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Lexington police chief reflects on challenges of 2020

Chief Lawrence Weathers looks back on a year marked by protests and the pandemic, and looks ahead to 2021.
Published: Dec. 30, 2020 at 4:09 PM EST
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - Police officers were under a microscope in 2020 as the United States reckoned with a long history of racial injustice.

The issue came into stark focus as protests erupted in cities all across the country, including in Lexington, with organizers pushing for reform and greater accountability.

Lexington Police Chief Lawrence Weathers says he recognizes that he is in a unique position, as a Black man and law enforcement leader, amid those conversations.

“You get to hear a lot of things on both sides and get a feel for how people are feeling,” Chief Weathers said in a recent interview with WKYT. “That makes you have some empathy - and it makes you have some sympathy - for what some people are asking for and why. When you’re explaining the need for some of these changes, that comes in handy.”

Even with a new year beginning, it is clear that the coronavirus, calls for change and other obstacles confronting officers over the past year are re-shaping policing as the calendar turns to 2021.

WKYT’s Grason Passmore spoke with Chief Weathers for close to half an hour about the challenges of 2020, the city’s record number of homicides and pushes for policy changes going forward.

“What I try to tell my officers and what I try to tell some of the people that I talk to, is that you may not be able to get everything you want but there are some compromises that can be made,” he said. “That’s how people end up making things better. They compromise for the good of everybody.”

Still, in a year marked by the pandemic and protests for racial justice, Chief Weathers said he is proud of his department.

“I still see our officers being the guardians that they need to be,” he said. “I still see them addressing criminal activity when it needs to be addressed. I also see them following the policies and procedures that need to be followed to make sure justice is served to everybody.

“Given some of the things that have happened around the country, some of the things that have been said about police, I can understand, it would be easy for someone just to turn away and say, ‘Uh, I’m not going to go at this like I need to,’” Chief Weathers said. “But I think the professionalism, the dedication and the commitment of our personnel overcame that.”

Chief Weathers expressed a willingness to adjust and expand the department’s bias training.

“We’ve already been doing that,” he said of bias training for his officers. “That’s been a requirement for quite a while. Adding a few more pieces to it, if that’s what the public wants, that’s what we’ll do. And it’s going to make us better.”

Weathers said the department is also looking at moving supervisors to more of a trainer concept, in which supervisors can teach officers what to do when they’re on the street and how to recognize their biases and adjust their behaviors.

The death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville hit a nerve here in Lexington, as it did across the country, bringing to light just what can go wrong with no-knock warrants.

In Lexington, those warrants are rare - using just four in the past five years, officials said previously. Now the approval process is even more strict, and only in a matter of life and death. A pre-filed bill in Frankfort - ‘Breonna’s Law’ - would ban them statewide.

“When you’re looking at no-knock search warrants, there’s people on both sides of that door. And you have to make decisions to keep both sides as safe as possible,” Chief Weathers said. “If you’re just focused on one side of it, then you increase the danger on the other side, and I think that’s some of the things the legislature is going to have to look at, and that’s some of the things we as police leaders look at, too: How we do maximize the protection on both sides of the door?”

Homicides are up in Lexington this year, setting the city’s record for the third time in the last four years.

Chief Weathers acknowledged that social distancing has been an additional challenge in investigating crimes.

After a year full of such challenges, Chief Weathers is looking ahead to the new year, and hoping, he says, to be as responsive as they can to what the community wants to see from them.

“I hope 2021 is a year that we can put all this behind us and move forward,” he said, “and start doing things that are right, not just for the city, but for the state and the country.”

The current Lexington police contract was set to expire in 2020, but it stays in place until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached. Negotiations for a new deal between the city and police union got off to a late start, but WKYT InvestigatesGarrett Wymer was told on Wednesday that talks are now in progress.

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