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City to pay $12M to Breonna Taylor's family, reform police

LOUISVILLE – The city of Louisville agreed to pay $12 million to the family of Breonna Taylor and reform police practices as part of a settlement announced Tuesday, months after Taylor’s slaying by police thrust the Black woman’s name to the forefront of a national reckoning on race.

But Taylor’s mother and others said more must be done to right the wrongs of racial injustice in America.

“Please continue to say her name,” Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, said at a news conference, evoking the call that has become a national refrain for those outraged by the shooting and police violence.

Taylor’s death sparked protests in Louisville and calls for the officers to be criminally charged. The state’s attorney general, Daniel Cameron, is investigating police actions in the March 13 fatal shooting.

“I cannot begin to imagine Ms. Palmer’s pain, and I am deeply, deeply sorry for Breonna’s death,” Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said in announcing the lawsuit settlement.

Standing nearby as the mayor spoke, Palmer said the police reforms weren’t enough.

“We must not lose focus on what the real job is, and with that being said, it’s time to move forward with the criminal charges, because she deserves that and much more,” Palmer said. “As significant as today is, it’s only the beginning of getting full justice for Breonna.”

The lawsuit, which Palmer filed in April, accused police of using flawed information when they obtained a “no-knock” warrant to enter the apartment. Taylor and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, were roused from bed by police, and Walker said he fired at the officers, thinking they were intruders. Investigators said police were returning fire when they shot Taylor several times.

No drugs were found at the home.

Dissatisfaction with the settlement extended to “Injustice Square” in Louisville, where demonstrators have gathered daily for 113 days, demanding justice for Taylor. Some who listened to the announcement over a loudspeaker near a memorial for Taylor said the price for a life seemed low, the promised reforms too little and too late.

“It’s just not enough,” said Holly McGlawn, who noted how much Taylor might have made had she lived.

She was young and could have worked for another 40 or 50 years, she said.

“You can’t put a price on a Black woman being able to sleep at night and know she’s not going to get murdered,” McGlawn said.

“Justice delayed is justice denied. There was a better way to handle this,” said Shameka Parrish-Wright, who has been part of the daily demonstrations.

Palmer left the news conference with one of her attorneys, Ben Crump, and met with protesters at the nearby park.

Crump said the $12 million payout is the largest such settlement given out for a Black woman killed by police.

The settlement “sets a precedent for Black people,” he said. “When (police) kill us we expect full justice. We expect justice for the civil rights that you took from this human being. And then we expect full justice from the criminal justice system.”

In the time since Taylor’s shooting, her death – along with George Floyd and others – has become a rallying cry for protesters seeking a reckoning on racial justice and police reform. High-profile celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and LeBron James have called for the officers to be charged in Taylor’s death.

Palmer’s lawsuit accused three Louisville police officers of blindly firing into Taylor’s apartment the night of the raid, striking Taylor several times. One of the officers, Jonathan Mattingly, went into the home after the door was broken down and was struck in the leg by the gunshot from Walker.

The warrant was one of five issued in a wide-ranging investigation of a drug trafficking suspect who was a former boyfriend of Taylor’s. That man, Jamarcus Glover, was arrested at a different location about 10 miles from Taylor’s apartment on the same evening.

The settlement includes reforms on how warrants are handled by police, Fischer said.

Other reforms seek to build stronger community connections by establishing a housing credit program to encourage officers to live in certain low-income areas in the city. Officers will also be encouraged to perform two paid hours of volunteer work every two weeks in the communities where they serve. The city will also track police use-of-force incidents and citizen complaints.

The city has already taken some other reform measures, including passing a law named for Taylor that bans the use of the no-knock warrants. Police typically use them in drug cases over concern that evidence could be destroyed if they announce their arrival.

Fischer fired former police chief Steve Conrad in June and last week named Yvette Gentry, a former deputy chief, as the interim police chief. Gentry would be the first Black woman to lead the force of about 1,200 sworn officers. The department has also fired Brett Hankison, one of the three officers who fired shots at Taylor’s apartment that night. Hankison is appealing the dismissal.

The largest settlement previously paid in a Louisville police misconduct case was $8.5 million in 2012, to a man who spent nine years in prison for a crime he did not commit, according to news reports.

Sentencing trial begins in BG murder case

A jury was seated Tuesday to consider the sentence for a man who admitted killing his housemate.

Justin Denihan, 26, of Bowling Green, pleaded guilty to murder, tampering with physical evidence and abuse of a corpse in the death of Kelly Hackett.

Denihan admitted strangling Hackett, 47, in her Pleasant Place Way home, cutting her body with a knife and stuffing the body in a 40-gallon tote Aug. 19, 2017.

A jury of 14 people was seated Tuesday in Warren Circuit Court to decide the sentence for Denihan, who could spend 20 to 50 years in prison or be sentenced to life.

In his opening statement, Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Cohron urged jurors to pay attention to the details of Denihan’s actions.

“This case won’t be as much about what he did, but instead how he did it,” Cohron said.

A number of law enforcement witnesses are anticipated to testify Wednesday, and Hackett’s father is also expected to give testimony about how Hackett’s death has affected him.

Defense attorney Diana Werkman of the state Department of Public Advocacy urged jurors to consider details of the case with an open mind.

“We are here to humbly ask you to find some mercy for Justin Denihan,” Werkman said.

Denihan has been in the Warren County Regional Jail since his arrest on the day of the homicide.

Werkman said during her opening statement that jurors would hear about Denihan’s drug addiction before the slaying, how his memory of events during the time of the slaying contains a lot of gaps and his spiritual awakening while he has been in custody.

Denihan and his father, Daniel Denihan, plan to testify Wednesday.

Jurors heard testimony Tuesday from Donna Stewart of the Office of the Kentucky Medical Examiner, who performed the autopsy on Hackett.

Stewart said the autopsy showed Hackett suffered injuries as a result of both manual and ligature strangulation and sharp force trauma.

Though her body was found with electrical cord tied around her feet, Stewart said she could not conclude that the cord had been used to strangle Hackett.

Stewart also documented a deep, c-shaped cut extending from around Hackett’s left shoulder near her neck to her chest.

Questioned by Cohron, Stewart said that either the sharp force injury or the strangulation injuries on their own would have been enough to cause Hackett’s death.

Stewart also said a toxicology report showed the presence of methamphetamine and gabapentin in Hackett’s system.

The jury will return Wednesday. The hearing is expected to conclude that day.

– Follow courts reporter Justin Story on Twitter @jstorydailynews or visit bgdailynews.com.

Commission OKs updates to ethics ordinance

The Bowling Green City Commission on Tuesday approved changes to the city’s code of ordinances regarding penalties for ethics violations but left out a provision that would assess legal fees on a city employee found to have violated the city code of ethics.

The changes come about a year after a high-profile ethics investigation of Commissioner Brian “Slim” Nash. In May 2019, Nash was arrested on public intoxication charges after he attended a concert at the Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center. He later pleaded guilty and paid a $25 fine, plus court costs.

The city ethics board hired an attorney to lead an ethics probe of Nash.

In October, the city ethics board ruled Nash violated the city’s code of ethics. A settlement agreement between Nash and the ethics board called for a four-week leave of absence from his official duties, for Nash to donate his salary (roughly $1,200) from that time to a local substance abuse recovery center and for Nash to undergo counseling.

An open records act filing from the Daily News revealed the city’s bill for the ethics probe was $20,062.30. In November, commissioners expressed a desire to investigate ways to not incur such costs in the future, and ethics board Chairman Barry Pruitt said the board would make some proposals.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Pruitt said the effort to come up with proposed changes was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the changes aim to “honor fairness and promote trust” in city government.

While there were many smaller changes to the ethics ordinance, the primary one was adding a provision that a city employee found to have violated the code of ethics could be required by the ethics board to “pay a portion or all the legal costs incurred ... which may be recovered by the City in a civil action in the nature of debt if the offender fails to pay the penalty within a prescribed period of time.”

Commissioner Joe Denning questioned the fairness of assessing legal fees on a lower-wage, entry-level employee.

City Manager Jeff Meisel said most issues with employee misconduct are handled internally and wouldn’t go to the ethics board.

Pruitt said “it’s all about accountability,” adding that the solution to avoid the legal fees is to not violate the code of ethics.

Commissioner Dana Beasley-Brown said she was concerned about anonymous, politically motivated complaints leading to thousands of dollars in legal fees.

A provision of a possible $1,000 fine for ethics code violators remained in the proposed revised ordinance. Beasley Brown said she therefore supported keeping the $1,000 cap without adding legal fees.

Commissioner Sue Parrigin questioned whether the city would ever accept an anonymous complaint. Bowling Green Mayor Bruce Wilkerson clarified that the city does accept anonymous complaints.

It was further clarified that legal fees could only be assessed if a person was found to have violated the ethics code.

Denning made a motion to delete the revised ethics ordinance language regarding attorney fees and the $1,000 fine and to have the ethics board work with city commissioners on a new proposal. Beasley Brown seconded the motion, which was approved after it was also voted for by Nash. Parrigin and Wilkerson voted no.

A second and binding reading of the changes is slated for the next commission meeting Oct. 2.

Meanwhile, the city is not changing its property tax rate.

During Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners voted on a second and final reading to keep property taxes at the current rate of $0.205 per $100 of assessed value.

Because of growth in the city, Bowling Green still stands to see an increase in property tax revenue even without a rate hike. The 2021 fiscal year property tax revenue projection is $10.9 million, up from 2020’s $10.5 million.

– Follow Managing Editor Wes Swietek on Twitter @WesSwietek or visit bgdaily news.com.

Local superintendents respond to state's new virus reporting requirements

After Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration announced what it called new reporting requirements Monday for COVID-19 cases linked to schools – including a mandate that parents immediately report positive results for their children – local superintendents said that’s already happening in their districts.

“That’s primarily how we are finding out about cases,” Superintendent Gary Fields of the Bowling Green Independent School District said Tuesday.

Whether calls from parents come in late at night or on weekends, “they are communicating that with us,” Fields said. He noted the district also offers rapid testing in its schools through its partnership with Graves Gilbert Clinic, allowing the school to learn of positive results “immediately.”

Warren County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Clayton said parents are also alerting schools in his district of positive cases among their children.

At present, Clayton said, the Warren County district has no information to suggest that student-to-student spread of the virus is occurring. The number of positive virus cases among students who learn purely online and those who attend school in person is almost the same, Clayton said, contending that shows the district’s efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 are working.

At least for the moment, Clayton said, “we don’t see any information to suggest that we should close our schools.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, a state map illustrating county-level virus incidence rates showed Warren County in the red, a development that Beshear said should spur school districts to “absolutely rethink in-person classes.” The incidence rate represents the average daily case total per 100,000 people, based on the previous seven days.

In response, Clayton said his district is continuing to unpack how that rate is calculated and whether Western Kentucky University’s sizable student population is a factor.

“The biggest challenge we have throughout this whole process is the communication coming to the school districts,” Clayton said, describing it as one of the biggest challenges he’s ever faced as a school leader.

Fields said the Bowling Green district is also basing its decision on conditions it sees on the ground. Fields said Tuesday there are four active student cases and five active staff cases in his district. Given that, he said it’s untenable to deprive students of in-person instruction.

“Our plan is to continue to have school,” Fields said.

Under the new reporting requirements under an emergency regulation Beshear issued Monday, a parent would have 24 hours to report their child’s positive case to their school.

“The school will have to define the process by which they would like that reporting to occur,” Kentucky Public Health Commissioner Dr. Steven Stack said.

Upon receipt of that information, Stack said, schools will “have to report Monday through Friday every day that school’s in session the number of new students, number of new faculty and staff (and) also the number of quarantined students and quarantined staff.”

Those metrics are for “school-related activities” only, Stack said. Those daily totals will ultimately be used to populate an online dashboard in hopes of offering more timely information to communities, Stack said.

“We hope that this dashboard will provide real-time, actionable information,” Stack said.

The changes are set to go into effect Sept. 28.

Also accompanying the new reporting requirements is updated guidance for schools on instruction. The guidance is in effect as long as the state’s positivity rate is less than 6 percent and the health care system has sufficient capacity to address the pandemic, a news release from the governor’s office said.

Under the guidance, a color-coded map showing incidence rates will provide districts with corresponding guidance. It will be updated every Thursday evening to guide schools for the following week, the release said.

Schools in green and yellow zones will follow the state’s Healthy at Schools guidance, while those in orange are encouraged to reevaluate their instruction models. Counties in red are advised to suspend in-person instruction for the following week, reserving their buildings for small groups of students while the rest study online.

“Let me be clear, that there is not going to be an overall recommendation coming from me or my office post-Sept. 28,” Beshear said Monday. “What’s going to be provided is the information to make a week-by-week decision in our various school districts and counties based on prevalence and what public health experts believe is the right course based on that prevalence.”

– Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @BGDN_edbeat or visit bgdailynews.com.

Justin Denihan