera video shows Lea answering questions from officers and emphatically denying he was in possession of any drugs.
Hellard said he called for backup because Crawford was dealing with Lea’s mother at the scene. McCauley, a K-9 officer showed up because he “just so happened to be” their backup, Hellard said.
McCauley told investigators that Crawford asked him to use the K-9 to search for drugs.
After McCauley said his dog Ripley had “alerted” to the passenger door, Hellard decided to handcuff Lea.
“I did that just based on the fact that he was slow to stop and I didn’t know if he was tryin’ to conceal evidence or eat evidence or anything like that,” Hellard said.
And Hellard said he didn't want to use more force than necessary "so, you know, being able to place him into handcuffs and calm him down, and it did. It immediately calmed him down."
The investigation said the K-9 “had a positive indication” on Lea’s wallet.
Body cam video shows Lea was immediately handcuffed after the dog alerted.
Hellard also said Lea was acting nervous and clenching his fist — “it’s menacing in police terminology” — and that his breathing pattern had changed.
As for the stop taking 25 minutes, Hellard said that was “pretty average,” telling investigators a typical traffic stop takes about half an hour.
While Hellard said he doesn’t know why Crawford removed Lea from his vehicle, he said it was “common practice” by officers.
“Um, you know, getting people away from their vehicle, a vehicle is an unknown environment,” he said. “There’s often weapons and drugs and things of that nature in a car. And if you could at least get them out of the car while you’re conducting your traffic stop, it makes it that much safer for that person and you.”
In May 2019, then-Chief Steve Conrad ordered new policies for traffic stops that raise the threshold for pulling over drivers and add rules on removing people from vehicles and handcuffing citizens.
Aguiar disputed Hellard’s statements about Lea causing problems or not answering questions.
“He has the audacity to blame Tae-Ahn?” Aguiar said. “He was clearly trying to provoke him the whole time.”
Lead officer resigns before interview
Lea's mother first posted body camera video online in January 2019, and it went viral on YouTube a few weeks later and has been viewed more than 1 million times.
Conrad launched the initial investigation on Feb. 18, ordering investigators to find out why the teen was removed from his vehicle and frisked and look into the duration of the stop.
Investigators notified Crawford through memos in February and March 2019 that he must answer questions under the city’s contract with the police union.
But 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.
Police have said the investigation was delayed because Lea and his mother would not agree to be interviewed. Aguiar and co-counsel, Lonita Baker, have responded that the body camera videos were all the evidence investigators needed to find misconduct by the officers.
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 last February, eight months after the investigation had initially been completed, Conrad ordered it reopened so investigators could go back and specifically ask four questions:
- Do you know why Crawford removed Lea (from the vehicle?)
- Do you know why Crawford frisked Lea?
- Do you know if the traffic stop was prolonged?
- If so, why?
Four of the five officers involved were “re-interviewed,” according to a May 5, 2020, memo sent to a special investigations commander.
Those interviews lasted only a few minutes, with all the officers saying they didn’t know why Lea was pulled from his vehicle. One officer said the stop was prolonged because of the actions of Lea and his mother.
The findings from the follow-up investigation “have not changed,” Lt. Jeff Artman wrote in the memo, which again noted that Crawford resigned “prior” to being interviewed and recommended the case be closed.
This conclusion was sent to the department’s legal advisor and then-interim chief 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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