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In Louisville, Kentucky, homicides go unsolved as number of killings climbs

With 125 killings, the city is in danger of breaking its homicide record for a second straight year, as about 65 percent of slayings go unsolved.
Carl Fels in Louisville, Ky.
Carl Fels' 26-year-old son, Dominique Fels, was killed earlier this year in Louisville, Ky., while breaking up a fight.Andrew Cenci / for NBC News

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — This is a city under siege.

Homicides — particularly deadly shootings — have piled up with no clear end in sight.

The city had reported 125 homicides as of Sunday and is in danger of breaking its homicide record for a second consecutive year.

Roughly 65 percent of this year’s killings have gone unsolved, a sharp change from just three years ago when about 39 percent of killings were not resolved.

Louisville's current 34 percent solve rate falls far short of the 61.4 percent national average in 2019, the last year for which FBI data is available.

Louisville is one of several major U.S. cities grappling with a surge of violent crime over the past year and a half.

City officials and the Louisville Metro Police Department say they are working to find solutions and trying to regain control of the climbing homicide numbers and the woeful case-closure rate.

The city, for instance, has nearly quadrupled its investment in efforts to tackle violent crime by pumping money into officer recruitment, community outreach and social service programs.

But the mayor and others say progress, so far, has been stymied by myriad factors including easy access to guns, a shrinking police force and officers reluctant to carry out their duties because of increased scrutiny.

What’s more, the police killing of Breonna Taylor in March 2020 exacerbated issues of community mistrust of police, and a pending Justice Department investigation suggests there may be long-standing problems within the department.

Louisville Metro Police Chief Erika Shields, through her communications team, declined several requests for interviews.

During the inaugural episode of the police department’s podcast “On the Record,” she acknowledged the crime surge and said shootings “have to stop.”

“The pace at which we’re seeing these shootings is absolutely unacceptable,” Shields said.

Citywide slayings pierced the life of Marcus Collins, whose 17-year-old stepson, LaMaurie Gathings, was killed June 4.

"It’s really taken a toll on my wife. I’m here trying to hold it together," Collins said.

Sometime past 2 a.m., Gathings snuck out of the house to meet with his cousin.

A short while later, possibly after leaving a party, relatives said, Gathings was fatally shot. His cousin was shot three times, once in the neck, but survived.

“I still haven’t heard nothing. I haven’t heard anything about what happened or from the detective at all. It’s been a month,” Collins, 43, said.

Louisville police haven't arrested or charged anyone for Gathings’ killing.

“The police aren’t doing a good job investigating,” Collins said, adding that officers have told the family they don’t have enough resources to adequately investigate.

This points to a larger hurdle for the city: solving homicides.

Louisville is among several U.S. cities experiencing a high volume of homicides recently. The nation’s murder rate was up nearly 15 percent last year, according to a preliminary FBI report released in September.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the cause of the killings nationwide.

Some experts have said existing issues like rising gun ownership, poor relationships between police and citizens and socioeconomic inequality became worse during the pandemic and the 2020 calls for racial justice.

In Louisville, Mayor Greg Fischer attributes the number of homicides to easy gun access, social media beefs morphing into deadly street violence and a culture of retaliation.

“Anyone can walk down the street with an assault rifle. Guns are everywhere,” the mayor said.

Shields has stopped short of criticizing her officers but said on the department's podcast that officers could help prevent homicides by being more confident while on duty.

“It’s getting officers to feeling confident and knowing they can be proactive. I need them to be proactive. I need them to be making arrests,” the chief said on the podcast, which was posted to the police department’s YouTube page in June.

A January report commissioned by the Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government said Louisville officers may be experiencing low morale.

Officers who responded to a survey expressed concern about a lack of support and leadership from upper management and the community, resulting in many of them wanting to leave the department, according to the report, which was conducted by Hillard Heintze, a Chicago consulting firm.

Shawn Butler, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Chiefs of Police, said low morale doesn’t incentivize officers to do more than bare-minimum work.

“I think low morale is an occupational hazard. You aren’t going to do your job as effective,” Butler said. “It doesn’t help when we’ve had the civil unrest that we’ve had.”

Howard Henderson, a nonresident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., said more focus needs to be placed on why morale is low.

“It’s bad for the system to have officers with low morale. The lower the morale, the worse the job performance,” Henderson said. “The question really needs to be why is morale low? Is it that morale is low because people are being held accountable for the first time? Morale might be low for a good reason.”

The police department is short about 240 police officers, many of whom have retired or taken jobs elsewhere, city officials said.

As it stands, 1,048 officers make up the current Louisville police force, compared with 1,247 at the beginning of 2019, police records show.

That includes the 43 officers added this year either through recruitment or rehiring. That number is lower than in each of the last three years, records show.

Police officials say officers typically investigate four to five homicides per year, but they are now working eight to 10.

“It’s very difficult when you’re catching a homicide case every two weeks,” Lt. Donny Burbrink, the commander of the LMPD homicide unit, said during an LMPD podcast episode. "We’re having a very difficult time right now. If I pick up a homicide today, at the rate we’re on right now, in two weeks I’ll pick up another homicide.”

LMPD has been so short-staffed that last year the department pulled several officers from their regular beats to investigate homicides.

“When you put more cases on a homicide detective, that means there’s only so many interviews and investigations they can do in a 24-hour time,” said Henderson, who is also director of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University. “That means there are cases they aren’t going to even get to or they spend fewer hours working a case.”

Meanwhile, families left to grieve their slain children say the homicides must stop.

Delisa Love.
Delisa Love turned a room in her home into a memorial to her daughter, Kelsie Small.Andrew Cenci / for NBC News

“Living in Louisville is terrible,” said Delisa Love, 44, whose 19-year-old daughter, Kelsie Small, was killed hours before Mother’s Day last year. Small was a sophomore nursing student at Northern Kentucky University.

Love said her 21-year-old nephew survived being shot in June. She said she also lost a 17-year-old nephew to gun violence in 2006. “I’ve never seen so much violence,” Love said.

Louisville police confirmed nobody has been arrested in connection with Small's death.

Collins, whose son was killed earlier this summer, wants to know why more homicides aren’t being solved.

“My son was a good kid, just hard-headed. He didn’t have a criminal record,” Collins said.

Officials and residents say witnesses not bringing forth relevant information regarding homicides has stifled police efforts.

“I’m convinced it’s unusual for a homicide to take place and someone not know who did that,” Fischer said. “There’s going to be zero tolerance for gun crime, violent crime and homicides.”

That would require overcoming the broken relationship between police and members of the community, particularly people of color.

LMPD is currently under investigation by the Justice Department to determine whether officers engage in a “pattern or practice of violations of the Constitution or federal law.”

The investigation was announced in April, more than a year after officers killed Breonna Taylor in her apartment as they served a “no-knock” warrant. No criminal charges were brought in direct connection with Taylor’s death.

The shooting inflamed racial tensions in the city, prompted calls for police reform and led to numerous protests and the hiring of Shields as police chief.

“There’s no trust at some level. And when there’s no trust, you can’t get things accomplished in a collaborative way,” Louisville activist Christopher 2X said. “Most people don’t want to participate in any way or be connected to a violent crime through a judicial process.”

He added that when people think about feeling protected versus giving the police relevant information, they conclude it’s not worth it.

Love, who spent this year’s Mother’s Day surrounded by family, said charging someone in her daughter’s death will be difficult unless someone talks.

“It’s devastating. That was my baby, my only girl,” Love said.

Police say they are doing what they can to prevent gun violence.

“How do you stop these shootings? They have to stop. Our ground-level tactical units are getting far more engaged,” Shields said on the podcast. “They are identifying repeat violent offenders, and you’re going off after them and their network of associates. You’re not randomly just hoping that you get the right people. It’s a very deliberate effort, and the results are rolling in.”

City officials have increased gun violence prevention funding in this year’s city budget from $5 million to $19 million. The spending plan went into effect July 1.

More than $3 million will go toward enforcement initiatives allowing LMPD to expand technology, recruit a diverse workforce and train officers.

About $3 million more will be for a “deflection” program providing social service response when addressing people experiencing homelessness, mental health issues or substance abuse.

About $500,000 will go toward Reimage, a collaboration with KentuckianaWorks helping to stop incarceration and recidivism by connecting youths to education and training in IT, manufacturing and construction career fields.

Roughly $600,000 is for a new “reconciliation” program to build on the city’s work to improve relationships between LMPD and the larger community.

These city-touted initiatives come as little consolation for those who want swift change, arrests and a safer city.

“Things have gotten terrible. I don’t know what to say about it. I know people have gotten sick and tired of all this killing,” Carl Fels, 61, said.

His son, 26-year-old Dominique Fels, was gunned down earlier this year while breaking up a fight at a hotel.

Image: Carl Fels wears a photo of his son, Dominique Fels, on a chain.
Carl Fels wears a photo of his son, Dominique Fels, on a chain.Andrew Cenci / for NBC News

He was two days away from starting his job as a mail carrier with the U.S. Postal Service. The slain Fels left behind four children.

Louisville police say nobody has been charged for Fels’ killing. The father said he blames his son’s death on the city and police.

"They aren’t doing anything," the older Fels said, before calling for the installment of cameras in the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

“People are scared to come out their houses not knowing what’s going to happen,” he said.

Christopher 2X believes teaching grade school students about gun violence and labeling it a public health crisis would help stop killings.

“Gun violence is just like cancer or heart disease, there’s no cure. It’s more or less how bad does the community want the gun violence to drop,” Christopher 2X said.

Love spoke softly about her daughter, leaning on her faith, knowing that she’s in heaven with her father and grandmother.

“It’s my faith and the relationship with God that I have,” she said. “When you know Jesus, it’s not about when you’re going, it’s where you’re going. Everything was already wrote. I couldn’t have changed nothing that night. She’s always with me in spirit.”