By Tessa Duvall, The Courier-Journal
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Calling it a “close” case, Jefferson Circuit Judge Barry Willett has ruled the Louisville Metro Police Department does not have to release its investigative file into the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor.
At least for now.
Because Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron has not announced if his office will prosecute the officers who fired their weapons at Taylor’s apartment March 13 and killed her, Willett wrote that LMPD’s file is “exempt from disclosure” under Kentucky law.
“We think he’s wrong,” said Jon Fleischaker, attorney for The Courier Journal and the architect of Kentucky’s open records laws.
The Courier Journal will appeal the ruling because taxpayers deserve to know what LMPD investigators shared with other agencies, Editor Richard Green said.
“We have two priorities in pursuing this appeal: holding LMPD accountable to Kentucky’s law on public records while also providing an unvarnished look at the Breonna Taylor investigation to our readers,” he said.
“Of course, city officials want to keep their work private and avoid the harsh scrutiny of interested parties. We have little regard for what the police chief said. The bottom line is simple: This specific investigation is wrapped up and should be released, and I am confident it will be.”
The Courier Journal sued LMPD in May, seeking the immediate release of the department’s investigative file into Taylor’s death. The Courier Journal had requested a copy of the file May 20, the same day Mayor Greg Fischer announced it had been turned over to Cameron’s office for review.
LMPD denied the request, prompting the suit.
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Willett’s decision, signed Sept. 17, relies heavily on a July affidavit from LMPD interim Chief Robert Schroeder, in which he says the Public Integrity Unit case “is still an active, ongoing investigation.”
Releasing the investigative report early, Schroeder said, could lead to a “substantial risk of harm to the investigation and prosecution,” and those harms are “magnified because of the public attention to this case.”
Willett, in his ruling, agreed with Schroeder.
“Given the unique amount of public concern and criticism stemming from Ms. Taylor’s death, one can make a rational connection between the kinds of records described by Chief Schroeder and the likely harm that would arise from their premature release,” Willett wrote.
A representative of LMPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Fleischaker said Willett’s ruling gives police a “get-out-of-jail-free card” when it comes to disclosing records.
“Under his rationale, all the police have to do with any internal affairs investigation is declare it to be part of a criminal investigation, and they’re home free,” he said. “They don’t have to release it. And that’s not, in my judgment, that’s not what the law was intended to be or what it is.”The Courier Journal has consistently argued that the investigative file was an internal report that became final when it was sent to outside law enforcement agencies May 20. Therefore, the newspaper argued, it should be released under the state open records law.
In June, Schroeder fired one of the officers in the investigation based on the case file. The Courier Journal then filed a motion arguing the department had “willfully” violated the state’s Open Records Act.
LMPD and other governmental entities “selectively disclosed portions of the file that support their preferred narrative(s), while simultaneously claiming that release of any other information will harm an investigation being conducted by different law enforcement agencies,” attorneys representing The Courier Journal wrote.
“This patronizing logic violates both the letter and spirit of the Open Records Act, which was enacted to ensure that ‘public servants are indeed serving the public,'” attorneys said.
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Willett ultimately sided with LMPD, which had argued the investigative file was not an internal investigation, but rather, a criminal investigation.
LMPD also has said in previous court filings that the news media was more interested in publishing stories than ensuring a fair investigation.
And in a court hearing before Willett on Aug. 24, attorney Paul Guagliardo said even once Cameron decides whether to charge the officers who shot Taylor, the police department may not immediately release the case file.
Guagliardo said LMPD would have a “yellow light” to release materials at that point, but that additional exemptions to the open records law could apply.