Louisville mayor's police chief search using NDAs, other secretive policies

Mayor Craig Greenberg speaks during a press conference announcing additional information to be released about complaints surrounding LMPD officers and their conduct on Friday, May 26, 2023
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As a candidate last year, now-Mayor Craig Greenberg said he wanted Louisville to have the most transparent police department in America.

However, the administration is refusing to do what other nearby big cities — including St. Louis, Cincinnati and Nashville — have done: Disclose the names of finalists in the city’s search for its next police chief and hold a publicly broadcast forum where they can answer questions.

But the city has gone a step further than keeping the finalists a secret. All members of Greenberg’s seven-person interview advisory panel were required to sign non-disclosure agreements.

"Each of the committee members did sign an NDA," Greenberg spokesperson Kevin Trager confirmed in a text message on Thursday. "We will only be releasing details about the candidate who gets the job."

Greenberg said last week that 19 people applied for Louisville Metro Police’s top job and that he hopes to select the next chief by the end of July.

Trager said Wednesday that the city would "definitely not" hold any sort of publicly broadcast candidate forum before the hire is made.

The administration defended its decision not to release the names of candidates, saying it ensures “the highest quality pool of candidates” and ensures the administration “closely” follows the law, though the claim about being legally bound to confidentiality has been disputed.

The existence of the NDAs, alongside the city’s refusal to name finalists or hold a forum, ensures the hiring of the chief who will likely see Louisville’s police department come under a federal consent decree is shrouded in secrecy.

It also mirrors what former Mayor Greg Fischer did when he selected Erika Shields as LMPD’s new chief in January 2021 following the police killing of Breonna Taylor and months of racial justice protests in 2020.

Shields left the Atlanta Police Department in June 2020 following the police killing of Rayshard Brooks, a Black man who was confronted by officers after falling asleep in his car in a Wendy’s drive-thru. When Shields was named Louisville’s chief, community members called it “tone deaf” and “a slap in the face” at a time Louisville was reeling from a high-profile police killing of its own.

For some, the result was continued distrust of the police department.

Louisville Urban League CEO Lyndon Pryor told The Courier Journal he understood why the names of every candidate who applied might be withheld, but he said names of finalists should be disclosed and a public forum should be held.

“LMPD has done so much in the dark. To shroud this process in secrecy further highlights the lack of transparency and deepens distrust,” he said in a text message Thursday morning.

Cara Tobe, 34, an organizer with the activist group The 490 Project, which advocates for police reform in Louisville, said the secrecy surrounding the selection of the chief is a continuation of the Fischer administration’s practice of keeping important decisions about LMPD behind closed doors.

“It’s not surprising that they want to keep it shrouded in secrecy," Tobe said. "This has kind of been the MO for every mayor’s administration that I’ve lived through.

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“The Greenberg administration is really approaching policing and LMPD just like the Fischer administration had. So his whole idea of a ‘new direction’ and a new change is really not coming to fruition.”

Earlier this year, both the 490 Project and Louisville Urban League urged the Greenberg administration to open its contract negotiations with the police union to the public, as is also standard practice in other cities. Despite public outcry, the administration decided to keep those meetings behind closed doors.

To aid in the selection of a chief, Greenberg created the seven-person advisory committee to interview candidates over the next two weeks. While the committee will interview candidates and provide feedback to Greenberg, Trager said the hiring decision will ultimately be the mayor's.

It is unclear how wide-ranging the NDAs signed by members of the committee are.

Contacted by The Courier Journal, only one of the seven went on the record stating they had signed an NDA. Others declined to comment or did not respond to calls, emails and texts.

One member of the committee, Louisville state Rep. Keturah Herron, publicly criticized the lack of transparency surrounding the last chief of police search in 2020. She told The Courier Journal she had to see what she could or could not say about the current selection process and did not respond to further requests for comment.

Police chief search not confidential in other cities

While Louisville is refusing to reveal who the finalists are, that is not standard practice in other cities — including cities that hired Public Sector Search & Consulting, the same search firm Louisville hired.

Nashville enlisted the help of the company to find a chief in 2020. But unlike Louisville, the city announced its finalists and broadcast them answering questions for the public to see.

Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered by police in 2020, also hired Public Sector Search & Consulting when looking for a chief last year. That city also announced finalists before choosing Brian O’Hara, who oversaw the implementation of a consent decree involving the police in Newark, New Jersey.

Like Louisville police, the Minneapolis Police Department was subject to a wide-ranging Department of Justice probe and is expected to come under a federal consent decree.

One hundred miles from Louisville in Cincinnati, finalists vying for the top police job faced questions directly from the public in person before a decision was made. (Cincinnati did not hire the same search firm as other cities mentioned here).

Public Sector Search & Consulting CEO Gary Peterson referred The Courier Journal to Louisville’s mayor’s office when contacted about the search process.

However, speaking to Boston’s GBH News last year, he said police chief applicants fear backlash from their current employers and loss of trust in the cities that employ them if it is revealed they are looking for another job.

But Peterson added that cities should communicate that reasoning to the public to maintain trust.

In a brochure advertising Louisville’s top police job, Public Sector Search & Consulting told candidates that the hiring process would be “a confidential process.”

Greenberg administration defends secrecy in police search

The Greenberg administration referenced a 2010 Kentucky Attorney General decision involving the Whitley County School District as the reasoning for keeping the police chief candidates' identities secret.

“A long line of Attorney General opinions requires Metro Government respect the privacy interests of candidates for positions who are not chosen,” said David Kaplan, Greenberg’s chief of staff and general counsel, in a statement to The Courier Journal.

This isn’t necessarily true, though, said Amye Bensenhaver, who co-wrote one of the opinions the Greenberg administration cited when she served as an assistant attorney general.

“The key word here is ‘requires,’” said Bensenhaver, who leads the Kentucky Open Government Coalition. “It’s one of two interests that have to be weighed against each other — the public’s interest and the privacy interest.”

She said it’s up to the mayor's office to decide whether the public interest in the candidates outweighs the interest in protecting their identities — not the law.

“If they want to come down on the side of nondisclosure — fine, but take the hit for that, don’t blame the open records law,” Bensenhaver said. “You as a public official have to accept responsibility for the choices that you make and be prepared to defend them if someone were to challenge them.”

Public input on police chief search limited

To get input on the selection of Louisville’s next chief, Public Sector Search & Consulting put out an online survey asking Louisville residents four questions directly relating to policing, three of which asked them to rank predetermined lists of qualifications, priorities and leadership qualities.

One question was open-ended, asking residents if there was anything else they wanted to add.

More than 1,200 people responded. Data points highlighted by the mayor’s office included how 72.4% of respondents believed reducing crime and enhancing public safety was the most important quality and how more than three-quarters believed “honesty, integrity” should be the top quality.

“Selecting who permanently leads our police department is an extraordinarily important decision and we want to receive all the community input we can,” Greenberg said in a May news release announcing the survey results. “I’m very pleased that so many people took the time to share their thoughts on what they want to see in our next permanent Chief of Police, and we will make sure to make good use of this input as we move forward.”

Additionally, Public Sector Search & Consulting held two virtual town halls in May where citizens could comment on the process.

In one of those sessions, resident Rayshawn Ordway complained that under the last administration, Shields’ hiring was dominated by secrecy. It didn't make sense, Ordway said, for Shields to be hired to lead LMPD after the killing of Brooks in Atlanta and the killing of Taylor in Louisville and the tumultuous events that followed.

Ordway encouraged the city to name candidates under consideration and hold forums where the public could ask questions, arguing that simply providing “qualities” they’d like to see in candidates was not enough.

“I feel this entire process now during Mr. Greenberg’s administration … is a farce, honestly. It’s a farce,” Ordway said.

A representative for the consulting firm said he understood what Ordway was saying and “got the gist of it.”

In the end, the process did not change.

Reach reporter Eleanor McCrary at emcrary@courier-journal.com or on Twitter @ellie_mccrary. Reach reporter Josh Wood at jwood@courier-journal.com or on Twitter @JWoodJourno

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Craig Greenberg using secretive policies in search for LMPD chief