LMPD :: Louisville Metro Police Department

Louisville police recruiting video lures 'action-movie heroes,' not guardians, experts say


For the past five years, the Louisville Metro Police Department has recruited new officers with a video that experts say promotes a "war-like mentality" and portrays police as warriors rather than public servants.

The video shows officers running in formation across a bridge, clambering into an armored vehicle in camouflage fatigues with assault rifles, and breaking down a door with a battering ram in a no-knock search like the one banned after the March 13 death of Breonna Taylor.

Randy Shrewsberry, director of the Los Angeles-based Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform and one of six experts on police training and use of force who reviewed the video for The Courier Journal, said it promotes a "war-like mentality in which empathy is absent."

"If you train police like soldiers, dress them like soldiers and equip them like soldiers, we cannot be surprised when they act like soldiers," he said.

Margo Frasier, who oversaw 1,350 deputies as the sheriff of Travis County, Texas, and now monitors troubled police departments and jails for the U.S. Justice Department, added: "What you recruit is what you get - recruit guardians and you get guardians. Recruit warriors and you get warriors."

After an inquiry from The Courier Journal, the department said Tuesday it had removed the video from its social media platforms.

Spokeswoman Jessie Halladay said interim Chief Robert Schroeder is a strong supporter of transitioning from the "'warrior' mindset to a 'guardian mindset'" and that at his direction the department took down the video "while we explore new ways to appeal to those who share that mindset and will best serve our community's needs."

Halladay said the video was produced in 2015 at no cost to the department and was never used in its entirety as a recruitment tool. She said a shorter version was used and that the department produced some of its own videos that emphasized diversifying the department and attracting officers "ready to face the challenges of policing and can connect with the community."

The Courier Journal asked nationally known authorities on training to review the Louisville police video - as well as another produced for the Lexington Police Department - after Louisville Metro Council member Brandon Coan posted both in his constituent newsletter and suggested Louisville's is in part responsible for its police culture.

"It's not just the video, of course, that caused the deaths of Breonna Taylor, David McAtee and the untold suffering of centuries of Black Louisville," Coan wrote. "But it is what the video represents that's responsible."

The experts unanimously said the Lexington police video offers a more realistic description of the life of an officer and portrays a job focused on service rather than adventure.

"The officers are listening and comforting rather than engaging in spectacular battle," said Sue Rahr, a former sheriff in King County, Washington, who is the director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission.

Criminologist Franklin Zimring, author of "When Police Kill" and a law professor at University of California, Berkeley, said the Lexington video offers "a more attractive portrait of the kind of police officer I would like to recruit."

And Seth Stoughton, a former officer in Tallahassee, Florida, who now writes about police use of force as a law professor at University of South Carolina, said: "When an agency makes policing look like something from an action movie, it shouldn't be surprised when it attracts recruits who want to see themselves as action-movie heroes."

The 100-second Louisville video, which is being used in LMPD's current recruitment campaign, shows a police boat speeding on the Ohio River, a police helicopter searching a forest and officers firing at a gun range.

As music intensifies, a narrator intones: "We train to protect this city, but prepare for the worst."

A SWAT team is seen approaching a home under the cover of darkness, as the narrator says, "We are proud to go where others will not."

Then they break down the door, take down two suspects and emerge with one officer carrying a girl who has apparently been kidnapped.

Stoughton and Rahr said the scene is highly unrealistic.

"Officers can go their entire careers without seeing a kidnapping like that," Stoughton said.

Frasier, who is also a board member of the National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, said the Louisville department should have "left the SWAT footage on the cutting room floor."

She said showing the forced entry is "tone deaf," given the death of Taylor during the execution of a search warrant March 13; Shrewsberry said the department should consider taking the video down for that reason.

The Lexington video was never distributed. Department spokeswoman Brenna Angel said it was produced on speculation by a creative agency and the department didn't have the money in its budget to pay for it.

But she said the videos the department has produced promote the same "core values of service and professionalism." They feature officers talking about their jobs.

In one video, an officer looks into the camera and says: "A lot of people look at police and think I'm going to go out and do high-speed chases. That is not the case. ... Typically you are doing public service work, and you need to know that is exactly what you are wanting to do."

A second officer says: "You are helping people who are stranded on the side of the road or have gotten their car broken into. You have to know in your heart and mind that you are a public servant."

A third officer, a woman, speaks to potential recruits who might be worried they are not up to the job.

"As long as you are here because you want to help people, the rest you can figure out," she says.

Professor Barry Friedman, director of New York University's Policing Project, which works with departments and communities to promote safety through "transparency, equity and Democratic engagement," says Lexington's approach comes closer to the realities of police work.

"How agencies recruit speaks to whom they ultimately will attract and hire," he said, "and so recruiting videos would do well to depict the job accurately."