LMPD :: Louisville Metro Police Department

Mayor's support for police chief after morale comments 'unbelievable,' council members say


Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad has weathered a slew of controversies: a sex abuse scandal involving officers, a historic spike in homicides, two no-confidence votes.

His latest, centered on comments saying officer morale wasn't his job, has opponents looking to the mayor's office for action - but skeptical this will be what pushes Mayor Greg Fischer to fire the chief.

"The mayor does nothing but defend him and defend him and defend," said Councilman James Peden, R-23rd District, who was one of 13 Louisville Metro Council members to vote in 2017 against Conrad's ability to lead the department. "I think (the remarks) should have an impact on his tenure, but I don't think it will because the mayor has come out and said that 'I still love him.'"

Conrad's supporters, meanwhile, are urging people to refocus on the pension, revenue and staffing issues confronting the department, not be distracted by the chief's latest comments.

The uproar began Wednesday when the chief was asked in a meeting of Louisville Metro Council's public safety committee whether he felt responsibility for the morale of his officers.

Twice, he said no.

"I am saying morale is set by each person individually," he responded. "... Every commanding officer in this department has a responsibility for morale, but at the end of the day, everyone is responsible for their own morale."

Conrad has since apologized for his remarks, saying officers "deserve better." Fischer put out a statement that night supporting the chief.

In a statement defending Conrad, Fischer said Wednesday that "there is no stronger supporter of our men and women in blue than Chief Conrad."

"He always does what he thinks is best for officers and the community," Fischer said.

The mayor's office and police department did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday afternoon.

Some council members and others, however, are questioning how the mayor could continue to back a chief who claims no responsibility for department morale.

"He literally said he has no responsibility for the morale of his officers," Councilman David James, D-6th, said Thursday. "Any leadership training class, seminar, they tell you the opposite. He's told us that he's not going to be a good leader. It's up to the mayor to decide what he's going to do about that."

Councilman Anthony Piagentini, R-19th, too, said he was looking to the mayor: "The mayor has vocalized his support for an LMPD chief who said morale is not his problem. It's unbelievable that a mayor would do that."

But it wouldn't be the first time that Fischer stood by Conrad in the face of criticism.

The council, following in the footsteps of the police union, passed a bipartisan no-confidence resolution on Conrad in 2017 that knocked the chief on a series of issues: his reorganization of the department that disbanded division-level flex platoons; low morale among rank-and-file officers; and his response to a scandal in which officers were accused of sexually abusing Scouts in the department's Youth Explorer program.

The no-confidence vote also came amid an increase in homicides that topped 100 for the year in both 2016 and 2017, the first time they'd been that high in decades.

But Fischer didn't waver then, calling the effort a distraction from the real work police and residents were doing: "Our citizens expect Metro Council to work with Chief Conrad and LMPD to help improve our crime fighting plan. Instead, too many (council) members are just critics and simplistically target one person for a complex problem."

More recently, Conrad was criticized for his department's policies around traffic stops - after The Courier Journal documented a stop that caused an uproar in the community - which led him to tweak rules for officers.

His remarks Wednesday came at a meeting meant to focus on the department's staffing, which has become a concern amid budget cuts and a high rate of officer departures.

Since January, 107 sworn personnel - including officers, sergeants, lieutenants and one deputy chief - have left the department, records obtained by The Courier Journal show. Of those, six were police recruits and just one was terminated.

In August alone, 41 left the department.

With three months remaining in 2019, it's likely separations could surpass 2018's 116 personnel departures - which would continue a trend. There were 155 separations in 2017, 108 in 2016, 92 in 2015 and 74 in 2014.

Through August last year, 74 officers had left. That's roughly 30 less than through August this year.

And, as Conrad made clear in Wednesday's meeting, thanks to the loss of a recruit class in budget cuts earlier this year, there won't be a fresh batch of officers hitting the streets in early 2020 to make up for those losses.

"For the first time in many years ... we're actually going to have a sustained reduction in the number of officers," he told committee members.

The department ended June 2019 with 1,261 sworn officers. It now expects to end June 2020 with 1,189 sworn officers, a drop of 72. Originally, Conrad had projected 59 fewer.

Councilman Bill Hollander, D-9th, said Thursday that Conrad's comments were unfortunate but that the chief had acknowledged that, and he still supported him.

"We all say things we wish we hadn't said," Hollander said. "He said one yesterday, but that does not affect my confidence in Steve Conrad."

The bigger issue remains, Hollander said, that LMPD is losing officers faster than it can bring them in. And no one in Wednesday's meeting knew how to fix the issue.

Councilman Markus Winkler, D-17th, had similar sentiments, calling the chief's "unnecessary error" a distraction from the larger issue: "That all over Metro Government we are losing employees at an alarming rate due to the impacts of the pension."

"We are part of the very leadership of this city that was cited as failing our officers yesterday and we are responsible for the impacts of the budget we passed - both positive and negative," Winkler wrote in an email. "We should not be surprised when the consequences we discussed all throughout the tax and budget debates come to fruition."

But Paula McCraney, D-7th, said the remarks were a sign of "lackluster leadership," and Donna Purvis, D-5th, said she had "very little" confidence in Conrad.

"He does not want to be held accountable for the police department's morale, and that's sad. It starts at the top," she said Thursday. "I've talked to several officers off the record and they just feel like giving up. As soon as they can find a better opportunity, they're out of here. And they have always referenced the reason as the chief.

"They don't talk about the sergeants, they don't talk about the lieutenants or the majors, they talk about the chief."

Councilman Kevin Kramer, R-11th, said Conrad's comments were disappointing but were indicative of a larger problem in Metro Government - and it doesn't start with the chief.

"I think we have exactly the chief the mayor wants," Kramer said Thursday afternoon. "My confidence, or lack thereof, is really not a reflection of Chief Conrad. Mayor Fischer continues to stand behind him, continues to suggest that the things going on in the police department are actually desirable, continues to make decisions that are not in the best interest of the community and absolutely not in the best interest of our police department, and to hold Chief Conrad accountable for all that I think is unfair."

Some council members said they hoped to replace the canceled recruit class, but the council did not appropriate money in the budget passed in June to hire for those positions.

Conrad has likened the drop in staffing to a "slow train wreck" for the city.

But Nicolai Jilek, president of the union representing Louisville Metro Police officers, said Wednesday, after the chief's morale remarks, that the slow train wreck "may already be off the rails, and all of Louisville is on it."

"The chief's remarks during the council meeting and the mayor's inability to grasp their significance just confirmed for many of my members that they cannot expect any real effort will be made to improve how LMPD operates in regard to our morale."

Skylar Graudick, a former LMPD officer, echoed that sentiment, explaining that he left the department, despite having a pension and insurance, because he couldn't see himself carrying on one second longer under LMPD's leadership.

"No officer believes the chief supports them, or even understands what they go through or understands how the decisions he makes affects them," Graudick said. "I don't think he does. I think he's completely out of touch."