How KY police shootings are investigated, why some question ‘independence’ of investigations

When a Lexington officer shot a man in the summer of 2020 amid daily nationwide protests over police brutality, calls for increased law enforcement transparency were frequent.

The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police prompted increased scrutiny on police shootings.

But transparency wasn’t prioritized in that July 31, 2020, shooting. Kentucky State Police launched an investigation into the incident and refused to release key documentation of the shooting, like body camera video, before their investigation was completed. Ultimately, despite repeated open records requests, the video was never voluntarily released.

More than two years later, when Nicholasville police shot and killed 22-year-old Desman LaDuke in his Central Kentucky home, further calls were made for greater police transparency. Criticism mounted over KSP’s preference to stonewall the release of documentation on a shooting committed by law enforcement.

A Herald-Leader review of several state police investigations into shootings committed by police over the last five years indicated the investigations are thorough — for each investigation, state police conducted hours upon hours of interviews, reviewed documents from police officers who were involved in the shooting, and issued a final report on the incident that was hundreds of pages long in some instances.

KSP documents obtained by the Herald-Leader through the Kentucky Open Records Act indicate that state investigators spent 200 hours on some cases.

But despite the hundreds of pages of documentation filed by investigators, public access remains inconsistent: Kentucky State Police do not notify the public when they’ve concluded an investigation into a shooting committed by police, nor do they voluntarily make the findings public. Additionally, KSP’s investigations have never led to prosecution.

When Lexington officer Miller Owens shot Darion Worfolk in 2020, the shooting which happened amid racial justice protests, state police investigators interviewed Owens for nearly an hour.

They asked him about his past law enforcement experience, his training, his eyesight, his education, his police beat, his schedule, all the items and weapons he carries on him while working, where he was when he took the call that led to the shooting and what route he took to the scene.

In the interview, Owens recounted his encounter with Worfolk. Less than 35 seconds passed from the time Owens stepped out of his cruiser to the time he opened fire on Worfolk. He got out of his car with his police-issued Glock 17 already in hand. After unsuccessfully trying to get Worfolk to stop and show his hands, he fired three shots in rapid succession.

Worfolk did have a gun in his waistband at the time of the shooting. A caller told 911 dispatchers that he had the gun. While fleeing Owens, just before Owens fired three shots, Worfolk appeared to turn toward Owens with his hand on his gun, according to body camera footage.

“I felt that my life was in imminent danger,” Owens told state police when they asked him why he used lethal force. “He had a deadly weapon and he was prepared to use it.”

KSP also asked him why he didn’t use his agency-issued taser as a way to employ less significant force.

“I didn’t want to take the risk of putting my life in danger by actually having to holster my weapon, cross-draw my taser and actually have it fail on me,” Owens replied.

The final report issued by KSP investigators was 304 pages long. It accounted for many factors and aspects of the incident, and weighed the actions of the officer who shot someone against the legal statutes in Kentucky. It also said KSP presented the case to a grand jury, which took no action.

The investigation documents for five such shootings in the last five years were obtained by the Herald-Leader through the Kentucky Open Records Act. State police denied requests for documents in additional investigations because the incidents were either still under investigation, part of an active court case or involved juveniles.

Police initially thought one victim shot himself

KSP’s investigation into Means’ shooting found that Lexington police officer Ichiro Vance opened fire after Means fled from a car that Vance was investigating. Vance chased Means, who pulled a gun out of his shorts during the chase and attempted to toss it away, according to the investigation.

As Means was pulling the gun out, Vance shot him, the investigation found.

Means hit the ground, and Vance detained him. But he noticed blood, and realized Means had been hit. First responders put a tourniquet on him, and sent him to University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital.

State police found six shell casings at the scene of the shooting. Vance’s agency-issued gun, a Glock pistol, held 17 rounds. Based on a count of ammo in his gun after the shooting, police determined he would’ve fired five times. So they thought the sixth casing came from Means.

But it didn’t. All of the shell casings were the same and came from the same weapon. It turned out Vance’s gun was actually capable of holding 18 rounds. He’d fired six shots, and hit Means. Vance said he felt justified in shooting Means.

“I thought he was gonna shoot me,” Vance told KSP investigators when they asked him why he fired at Means. “I thought there was, there was a threat.”

KSP investigators asked Vance if he was trained to meet potentially deadly force with less lethal force. He said no. The Lexington Police Department’s response to resistance policy does dictate that officers can use deadly force if they feel their own life is threatened.

“An officer may use deadly physical force only when the officer reasonably believes that the action is in defense of human life, including the officer’s own life, or in defense of any person in immediate danger of serious physical injury,” LPD’s order on responding to resistance says.

Additionally, the policy states that an officer can alter the way they respond to resistance if they know a suspect has access to a gun.

Jim Goble, a lieutenant with KSP at the time who was investigating the shooting, asked if Vance felt that using any other weapon besides his gun would’ve been “inappropriate for this situation.”

Vance replied: “100 percent, yes.”

A Lexington police officer stands outside Fyre Entertainment, a local Lexington business, after an officer shot a suspect near the business. Photo via Kentucky State Police investigation documents

A Lexington police officer stands outside Fyre Entertainment, a local Lexington business, after an officer shot a suspect near the business. Photo via Kentucky State Police investigation documents

Lexington cops who fatally shot man: ‘Nothing else’ could’ve ended threat

The five Lexington officers who shot and killed Frederick Clint Miller on Gay Place in March 2022 unanimously shared a similar stance when asked about using lethal force against a person.

Miller was armed with a rifle slung over his back and a handgun and didn’t comply with police before he was shot, according to an investigation into the incident.

Police were initially dispatched to the Gay Place area after receiving a report of shots fired, according to the investigation. While en route, police received a 911 call from a woman living on Gay Place who said Miller had destroyed their home, had a gun and threatened to harm himself.

A short time later, a neighbor of Miller’s reported that he fired shots at her house from his home, according to investigation documents.

Multiple officers arrived on scene and set up a perimeter around the area. One of the officers tried to talk to Miller through a PA system. Miller eventually came outside and made threatening and agitated statements, according to KSP’s investigation.

Officer Matthew Barrett told KSP investigators he tried to defuse the situation, but Miller wouldn’t comply and fired at Barrett.

“I gave him multiple commands to drop the weapons, drop the weapons — he wouldn’t do it. I told him that we were all there to help him, he said that we were lying and that we weren’t there to help him,” Barrett said in his interview with KSP. “I told him that we all just wanted to go home and that we’re all gonna go home tonight. We’re here to help, and then he said no.”

Barrett and four other officers — patrol officers Brandon Soublo, Megan Padgett, Benjamin Evans and Sgt. James McCullough — opened fire on Miller and shot him.

Officers and the Lexington Fire Department attempted to administer aid to Barrett, but they determined he was dead on scene. A medical examiner’s report indicated Barrett was shot 13 times.

All of the officers involved told KSP deadly force was necessary to respond to what Miller was doing.

“He displayed deadly force by firing at us. He was armed with a firearm the whole time,” Padgett said. “… At that point, there’s nothing else that’s going to be able to stop the threat, and that’s the point.”

Car theft ended with police shooting. Video was posted online.

In April 2021, several Georgetown police officers chased Deshund Tanner as he drove a Chevrolet truck with a flat tire into a McDonald’s parking lot, according to a KSP investigation. Tanner was accused of pulling into the McDonald’s and attempting to steal someone’s car at gunpoint.

Tanner allegedly pulled his gun on officers when they arrived. They responded by opening fire on him multiple times, shooting and killing him the morning of April 9.

The shooting happened in front of customers who were ordering breakfast at the restaurant, according to the investigation. Two witnesses in the same car told police they saw the whole incident unfold and said Tanner appeared to have a gun on him when he tried to take someone’s car, according to investigation documents.

Body camera video from Sgt. Joseph Payton showed that Payton yelled at Tanner to drop his gun before police fired more than a dozen shots at him. Officers had also opened fire on Tanner before Payton’s body camera video started, according to KSP’s investigation. After those shots were fired, Payton climbed on top of the car.

It was unclear how many times Tanner had been shot. His body was blurred out in body camera video, but several bullet holes were visible through the windshield of the car. In addition to Payton, seven officers were seen in the video with guns drawn on Tanner.

More than 2-and-a-half minutes after police stopped firing at Tanner, they moved in and took the gun away from him.

At that point, Payton told dispatchers to “send EMS now.”

Officer Christian Squires, who was involved in the incident, told investigators that police fired at Tanner and then kept their distance because he still had the gun in his hand despite being shot. The officers eventually decided to move in because they thought the threat was eliminated.

“The firearm was still in his hand, but he wasn’t moving,” Squires said in an interview with KSP investigators. “There was — to me there was no — even though the firearm was still in his hand, it looked like to me that there was no further threat from the firearm by the way his body went kinda limp after we finished firing.”

Police handcuffed Tanner, according to Squires, and paramedics took him to a hospital.

Officer Cole Robert Centner, another officer involved in the incident, said he shot at Tanner while Tanner was trying to steal someone’s vehicle at gunpoint, according to transcripts of an interview between Centner and KSP.

Centner said he opened fire on Tanner while he was trying to get into a car with civilians inside. He said he didn’t think he could’ve waited any longer to shoot because there was an “active threat” as Tanner held a gun to people inside the car.

“He was a deadly threat to another individual,” Centner said when KSP asked him why he fired. “… I could not wait a second longer.”

Payton, the officer whose body camera captured much of the incident, told investigators he arrived on scene and heard other officers yelling for Tanner to drop his weapon. He said Tanner had already been shot but there was “zero cover” for officers.

Payton said he climbed on top of the hood of the car because it gave him the best vantage point, and that he wouldn’t have fired his gun if Tanner had complied with officers. Payton also told KSP that he stopped firing once Tanner dropped his gun, before he climbed onto the hood of the car.

No officers were hurt in the incident.

Several witnesses at or near the scene posted videos to social media, but none of the videos showed Tanner during the incident. Two separate bursts of gunfire from police could be heard.

KSP’s investigation resulted in all the officers involved being cleared of any wrongdoing, and the four officers who actually fired their guns at Tanner were later awarded for their response in the incident, according to a report from WLEX18.

Bystander video shows a Georgetown police officer standing on the hood of a car after multiple officers opened fire on a suspect in an attempted car theft. Photo via Kentucky State Police investigation documents

Bystander video shows a Georgetown police officer standing on the hood of a car after multiple officers opened fire on a suspect in an attempted car theft. Photo via Kentucky State Police investigation documents

KSP addresses concern over ‘friendship’ with local police, transparency

Despite the hundreds of pages of documentation, evidence, analysis and interviews that went into their final evaluation of each incident, there are concerns that close ties between KSP and local law enforcement agencies compromise the “independence” of investigations.

Attorney Daniel Whitley, who represented Worfolk in the criminal case that stemmed from his arrest after being shot, cast doubt on whether a KSP investigation could truly be considered independent because state troopers often have a “friendship and a brother-or-sisterhood” with local law enforcement agencies.

“How can you really trust their independent nature of the investigation into local law enforcement?” Whitley asked.

Whitley also raised concern about KSP conducting these investigations due to past controversies involving KSP training materials, which were found to have concerning references to Adolf Hitler and Robert E. Lee in them.

Whitley said the investigation into Worfolk being shot was not part of the criminal case against him.

Adele Burt Brown, an attorney who represented Marcellis Means after he was shot by a Lexington officer in 2019, echoed a similar concern about the close connection between KSP and local law enforcement agencies. Brown also said there were concerns about how Means was treated medically.

He wasn’t held at the hospital overnight and went to jail with just a bandage, Brown said.

“He was in pretty significant pain,” Brown said. “Didn’t really get treatment and that’s the really big issue for me, is not being able to get medical treatment that my clients needed.”

Brown represented Means in a federal case after he was shot. Means, a convicted felon, had a gun on him at the time of the shooting. He faced a federal charge of possessing a gun as a felon and ultimately pleaded guilty in that case.

Brown said the shooting didn’t play any role in the court case.

KSP representatives declined to be interviewed for this story but provided answers to several questions and a statement via email.

In the statement, Paul Blanton, the captain of public affairs for the agency, said these investigations are handled by the Critical Incident Response Team. The team is a group of 18 investigators which the agency formed in 2017. The team investigated 28 “officer-involved shootings,” in-custody deaths and murders of police officers in 2022, KSP said.

“The unit was formed to increase responsible transparency and build public trust by utilizing standardized procedures, focused resources, quality fact-gathering, and swift response,” Blanton said in an email.

Blanton also said each investigation into an officer shooting is reviewed by a state prosecutor.

“Based on a commonwealth attorney’s review, the case may be presented to a grand jury,” Blanton said.

KSP’s Critical Incident Response Team had investigated 141 critical incidents through the end of 2022. Zero of those investigations have resulted in criminal prosecution, according to Blanton.

Blanton acknowledged that detectives on the Critical Incident Response Team “may be called on to investigate an officer, deputy, or trooper they know or have previously worked with.”

“However, only one detective does not handle an entire CIRT investigation,” Blanton said. “Several detectives will respond to a call for service, and all will be expected to fully and completely uncover all evidence in an incident. The peers on the CIRT and their supervisors ensure the investigation is impartial and unbiased.”

The detectives on the team must serve at least three years as a state trooper before they can be selected for the team, Blanton said.

“They are committed to a thorough investigation, collecting all relevant evidence documenting the specific circumstances of an incident,” he said. “Releasing specific facts of a case before a prosecutor has decided on the legality of the use of force could influence a potential juror or grand jury member.

“CIRT does not decide on the legality of an officer involved shooting or deadly force encounter. The prosecutor determines whether or not to move forward with prosecution of officer use of force investigations.”

KSP officers may stay in the hospital with people involved in critical incidents while they receive treatment, Blanton said.

A review of several investigations carried about by KSP found that officers felt justified in each instance when they fired on a suspect.

Among other efforts to make changes within KSP, Gov. Andy Beshear announced in November 2021 he was allocating money to the agency for body cameras. KSP troopers haven’t worn body cameras in the past, but 780 sworn officers are expected to be equipped with them by the end of this year.

Blanton called the $12.2 million investment for the cameras a “much-needed expense.”

While the cameras will provide regular video footage of police interactions that previously went unrecorded, KSP’s willingness to release such footage to the public has been inconsistent.

KSP Commissioner Phillip Burnett Jr. told the Herald-Leader in a statement he was “committed to protecting the integrity of all investigations, interactions with the public and our state officials as we conduct law enforcement in the right way.”

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