LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – In wide-ranging testimony days before his scheduled retirement, Louisville’s interim police chief told Louisville Metro Council members on Monday that officers’ response to civil unrest has been “the best we could under the challenging circumstances.”
Robert Schroeder, who replaced former Chief Steve Conrad in June, said police have worked long hours and learned lessons during the protests that have occurred in response to the death of Breonna Taylor, whom police shot and killed during an undercover raid of her apartment in March.
The testimony offered a window into the relationship between the Fischer administration and the police department in the months since demonstrations began in late May, including decision making and the mayor's office's role in on-the-ground decisions.
In one instance this month, Schroeder said, Mayor Greg Fischer himself questioned whether police had “doctored” video it released of protesters overturning a restaurant's tables on Fourth Street.
“I told him, ‘Of course not,’” Schroeder said during a meeting of the Council’s Government Oversight and Audit Committee.
“And he replied to me that he was having difficulty trusting the police at that point,” the chief said.
Time and again, Council members pressed Schroeder for details that would shed light on how police handled protests, the Fischer administration’s influence over the department and officers’ actions in the fatal shooting of Taylor and David McAtee, who was killed by a National Guardsman in June.
On the evening of May 28, seven people were shot when a crowd gathered near Metro Hall. The following night, protest quickly turned to riot, which resulted in destruction and looting throughout much of downtown.
Schroeder agreed with previous testimony from a member of his command staff that a so-called "stand-down order" did not cause the more limited LMPD response to rioting that day. Instead, he said the department was unprepared for what it faced that night, when rioters split up into small groups to do damage to a variety of areas, including Fourth Street Live.
"We were simply overwhelmed, and I recall walking away that day with the worst feeling I've ever had on this police department that we had just lost the city, and it was a crushing day for me," he testified.
A member of Schroeder's command staff has described June 15 as a "day of infamy" on which he said rioters, some of whom were throwing bricks and surrounding traffic, blocked the entrance to Interstate 64 on Ninth Street in the afternoon rush hour.
Officers originally were told by Schroeder to stand-down, one testified on Sept. 16.
Schroeder acknowledged that the response hasn't always been perfect but said he, the mayor's administration and the department have learned and evolved since then.
"If you're looking for perfection, you must look somewhere else. We did the best we could under these challenging circumstances, and sometimes our decisions fell short," Schroeder said.
The chief said the city's protest response has come to rely on restraint and de-escalation.
"You'll probably hear me and all of our folks say it many times: Is the juice worth the squeeze?" he said. "Is whatever the behavior is going on at that point in time worth the squeeze of taking action against it?”
Schroeder repeatedly avoided specific answers to high-profile questions, citing ongoing investigations such as the Kentucky State Police-led probe into McAtee’s death, and other internal Louisville Metro Police Department investigations into officers’ conduct.
He declined to say if anyone asked him to fire Brett Hankison, the former police detective whom a Jefferson County grand jury indicted last week on wanton endangerment charges for firing into an apartment near Taylor’s.
He declined to say whether the department’s SWAT team had been told about the warrant for Taylor’s apartment, which was served by the Criminal Interdiction Unit. A SWAT commander told police investigators that, in a departure from usual practice, he wasn’t informed on the raid on Taylor’s Springfield Drive unit.
Schroeder also declined to discuss “any background information” on the lone witness in Taylor’s apartment complex who claimed to have heard police announce their presence before using a battering ram to enter. That witness, according to Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s investigation, corroborated officers’ statements that they knocked and identified themselves; other neighbors have different accounts.
Schroeder acknowledged that there is some body camera footage from officers during the fatal June 1 shooting of McAtee but, after pausing to speak to his attorney, declined to elaborate. Fischer claimed he fired Conrad after learning there was no body camera footage of the shooting.
Schroeder also said that LMPD's Thursday night arrest of state Rep. Attica Scott was "under review" by the county attorney, like all the other arrests from that night.
LMPD has accused Scott, a Louisville Democrat, of being "part of a large group" near the main branch of the Louisville Free Public Library that was ordered to disperse "and failed to do so." Her arrest report lists charges of unlawful assembly, failure to disperse and first-degree rioting, a Class D felony. Scott has called her arrest "ridiculous."
Schroeder also acknowledged that some LMPD officers considered a search warrant to enter the nearby First Unitarian Church two nights later, when the department believed arson suspects might be hiding inside among the other protesters who sought refuge there.
"That is a conversation (Chief of Public Safety Amy Hess) and I and some other members of the staff had with a member of the county attorney and determined that was not an appropriate course of action," he said.
Committee members also questioned Schroeder about his handling of two strongly-worded emails from LMPD officers, both of which recently became public. Maj. Bridget Hallahan, of Louisville's 5th Division, was relieved of her command position and allowed to retire after controversial emails from her personal account surfaced. Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly, who led the March 13 raid into Breonna Taylor’s apartment, also wrote a controversial email critical of the mayor's leadership.
Schroeder said firing Hallahan would have required an investigation. He also said taking any disciplinary action against Mattingly for his email would require the same thing.
"I am aware of (Mattingly's) e-mail," Schroeder said. "I have not had time to take any action on that e-mail. We've been dealing with the events of the post-attorney general's decision. That is something that would require an investigation, so that is something that either I or — if it occurs after I leave — Chief (Yvette) Gentry would need to address."
Schroeder, who had fought the Council’s subpoenas in court, relented and agreed to answer questions at the meeting of the Council’s committee only after the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled against him Monday morning.
In testimony spanning about four hours, Schroeder said at times he has been “micromanaged” by Fischer’s staff. In one example, he said, the mayor’s office asked to review email updates sent to officers, a move Schroeder said was meant to improve the department’s communication.
Schroeder said the Professional Standards Unit, which looks into whether officers followed procedures, is conducting 20 protest-related investigations, while the Public Integrity Unit, which assesses possible criminal violations by police, is conducting five protest-related investigations.
Schroeder is set to retire Thursday. Fischer has named former LMPD Deputy Chief Gentry as the next interim chief as the search for a permanent chief continues.
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