- Associated Press - Thursday, December 15, 2016

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Louisville’s police chief suffered a stinging rebuke in a no-confidence vote by his rank-and-file officers, who signaled frustrations are boiling over in a department struggling with a record-high murder rate and mounting tension over officers’ use of force.

A staggering 98 percent of police union members casting ballots during a two-day vote ending Wednesday indicating they lacked confidence in Chief Steve Conrad’s leadership. Turnout amounted to about half the membership of River City Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 614.

Conrad sounded undeterred, and unapologetic, while vowing to work to regain their confidence. He praised officers for doing “amazing work,” but defended a series of initiatives since he took over as chief in 2012.

“In 36 years of policing, with 27 of those in police leadership, I have learned that leadership decisions are not always popular,” Conrad wrote on the department’s Facebook page. “The union has a right to voice their opinion, but any leader will tell you that leadership is about doing the right thing - at the right time - rather than the popular thing.”

Specifically, Conrad defended policies to put body cameras on officers, and the decision earlier this year to quickly release body camera footage from three officers, two of whom fatally shot a man during a domestic disturbance. Police have said the man had refused to drop a large blade.

On Thursday, the police union’s president, Dave Mutchler, said it “remains to be seen” whether its members think Conrad should resign.

Mutchler said the lopsided no-confidence vote reflected frustration with the chief’s reorganization plan, lack of manpower and perceptions that the chief doesn’t always have his officers’ backs.

“Law enforcement is not always pretty,” Mutchler said. “We’re tasked with dealing with bad people. … We do, unfortunately, have to use force sometimes. A lot of times, the members feel like every time something like that happens, they are overly scrutinized or not given the benefit of the doubt.”

Instead, Mutchler said the response from the chief’s office at the outset should be to defend the officers involved while stressing that an investigation will dig into the details. He said FOP members “don’t feel like that’s the stance that’s taken.”

The union vote was symbolic, since the chief serves at the discretion of the mayor. In a brief statement Thursday, Mayor Greg Fischer said he appreciated the input.

“Now I urge everyone to continue working together to improve public safety in our great city,” he added.

Conrad is a Louisville native who began his law enforcement career in his hometown in 1980 and worked his way up to assistant chief before leaving the department in 2005. He served as police chief in Glendale, Arizona, before returning to Louisville in 2012.

Showing the depth of their discontent, the FOP members said by similarly lopsided margins this week that they don’t believe they’re adequately supported by the chief and his staff, and that the department’s buildings and offices are maintained at unacceptable levels.

Darrel W. Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said police unions occasionally hold no-confidence votes when they’re upset about contract negotiations or other employment disputes.

“It’s usually something that’s designed to get back at the chief for something,” he said. “More often than not, it doesn’t have much to do with the chief’s performance or ability to lead the department.”

But Louisville Metro Councilman David James, a former narcotics officer, said he wasn’t surprised. James has been critical of some of Conrad’s reorganizations, but said there’s a chance the chief could win back lost confidence.

“We’ve got a record number of homicides, but we’re pulling those people to direct traffic for free when they’re supposed to be doing the jobs that taxpayers are paying them to do,” he said.

Louisville’s murder rate had traditionally been low when compared to other cities, hovering at 60 killings or fewer each year. But homicides spiked to 79 in 2015, then kept climbing. There have been 113 homicides so far in 2016.

That puts the city’s murder rate at about 16 for every 100,000 people, far higher than the national rate of around five for every 100,000, but far lower than other cities with traditionally high murder rates such as Memphis, Detroit, New Orleans and Baltimore.

Christopher 2X, a civil rights and anti-violence activist in Louisville, said he’s saddened by the internal police strife in his hometown and said it could damage public faith when police are so need to help curb gun violence.

“I think more than ever,” he said, “the neighborhoods need them to mend fences and show that there’s one team.”

___

Correspondent Claire Galofaro contributed to this report from Louisville, Kentucky.

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