For years, justice activists and ordinary citizens in Louisville have pushed for a civilian review board for Metro Police. The calls for such a board only became stronger after the killing of Breonna Taylor, and the resulting clashes between protesters and the police.
Finally, in December 2020, their calls were answered: a new Civilian Review Board was created by Metro Council and signed into law by Mayor Fischer. But even as the new board was hailed as one part of improving race relations in the city, supporters said the board needed one more thing to really make it effective: subpoena power. Without the ability to compel testimony, police officers and public officials could just refuse to talk.
Here’s the catch: While Metro Council could create the police review board, only the state legislature could grant it subpoena power.
With the antipathy toward Louisville that exists in some parts of the General Assembly, there was doubt that such a bill could get approved. But some legislators from Louisville said they would give it a try.
The result? House Bill 309.
The bill giveth … and the bill taketh away
At first, supporters of the review board were thrilled to hear that a bill had actually been filed to give subpoena power to the new board. But then, they started looking at the details.
Then others found other details, including a surprising poison pill.
And still others noticed that the bill actually reduced both the power of the review board and the necessary transparency.
Here, then, are some of the in-the-weeds details that a close reading reveals.
- The bill gives subpoena power – but not to the review board. Instead, it gives that power to the Government Oversight and Audit Committee, which already has such power.
- The bill puts the review board under that oversight committee. If the review board wants to subpoena testimony, it has to ask the oversight committee for permission. The oversight committee also controls pretty much everything the police review board does.
- All testimony taken via that subpoena will be done in executive session in front of the oversight committee, not the review board. As one legal expert noted, it appears that the review board cannot even be present, and can’t insist the testimony be made public.
- The review board will not be able to question witnesses on their own.
- Anything the review board decides is privileged and not available to the public.
- At the conclusion of the investigation, all information provided to the review board would have to be destroyed.
As Jon Fleischaker told the Courier-Journal:
To me, this is an effort to pretend they’re doing something when in fact they’re doing nothing. The civilian board has no power. No power to make a decision. Anything they talk about will be (confidential). Nobody in the world would ever know what they decided or thought.
Fleischaker said it appears civilians who file a complaint against an officer with the board wouldn’t ever learn the outcome.
And the poison pill
As if the above was not bad enough, the bill also contains a one-word poison pill: “nonpartisan.” Here’s the exact language from the bill, with the change in state law:
The mayor shall be [nominated and ] elected in nonpartisan elections …
Yes, you read it right: Louisville’s mayor would become a supposedly nonpartisan position, serving with a partisan council. Not only would this be an unusual arrangement for the city – it would be basically unheard of across the entire nation.
And why, exactly, are Rep. Jerry Miller and the other Republicans so anxious to make the mayor of the state’s largest city a nonpartisan race? For anyone who lives in The Ville, the answer is obvious: so a Republican would have actually have a chance to become mayor in the most Democratic city in the state.
Some have wondered if it is a setup for Miller himself to run for mayor. After all, the current mayor, Greg Fischer, is termed-limited out in 2022 — the same year Miller’s current position of state representative is up again.
Plus a few more pills, just for good measure
The bill actually throws a few more pills into the half-a-loaf it is offering:
- Gives Metro Council final say over collective bargaining agreements, such as the recent one with the police union, which Fischer signed on his own.
- Allows any council member who brings a charge against an elected official to also sit on the council as it acts as a jury in the matter.
- Requires city government to report to Metro Council about “detailed operating and capital expenditures.” This likely was included due to frustration by Metro Council about its inability to get the information it wanted about certain city expenses, including money spent entertaining Derby guests.
It seems obvious that the above provisions in the bill are there purely to get Metro Council to be in favor of the bill.
Multiple people have said that if there is appetite for a nonpartisan mayor, then the Metro Council should be made nonpartisan as well.
Also, there is a strong feeling that any changes to the governance of Louisville should be voted on by the people of Louisville, and not by lawmakers in Frankfort.
And finally, Joe Gerth of the Courier-Journal notes that while the Republicans in Frankfort want to make the Louisville mayor nonpartisan, they have also filed bills to make judicial elections partisan. As Gerth says, both of these bills seem exactly backward to common sense.