WKYT Investigates | Lexington protesters’ demands for change
Protesters want changes to the city’s police contract. What would that mean?
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - Lexington leaders have pledged to re-evaluate certain policies and procedures in response to an ongoing nationwide conversation about racial injustice and social inequities.
The city has scheduled meetings for Tuesday to begin the discussion about tangible changes to address racism and police brutality, council members announced at a news conference Monday morning. Among the items up for discussion: no-knock warrants and the city’s collective bargaining agreement with police officers.
“The streets are talking," Councilmember James Brown said. "People in our community are talking. And we all have to listen.”
Now in their third week, demonstrations in downtown Lexington have escalated as the crowd pushes for increased police accountability. Protest organizers say they will continue to escalate until city leaders and police officials meet their demands.
Protesters want to see changes in the upcoming police contract, or collective bargaining agreement. Negotiations are expected to begin soon between the mayor’s office and the Fraternal Order of Police Bluegrass Lodge 4, which represents Lexington officers.
The changes many are pushing to see are not new. Cooperation Lexington first published its document of demands more than a year ago, in the aftermath of a fight between two off-duty police officers and a teenager inside Fayette Mall.
In the year since they first made their demands known, activists say they have had discussions with the police chief and meetings with council members, launched campaigns to contact other elected leaders and attended public forums and meetings.
“Every time that we’ve tried to follow up, formally and informally, we’ve been utterly dismissed," said Sarah Williams of Cooperation Lexington. "So what do you do when you’re not being heard?”
“We had the civil rights movement," Williams said, "but we still have modern-day lynchings in the form of police shooting us dead or putting their knee on our neck or choking us out.”
The demands from Williams and Cooperation Lexington are focused on increasing accountability within the Lexington Police Department, specifically by targeting changes in the city’s collective bargaining agreement, or CBA, with the police union.
“Research reveals that the greatest way in which police departments across the country escape accountability is in and through collective bargaining agreements,” the document states.
The document lists four specific demands:
- End the disqualification of misconduct complaints “that are submitted too many days after an incident occurs or if an investigation takes too long to complete.”
- End LFUCG being required to “pay costs related to police misconduct including...paying legal fees, and/or costs of settlements.”
- Stop “preventing information on past misconduct investigations from being recorded or retained in an officer’s personnel file.”
- Stop “limiting disciplinary consequences for officers or limiting the capacity of civilian oversight structures and/or the media to hold police accountable.”
The president of the FOP Bluegrass Lodge 4 said that officers agree with the larger message of equality, unity and justice - but he said there is a misunderstanding with some of the listed demands, calling them a solution in search of a problem.
“These are solutions to problems somewhere else,” said Lt. Jonathan Bastian, FOP Bluegrass Lodge 4 president. “I don’t see those problems in Lexington.”
He said some of the issues highlighted do not happen, while other protections are present not to prevent accountability but to allow for due process.
“We’re presenting an improper narrative when we say there is no accountability," Bastian said, "because we have a very high level of accountability and a culture of accountability that’s been developed here over decades.”
The FOP released a full written response to each demand in a post on Facebook last week.
Protesters’ demand document cites a national project called Check the Police that evaluates how police union contracts block accountability of police officers.
And it is not just the CBA that is facing criticism. Local ordinances and state laws - including what is often referred to as a law enforcement officer’s bill of rights - also provide some protections to officers.
For example, KRS 15.520 requires a hearing within 60 days for an officer suspended without pay.
While activists want to see that changed, Lt. Bastian said there have been no instances in Lexington when the 60-day requirement has resulted in an officer not being disciplined.
However, activists are not happy that Lexington Police chaplain Donovan Stewart has not been disciplined for the February 2019 incident at Fayette Mall because of ongoing court proceedings, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Lexington police have said that in situations involving court proceedings, the court case must be resolved before a formal internal review begins, the Herald-Leader reports.
Through May 2020, 12 formal complaints and 37 informal complaints have been filed against Lexington Police. Both of those are above the year-to-date numbers through May of last year, when there were nine formal complaints and 35 informal complaints.
Over the past five years:
- 2019: 20 formal complaints, 115 informal complaints
- 2018: 17 formal complaints, 95 informal complaints
- 2017: 13 formal complaints, 108 informal complaints
- 2016: 15 formal complaints, 126 informal complaints
- 2015: 26 formal complaints, 105 informal complaints
City leaders are open to looking at a citizen review board for police disciplinary matters, Mayor Linda Gorton said at a recent council meeting, according to the Herald-Leader. State law would need to be changed, though, to allow Lexington to form one.
Louisville already has a citizen review board.
“A change in the state law to mirror the process in Louisville, and negotiation with the [police union] lodge, would likely be required in order for a disciplinary citizen review board to be part of the contract in Lexington,” a city spokesperson told the newspaper.
When asked about whether the FOP would support a citizen review board in Lexington, Bastian said he believes what Lexington already has built in - a system in which the Urban County Council has final yes/no approval of disciplinary actions - provides more accountability, because council members answer directly to the people in the form of elections.
According to current disciplinary policies and procedures, each complaint against a sworn officer is investigated by the police department’s Public Integrity Unit. The PIU presents its findings to the police chief, who then makes a disciplinary recommendation that ultimately goes before the council for final approval.
Bastian reiterated that, contrary to an assertion in the demand document, no formalized discipline is removed from officers’ personnel files. (Counseling documents are removed after 12 months.) Even after five years, the duration of a limited “look-back window" for progressive discipline (repeated violations, etc.), documents are still in the personnel file and open to public inspection.
In Lexington, the public can inspect police disciplinary records only by filing open records requests.
Union leaders told WKYT’s Garrett Wymer that more can always be done to build trust with the community. But they say the way protesters are going about spreading their message - including “verbal assaults” on officers - does not help.
“We’ve knelt with protesters," Lt. Bastian said. "We’ve prayed with protesters. We’ve marched with protesters. There’s video with one of our officers in full uniform carrying a sign with protesters. We’ve demonstrated unity with the original message. Every time we try to de-escalate confrontations, however, protesters are escalating confrontations now.”
And until their demands are met, activists say they will continue to protest - and continue to escalate their actions. Two prominent protest organizers - Williams and her sister, April Taylor - were among 20 protesters arrested at a demonstration Saturday night.
“The chickens have come home to roost, my friend,” Williams said when asked about confrontations with officers. “This is only a small portion - we are letting them [police officers] experience what it is black and brown people have experienced for 400 years in this country. To this day. To this very day. So welcome to the point in which you get to understand what it is we endure when we encounter your white male officers.”
As conversations continue nightly in the streets, the next step in the process is at the negotiating table. Union leaders have submitted their request to open negotiations, but formal negotiations have not yet begun with the mayor’s office, Bastian said.
The current police contract expires June 30. Mayor Linda Gorton says if a new deal is not finalized by then, the current one will continue in place until the city and FOP can agree on a new one. After that, the Urban County Council has final say in the form of an up-or-down vote on the CBA.
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