LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Louisville police officers are voicing their frustrations after a number of them said they were threatened to take off their riot gear or be suspended while clearing out Jefferson Square Park on Sunday night.
Retired LMPD Officer George Rodman told WAVE 3 News the order was given to the group of officers despite concerns for their own safety.
“I don’t want any family to go through a tragic event and you can’t explain to me why you would put them in that situation,” Rodman said.
Rodman said the concerns were legitimate especially after the square had become the scene of a chaotic, deadly shooting the night before.
“The officers were coming to me that is was very dangerous situation with people walking around with AR’s, handguns, bullet proof vests,” Rodman said. “It was a hostile environment.”
Tyler Gerth, a local photographer documenting the protests was shot in the head by Steven Lopez, a man who had been camping at the site, according to reports. Videos showed the moments of the shooting as several shots rang out.
Rodman called Gerth’s death tragic and said Fischer should not have allowed camping at Jefferson Square.
After the deadly shooting, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer ordered the park be cleared of tenting supplies and announced the park would be closed off to overnight campers. Amy Hess, the city’s Public Safety Director, said Sunday the decision was made for public safety and because of increasing reports of violence at the site.
The park was to be cleared out as of 11 p.m. Sunday, just as online videos showed crowds growing in numbers. LMPD officers were tasked with their removal.
That is when, according to Rodman and the Kentucky State Fraternal Order of Police, a group of officers was ordered to put down their riot gear, including their helmets and shields, to conduct what their commanders described as a “soft approach.” The officers who voiced their concerns for their safety were threatened to be immediately suspended, the FOP said.
The orders to remove their riot gear came after people with long guns were found and removed from a nearby rooftop, Kentucky FOP President Bill Purdue said.
Purdue said tragic scenarios have played out before where officers have become targets while doing their jobs.
“Nearly four years ago, July 2016, 12 officers were shot and five were killed in Dallas, Texas,” he wrote. “One man, with ill-intentions, gunned down innocent people; just like what happened last night in Louisville. In Dallas, the armed gunman used different points of elevation to fire on Dallas police officers. These officers were protecting the First Amendment rights of citizens protesting, just as officers in Louisville have done over the last four weeks.”
Purdue added that on multiple occasions in the last few weeks, officers have been shot at and incendiary devices were used against them during the protests. He called the orders for them to put down their riot gear “shameful and unsafe.”
"The men and women of the Louisville Metro Police Department have yet again been failed by faulty leadership," he said. "I would never ask them to do something I would not be willing to do myself. Nor would I ask them to walk into a potentially violent situation without protective equipment they have at their disposal."
The local chapter of the FOP’s President Ryan Nichols said officers should not have been threatened with discipline over safety concerns. Nichols added that had there been a more completed description of what was being asked of officers, there would have been more officers OK with the soft response.
This latest backlash comes after Fischer was criticized by officers for giving LMPD orders to stand down during recent protests, even as peaceful protesters and innocent residents were in danger, they claimed.
Fischer responded to those criticisms, stating the orders were not given by him, but rather by his interim Chief, Robert Schroeder.
LMPD Spokesperson, Jesse Halladay said they opted to enter the park with officers in regular uniforms being “cognizant that presence of officers in heavy gear can elevate tensions among protesters,” she said.
Halladay added they had their special response team ready to respond if necessary after having observed guns in the park. She also said no officer was sent home or disciplined.