US Attorney General Merrick Garland announced an investigation into Louisville Police Department a month after taking office in March 2021
US Attorney General Merrick Garland announced an investigation into Louisville Police Department a month after taking office in March 2021 AFP

Police in Kentucky have engaged in a pattern of racist abuse for years, involving excessive force and illegal searches, a US Justice Department probe found Wednesday, following a botched raid that killed a Black medical technician and fuelled nationwide protests.

Officers shot dead Breonna Taylor in her home in Louisville, Kentucky, in March 2020, in one of a series of high-profile killings that exposed police brutality and discrimination against African Americans.

The searing conclusions of the Justice Department probe found Louisville police "practiced an aggressive style of policing that it deploys selectively, especially against Black people."

"Some officers have videotaped themselves throwing drinks at pedestrians from their cars; insulted people with disabilities; and called Black people 'monkeys,' 'animal,' and 'boy,'" it added.

US Attorney General Merrick Garland, who announced the investigation in April 2021, said Wednesday that the conduct of the Louisville police department "undermined its public safety mission and strained its relationship with the community it's meant to protect and serve."

The probe also accused police of unjustified neck restraints and unreasonable use of dogs and tasers.

Garland, speaking in Kentucky alongside Louisville's mayor, announced that his agency had signed an agreement with the city to "negotiate a legally binding consent decree" -- which would create a legal requirement for Louisville to enact reforms.

"By entering into this agreement, the city and police department have taken a critical step forward and shown their commitment to moving expeditiously to implement reforms," said Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta.

Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician was shot dead after three plainclothes policemen executing a drugs-related search warrant burst into her apartment in the middle of the night.

Her boyfriend exchanged fire with the officers, who he said he thought were intruders. Police fired more than 30 shots and Taylor was struck at least five times.

No drugs were found, and her family eventually settled a wrongful death suit with the city for $12 million.

Garland noted that Louisville has since enacted a ban on so-called "no-knock warrants," as well as other measures, but said that "more must be done."

Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg welcomed the probe's findings, saying: "We will not make excuses, we will make changes."

When the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis brought such deaths to greater public attention, sparking widespread protests and riots, Taylor's case came under fresh scrutiny.

The national debate over police violence was again rekindled in early 2023 after the death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, after a brutal beating by officers in Memphis, Tennessee.

Five officers involved in the beating, video of which was later released to the public, have been fired and are facing murder charges.

As in the Breonna Taylor case, some of the officers involved in Nichols's death were part of a specialized police unit deployed to high-crime areas.

The Justice Department announced on Wednesday that it was launching an investigation into Memphis police policies as well as a broader probe into specialized units around the country.