The Louisville Metro Police Department in Kentucky is facing at least three lawsuits alleging that police used the pretext of a traffic stop to pull over African American drivers and conduct “racially biased” unconstitutional searches and seizures, according to the suits.
The traffic stops were part of a department program intended to reduce violent crime but resulted in police officers targeting African Americans in specific neighborhoods, according to two of the suits.
The lawsuits say that police Chief Steve Conrad does not have policies or training in place to protect people of color from discriminatory actions by his officers.
“Louisville has a crisis right now, and I don’t think it’s the officers’ fault,” said Sam Aguiar, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in two of the cases, who pointed to understaffing, overwork and high turnover in the department. “I think it comes from up top.”
The Louisville Police Department told CNN it does not comment on pending litigation and did not respond when asked for copies of police reports, body cameras and other footage from the incidents. The police union representing the department, River City FOP, did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.
’A type of unit that works a little bit different’
In August 2018, an African-American family returning from church was pulled over by police, according to court documents.
Anthony Parker was driving his fiancée Demetria Firman’s vehicle when the car was boxed in by multiple police vehicles, the suit says. Parker’s then 9-year-old son was in the backseat. Police said they pulled the family over because Parker failed to use his left turn signal, but body cameras worn by police showed he did, according to court documents.
According to the lawsuit, Officer Kevin Crawford twice asked Parker if there were any drugs or weapons in the car. At one point, Crawford allegedly reaches into the vehicle and opens the door with the inside door handle.
Crawford then removes Parker’s phone from his lap before he removes Parker from the vehicle and frisks him, according to the lawsuit.
While this is happening, Firman is told to exit her vehicle by Officer Josh Doerr, who frisks her. According to the lawsuit, she asks him if something is wrong and he responds, “This is how we get conduct (sic) all our stops. It’s a type of unit that works a little bit different than a traditional one.”
Crawford removes Parker’s son from the car before officers begin searching the vehicle. Firman’s car and purse were “torn apart without consent,” the suit said. Police found nothing.
The lawsuit alleges Parker and Firman’s Fourth and 14th Amendment rights were violated by the chief and the head of the Ninth Mobile Division, which pulled the family over.
The suit says that the chief is responsible for the policies and customs of the department – like the “People, Places and Narcotics” initiative, the “Violent Crimes” initiative and the “Traffic Stop” policy – that led to the stop. But Aguiar said everyone involved should be held accountable.
“It’s blatant injustice. Step one is getting some sort of reform, which has taken place, but step two is actually getting justice for these individuals and holding these officers, the ninth mobile division especially, accountable,” Aguair said, adding that the department’s new traffic stop policy went into effect in August 2019.
Those changes, announced by Conrad in a May YouTube video, included specifying that officers’ interactions must be conducted without bias, and that a driver being nervous in an area with high crime is not justification for officers to act.
Doerr didn’t reply to CNN’s request for comment. CNN was unable to reach Crawford.
Searched while getting a slushie
Another lawsuit was filed in June after a teen was stopped August 9, 2018 – three days before the incident with Parker and Firman – and had his car searched because police said a drug dog had alerted for drugs during an initial search, according to the suit.
Tae-Ahn Lea, 18, was getting a slushie at a gas station and noticed that police were watching him. After leaving the station in his mom’s “fairly new vehicle” and making a right turn at a light, he was pulled over by police for making a “wide” turn and searched without his consent, according to the lawsuit. He was also patted down and handcuffed as K9 officers were let into his vehicle in an attempt to find drugs, the suit alleges.
In a similar fashion to the stop described in the other lawsuit, Officer Crawford takes Lea’s phone from his lap before physically removing him from the car without explanation.
Lea told Crawford and the other officers on multiple occasions that he did not consent to a pat down or to his vehicle being searched, according to the lawsuit.
After an officer claimed that the drug dog received a “hit,” Lea was placed in handcuffs for approximately 20 minutes while the search of his vehicle was completed, despite his objection, the lawsuit alleges.
“He was just a teenager, and he was homecoming king of his high school,” Aguair said. “He was working a full-time job already.”
Nothing was found in the vehicle during the extensive search, and the teen was issued a ticket for a wide turn which was later dismissed.
Lea is also seeking damages for being deprived of his Fourth and 14th Amendment rights, the lawsuit said.
CNN has not been able to reach Crawford.
Deprived of his constitutional rights and humiliated, lawsuit says
A month after the other two incidents, a man and his primary caregiver were pulled over and forced out of the vehicle by officers, according to a federal lawsuit filed September 17. They were told to take their shoes off while they stood on “dirty asphalt” and watched a K9 officer and police search the vehicle, trunk and items within it.
The plaintiff in that case, Tyrone Daugherty, was given two citations for an obstructed windshield and for failing to signal following the search.
Daugherty is suing for damages after being deprived of his constitutional rights and humiliated, the lawsuit said. Daugherty pleaded guilty to the citations, but they were dismissed without trial.
The Louisville Metro Police “are targeting African American drivers even if they have never committed a crime. And it’s based on their race,” Shaun Wimberly, the attorney for Tyrone Daugherty said to CNN.
“It’s not just one officer, this was a practice and a custom of the police department,” Wimberly said.
“The constitutional rights of our citizens and our people need to be upheld at all costs, or our community will lose trust of our legal system,” Wimberly said.
CNN’s Carma Hassan and Patrick Cornell contributed to this report