LMPD :: Louisville Metro Police Department

Louisville Chief Robert White has fired 28 officers and disciplined hundreds


During his more than eight years leading the Louisville Metro Police Department, Robert White has described himself as a chief who holds his officers accountable for their actions - especially when they break the law.

As chief, White has fired 28 officers for offenses ranging from criminal assault to theft, according to a Courier-Journal analysis of department disciplinary records. In 25 other cases, officers resigned or retired while under investigation, most after being charged criminally.

"If it's a criminal offense, there's not a lot of wiggle room there," White said in an interview.

But the records also show that White is much more willing to give officers a second chance when they make a mistake off duty, such as driving drunk or committing a misdemeanor offense.

In fact, disciplinary records show six cases where officers who were caught driving drunk while off duty were allowed to keep their jobs, although they were given stiff suspensions of 20 to 29 days.

Two other officers were fired for alcohol violations, including one who got into an accident while on duty and another who came to work smelling of alcohol.

In all, White has disciplined 755 officers during his first eight years as chief - most of the time issuing written reprimands.

"Some people think that I'm a disciplinarian. Some people think I'm a soft touch. So, I probably have it right," White said.

Mayor Greg Fischer, who made a point of announcing before he was elected that he intended to keep White as chief, said in a recent interview that he supports White's leadership and handling of his officers.

"Citizens are demanding accountability and transparency from their government," Fischer said. "Chief White's actions show he enforces and supports those demands when it comes to officer discipline, while remaining consistent."

Exactly how White's disciplinary record stacks up against his predecessors is impossible to say.

The police departments for Louisville and Jefferson County, which merged in 2003, didn't keep statistics on disciplinary actions. Neither does the Louisville Metro Police Department. The Courier-Journal compiled the statistics used in this story from disciplinary records it received as a result of open-records requests.

And The Courier-Journal could find no national studies analyzing disciplinary actions within U.S. police departments. As a result, any comparison of White's performance with other police chiefs' records is subjective.

"It's very difficult to compare one city to another," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C.

Still, Wexler said White has a national reputation for being "fair, but strict."

"He's going to go to bat for you if you made an honest mistake," said Wexler, who has known White for years and worked with him on some national projects. "If he sees someone who did something more than an honest mistake and has a repeated history, he's going to do something more serious."

White's punishments in several cases have been the subject of intense public scrutiny. His 2004 decision to fire Detective McKenzie Mattingly after Mattingly fatally shot a teen in the back during an undercover drug deal polarized public opinion, as well as police within the department. (A jury acquitted Mattingly on a murder charge.)

White has received greater support for his highly publicized decision in January to fire Detective Crystal Marlowe for arresting several suspects for crimes they couldn't have committed, a termination she is appealing.

But his biggest batch of disciplinary actions - which has rankled many officers - resulted from an intensive investigation into officers missing court dates. More than 420 officers were disciplined last year for court absences dating back to 2007, which some officers felt was petty and excessive.

"That's the first time officers started to feel like 'I'm out here trying to do my job, and I have a microscope on me,' " said Dave Mutchler, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents city officers.

Mary Sharp, an attorney who often represents disciplined officers, said that overall, she believes White is more heavy-handed than previous Louisville chiefs and is swayed by public scrutiny.

"Cases with high publicity absolutely get more discipline," she said, citing Mattingly's case as an example.

To get a closer look at White's record, The Courier-Journal used open-records laws to obtain disciplinary records from the start of his administration through 2010.

The newspaper compiled a database of those disciplinary actions and found that:

The department opened 1,821 disciplinary cases, some involving more than one officer; White followed with 1,288 disciplinary actions.

White issued 236 suspensions ranging from one day to 30 days.

White has disciplined 316 officers more than once, including 19 officers who received more than five disciplinary actions, some of whom are still on the job.

About 30 percent of all disciplinary actions taken by White have been for "chargeable" accidents or improper vehicle use - 380 in all.

White said he stands by his decisions, although he said there have been instances where "I wish I had been more aggressive." He wouldn't elaborate.

"I like to think I will err on the side of giving people the benefit of the doubt," he said.

Thousands of rules, spelled out in the department's standard operating procedure manual, govern the conduct and actions of a Louisville Metro Police officer. A violation of any could result in discipline.

By far the most common disciplinary action is the written reprimand, which is a letter outlining the error that is placed in the officer's personnel file.

Before he hands out discipline, White reviews the case file compiled by internal investigators, then consults with command staff and legal counsel.

By union contract, he may only consider an officer's disciplinary incidents within the past three years.

White said he uses his faith to guide him, often praying before he renders discipline.

And while he expects all rules to be followed, White acknowledges that he treats some violations more harshly.

For example, the loss of a $2,500 department radio may be expensive, but White said he considers discourteous behavior or poor conduct a much more serious offense.

"My discipline is based on the values of our community," he said.

The Louisville community generally appears to have a favorable view of White's history of discipline.

Metro Councilman Kelly Downard, R-16th District, said that although opinions vary about the chief's handling of specific situations, he said he believes the public thinks of White as fair.

"I have a positive feeling that he's pretty consistent," he said.

Councilwoman Barbara Shanklin, D-2nd District, said she has never heard complaints about how the chief handles officer discipline, which she credits in part to regular monthly meetings between residents and police commanders.

"Any complaints against police get resolved right away," Shanklin said.

As a member of the council's public safety committee, James Peden, R-23rd District, said he's never witnessed anyone complain to the council about how the chief handles discipline.

"I have to assume that things are going reasonably well," Peden said.

Angela Newby Bouggess, whose son Michael Newby was shot by Mattingly, said she believes White is a good steward of both the public's trust and the officers'. She points to her son's case as an example, saying White shrugged off pressure to keep Mattingly on the force.

"He could have gone another way, but he didn't and I'm really grateful that he didn't," she said.

With about 18,000 police departments in the country, how a department determines discipline depends largely on its culture, rather than national standards, Wexler said.

As a result, little research has been done on how departments hand out discipline among their ranks.

But Louisville's disciplinary numbers appear roughly comparable to those of two peer cities.

During the same eight years for which White's actions were reviewed, the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, which has about 150 more officers, issued 1,390 suspensions and fired 19 officers, according to its public information office.

Indianapolis didn't have totals, but the department has averaged about 50 suspensions a year, said Public Safety Director Frank Straub. He added that several high-profile cases involving officer misconduct, including use of force and arson, have prompted the department to be more active in determining if troubled officers are struggling with alcohol addiction, domestic troubles or financial strain.

Officers who need help are taken off the street and given counseling and training in an effort to rehabilitate them.

One disciplinary area in which White says he has no tolerance is lying.

During his tenure, there have been 48 cases of officers charged with violations of truthfulness - all resulting in suspension or firing, although many of the officers were also facing other charges.

In a November memo to the department, White wrote, "The foundation of every officer's character is honesty." He said he issued the memo because he wasn't sure that officers understood that lying alone was grave enough to warrant being fired.

"I need to be more aggressive in handling that," White said.

Most of the truthfulness allegations involve officers accused of lying during an investigation into their conduct.

For example, in 2006, Officer Thomas Pugh was suspended for three days on charges that he improperly cited a suspect and was discourteous - and for lying about directions he said he received from his sergeant.

Still, White's willingness to sometimes give second chances, even in a case where an officer lies, has made him a target for criticism.

For example, when Officer Jacqueline Hollingsworth was suspended for 20 days in May 2010 for lying and forging a receipt, the message board on a popular, but unofficial, police website erupted with criticism from officers who thought Hollingsworth should have been fired.

In December, White withdrew Hollingsworth's suspension, saying new evidence in a separate incident warranted her termination. He fired her, charging her with the initial violations and adding a charge that she had interfered with a fellow officer at a scene.

Hollingsworth is appealing White's decision before the Police Merit Board.

Going forward, White said he wants to see more accountability among officers involved in traffic violations.

Most officers at fault in minor accidents receive reprimands and are ordered to undergo additional driver's training. Subsequent accidents often lead to suspensions.

However, White hasn't been as consistent on cases involving serious injuries or death.

In 2007, for example, White fired Officer Jason Brown after determining he'd caused a fatal accident by driving the wrong way on a one-way street.

In contrast, Officer James Adams was given a 30-day suspension in January for his role in an off-duty accident that left 22-year-old Sarah Bearden dead. That decision was harshly criticized by Bearden's family, who are suing the department.

White declined to elaborate on his reasons for not firing Adams, citing the pending lawsuit.

White acknowledged that his officers sometimes speed unnecessarily. He said technological advances will soon allow the department to better monitor officers' driving.

As FOP president, Mutchler said he has had the opportunity to sit in on hearings where White renders judgment, and he believes the chief approaches his decisions with an open mind.

For example, when Officer Scott Wilson came to a pre-termination hearing before White on charges that he'd mishandled a drug investigation, White offered him a chance to submit to a polygraph exam. After Wilson passed the test, which indicated he had not intended to jeopardize his case, White gave him a written reprimand instead.

"I don't think that if you get in trouble on this department that you don't have a chance for a fair review," Mutchler said.

But Sharp, the lawyer, still believes that White sometimes holds his officers to an unfair standard.

"Most officers signed on to the department to make a difference in the community. When accused, they should have an abundant chance to explain," Sharp said. "They should be cut a little bit of slack."

For his part, White maintains that most of his officers work diligently and effectively. He said he believes only about 3 percent of officers bring discredit to the department - yet he said he spends about 90 percent of his time dealing with them.

In the future, he said, "My commitment is to spend more of my time acknowledging (hardworking officers), and I'll be more aggressive in dealing with the 3 percent."