LMPD :: Louisville Metro Police Department
Louisville Metro Police Department - Louisville, Kentucky

Chief Steve Conrad shakes up Louisville police leadership, dismisses council's criticism

Courier~Journal - Louisville, Kentucky
Phillip M. Bailey - Courier~Journal
Chief Steve Conrad shakes up Louisville police leadership, dismisses council's criticism

Police Chief Steve Conrad announced Thursday a major shakeup of the Louisville Metro Police Department command structure, putting different leaders atop eight of the force's 16 divisions, and brushed off a call for his resignation by more than half of the Metro Council.

The council and Conrad have jousted in recent months over his response to a sharp increase in shootings and murders across the city, including the death Sunday of a 7-year-old boy killed by a bullet that struck him while he sat at his family's kitchen table. The falling out also comes amid allegations of sexual abuse in the department's Youth Explorer program.

Conrad ousted three commanders: Majs. Raymond "Jimmy" Harper, Second Division; Thomas Dreher, Eighth; and Curtis Flaherty, Community Services. Flaherty is among the defendants in a lawsuit alleging that the department covered up the sex-abuse allegations in the Youth Explorer program. Flaherty has denied any wrongdoing involving the case.

After hearing about the moves, 15 members of the 26-seat council came together at a bipartisan press conference, saying they were appalled by Conrad's decision to replace several division commanders.

"Our community needs someone in this role of authority to clean up the mess that has enthroned this administration," said Councilman David James, a former police officer.

James said he would file a resolution seeking a no-confidence vote on Conrad.

But the chief, who serves at the pleasure of Mayor Greg Fischer, dismissed the criticism from the council during an impromptu press conference of his own late Thursday afternoon.

"I work for the mayor and I am not concerned about anything beyond making sure I meet the needs of the mayor," Conrad said.

Fischer gave Conrad his unequivocal support in a statement and urged the public to support the chief, too.

"I trust that Chief Conrad, like the leader of every department in my administration, uses their experience and data to adjust their leadership teams when needed and when opportunities arise to meet our city's goals and challenges," he said.

James, D-6th District, speaking at an afternoon press conference along with a bipartisan majority of the council, hinted that the council could use Fischer's budget proposal as a negotiating tactic to force Conrad out.

"We've given this chief every nickel he's asked for" to combat the city's rise in violence, said Councilman Robin Engel, chairman of the council's Republican caucus.

"We're done," James said.

In a letter Thursday to council members, Conrad announced he was promoting Kimberly Burbrink, Joshua Judah and Jamey Schwab from lieutenant to major. Burbrink will lead the Seventh Division; Judah, the Fourth; and Schwab, the Eighth.

His other new command assigments are: Eric Johnson, First Division; Ryan Bates, Second; Michael Bogan, Sixth; Andrea Brown, Community Services; and Tandeta Hettich, Administrative Services.

The ouster of Harper drew particular attention from council members, who praised him as an invaluable veteran of the police force.

Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton said neighborhood leaders in the West End were shocked and dismayed at Harper's demotion. She said he grew up in the area and knows the good from the bad.

Speaking to the chief directly during the council members' press conference, Hamilton, D-5th, said: "I have no confidence that you know what you're doing and that you know how to accomplish what needs to happen in this department and this city."

Sgt. Dave Mutchler, president of the police union and an outspoken critic of Conrad's, said in a statement that the chief's decision to remove Harper shows the chief is "completely out of touch" with the union and community.

"Removing Harper is creating chaos in an already unstable department in the middle of a manpower, homicide and overdose crisis," he said. "Members assigned to the 2nd Division, the division probably most affected by violent crime and homicide, have a leader they willingly and without hesitation would follow anywhere."

Three City Hall officials said they were informed by a police commander that the majors were offered the choice to either accept a demotion to lieutenant or retire.

At his press conference, Conrad initially denied that he delivered ultimatums to Harper or the other majors. But he went on to say that he had informed the majors that he was going in a new direction that would result in their demotion if they remained with the department.

"Who I pick to be a member of my staff is my decision, whether or not they stay on this staff is my decision," Conrad said. He also said he wanted "fresh eyes" in those positions.

Conrad said his changes are routine and that he should not be expected to consult with Metro Council on personnel changes. He said more high-profile retirements are anticipated as veteran commanders fear possible changes to the state's pension system.

"I'm using this as an opportunity to get the right people in the right places in this organization at the right time," Conrad said.

Several council members dismissed Conrad's explanation for the changes, however, as one motivated by a personal and political agenda.

They cited the chief's recent presentation to the council's Public Safety Committee where he boasted that overall crime was down 3 percent despite a continued uptick in homicides.

"If things are going so great, why would Chief Conrad be forcing people into retirement," said Councilwoman Angela Leet, R-7th, who was the first member to publicly demand Conrad step down.

"The evidence of failed leadership is obvious on a daily basis," she said. "We are failing at creating safe places to live and we are failing at supporting our families. There is nothing hopeful about failure."

The criticism from the council isn't unanimous. Councilman Dan Johnson, D-21st, told the Courier-Journal simply, "I support the chief."

Freshman Councilman Brandon Coan, a Democrat and former Fischer aide who represents the 8th District, said he was reserving any judgment about the chief's future but added he would take into consideration Thursday's actions.

"I don't think it's fair to blame the chief for some of the larger drug and violence issues that are clearly happening not only in Louisville, but everywhere," Coan said.

The early years of Conrad's leadership saw a reduction in violent crime, but that changed in 2015 as the number of homicides and shootings rose. In 2016, the city experienced its most bloodshed since at least 1960, with 118 homicides investigated by Louisville Metro Police. There were 124 murders across the city in total, and more than 400 people were shot.

In December, about 600 members of the union cast a symbolic no-confidence vote in Conrad. That came after the chief disbanded division-level flex platoons - plainclothes officers dispatched by division commanders to address crime complaints. The units were popular with officers, residents and council members.

That move was part of the chief's reorganization of the Narcotics Division in early fall 2016. The reorganization included the creation of a full-time SWAT team and the Community Policing Unit.

Conrad said Thursday afternoon that council members' plan to hold their own no-confidence vote won't deter him.

"I'm not going anywhere," he said.