LMPD :: Louisville Metro Police Department

Retrospective on Louisville's Mayor, Jerry Abramson: PART FIVE

The Ugly


Without doubt, the ugliest period of Jerry Abramson's 21-year tenure as Louisville's mayor was when he hatched a successful scheme to fire Police Chief Richard Dotson, during the Summer of 1990. In last Sunday's Courier-Journal, reporter Dan Klepal indicated that Jerry fired the Chief, "…after allegations that Dotson abused two former wives and harassed three female co-workers." But that's not the way it really happened.

In fairness to reporter Klepal-who is too young to remember the facts as they actually occurred-the spouse abuse/sexual harassment pretext was the official reason put forth by the Abramson administration at the time, and has been continuously regurgitated by the C-J ever since. The front-line observers to this travesty will remember it differently.

When Jerry was first elected mayor, in late 1985, he was still a bachelor, and was good friends with a cop (whom we'll call "Officer X"), with whom he went jogging on a regular basis. Shortly after taking office in 1986, Jerry spoke with Chief Dotson (a holdover from the administration of Jerry's predecessor, Dr. Harvey I. Sloane), and requested that Officer X be assigned as the mayor's bodyguard and chauffeur. It had long been the custom and policy for Louisville's mayors to select a policeman to protect and drive them around town.

Dotson agreed to honor Jerry's request, but then the new mayor added another item to the request: He wanted the Chief to promote Officer X to sergeant. "I'll make him a sergeant when he passes the sergeant's exam, and when a slot opens up," Dotson firmly replied. Clearly, this didn't set well with Abramson.

Jerry, of course, knew that the Chief was only following the law. Civil Service regulations allowed for political appointments to higher police ranks, such as captain and major, but required sergeants to pass a strict and difficult examination. Jerry was not happy that Dotson refused to bend the rules to confer a benefit upon the mayor's buddy.

A few weeks later, Jerry was interviewed by a reporter, who asked him how he liked his new job. The mayor allowed as how the job was interesting and challenging, but lamented that he was the first mayor in Louisville's history to be "saddled" with a police chief who was not of his choosing.

Those of us who have been hanging around City Hall for the last half-century or so can remember the "bad old days," when Louisville's police department was notoriously corrupt. Many cops were on the take from gamblers and houses of prostitution, and no cop ever made it into the higher ranks of the department without participating-or at least acquiescing-in the network of bribes and payoffs. Vice dens were open and notorious.

Over time, various individual chiefs (such as Jack Nevin and Edgar Paul) and safety directors (such as Joe Glass and George Burton) attempted to break up the corrupt system; with limited degrees of success. Problem was, the chief was politically beholden to the mayor, and the mayor to the ward bosses, and on down the line. Without some sort of civil service protection, the chief would always be tempted to serve his political masters, instead of serving the law.

At the beginning of Mayor Harvey Sloane's second term, he decided to tackle this problem head-on. He selected three of the most honest cops he could find-Richard Dotson, Charles Moore, and John Aubrey-to run the LPD. He then had his Law Director, Burt Detusch, draft an ordinance granting the police chief tenure. Essentially, the new law-subsequently approved by the Board of Aldermen-established a Police Chief Civilian Review Board, with exclusive power to remove the chief, but only for cause (such as misconduct, dishonesty, or non-feasance).

Clearly, Jerry couldn't just fire Dotson for ephemeral reasons (such as not promoting his buddy to sergeant); so it would take some time to get around the tenure law. Jerry began systematically packing the Review Board with his political cronies (it took him five years), and when he finally had the votes to dump the chief, he did so. Shortly after getting Dotson fired, Jerry got the Board of Aldermen to repeal the tenure law.

Desperate to get rid of the Police Chief, Jerry hired two ex-FBI agent private investigators to do an in-depth investigation into Dotson's background. Dotson's first wife claimed he once tripped her as she was going down the basement stairs. His second wife claimed he grabbed her once and shook her. Neither had ever made any formal complaint in the past, nor had any such allegations been made in divorce proceedings. But hell hath no fury, like a woman scorned.

The Chief's secretary told the investigators that Dotson would sometimes introduce her to office visitors, with the remark, "My wife thinks I'm having an affair with my secretary, but I'm not." This, the Review Board concluded, amounted to sexual harassment.

The package of slander, rumor, and innuendo prepared by the ex-FBI agents was leaked to the Courier-Journal, a week before the scheduled presentation to the Review Board. Jerry evidently had the notion that he could use the newspaper to gin up some public outrage; to put a little more pressure on the Review Board.

A friend of mine on the C-J's editorial board tipped me off about the leak, and I asked him to set up a meeting with me and the board. I met with editor David Hawpe and several members of the board. Hawpe was cordial, and even granted me special dispensation to smoke my pipe in the editorial board room (history will record that I was the last person to smoke on C-J property).

I reminded Hawpe of the sordid history of corruption in the LPD, and of the fact that Dotson and his team had done a pretty commendable job of cleaning it up. I also suggested that printing the complaints of Dotson's ex-wives would be awfully unfair, since he would not have an opportunity to tell his side of the story until the Review Board hearing. To my surprise, Hawpe agreed to hold the story until the allegations were formally presented at the hearing. Back in those day, the C-J was known for its editorial integrity.

At the Police Chief Civilian Review Board hearing, Dotson was represented by attorney and former Louisville Safety Director Joe Glass. Joe did his best, but the hearing was a circus. Dotson's dismissal was preordained.

So the team of honest cops running the LPD was broken up. Dotson was fired, and Aubrey retired shortly thereafter (Moore had retired when Jerry first took office). Charlie Moore ran for Alderman and lost. John Aubrey was elected Jefferson County Sheriff, and is now in his second term. Officer X quietly took an early retirement, and moved to Florida. The Review Board was disbanded. Mayor Jerry Abramson was all that remained. It was not Jerry's finest hour.