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Lexington, Ky., PD Investigating Virtual Meeting Hijackings

A virtual public meeting regarding issues surrounding police discipline Wednesday was interrupted by callers shouting racist and homophobic remarks. The Zoom platform has struggled to stop this sort of activity.

A cellphone with the Zoom logo on the screen.
(TNS) — A session held via Zoom to allow Lexington citizens to comment on issues surrounding police discipline was hijacked more than a dozen times by trolls who shouted racist and homophobic slurs.

The callers would pose as Lexington citizens, sometimes give phony addresses and then shout racist, homophobic and antisemitic remarks.

Lexington police confirmed after Wednesday's meeting they were investigating the calls.

Lexington Vice Mayor Steve Kay said the Lexington council could not screen the calls and had no way of knowing if the names that appeared as callers were real Lexington citizens or those shouting racist phone calls.

The council has been meeting via Zoom for months because of restrictions on larger crowds put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Kay stopped public comment after the council received several racist phone calls in the first 90 minutes of the meeting. Kay apologized profusely for the calls. However, many Lexington citizens had signed up to speak and the council didn't want to cut off legitimate citizens.

Lexington-Fayette Urban County Councilwoman Angela Evans, who is Black, told the council the callers were not shocking to her or Councilman James Brown, who is also Black.

"I think you all may need to hear this more than James or I," Evans said. "I hear this just walking down the street."

Evans said because Zoom allowed people to hide behind fake names, the council was able to hear what many Black people face all the time.

"We are allowing anonymity," Evans said of the Zoom meeting. "You wouldn't hear this any other way."

The council ultimately decided to move ahead with public comment because so many people had signed up to be heard.

But throughout the three-hour session, the racist calls continued to roll in.

Council Administrator Stacey Maynard said during the meeting there was a pattern to the calls. The voice or voices of the trolls soon became familiar. Maynard would mute the calls as soon as she recognized the voices of those shouting racist and other inappropriate remarks.

Kay and other council members apologized repeatedly for the racist remarks.

Several people who called during Wednesday night's meeting pointed to the racist remarks as reasons why the city had to address systemic racism and acknowledge that minorities are often treated differently by the police than white people.

"It's a little disheartening that people can say such things and not have their faces shown," said AJ Vaughn, who spoke after one of the calls. Vaughn is Black and said he understands that police officers have a tough job.

"I too understand that they have a job. But it is a job," Vaughn said. "I am Black 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. I did not choose that. It is very hard to go out and deal with people like that," he said, referring to the callers.

Many pushed the council to consider enacting changes to make Lexington police discipline more transparent.

Others urged the council not to remove any funding from the police department and expressed support for Lexington police.

One caller who would not give a last name said three members of her family were Lexington police officers. During the nearly two weeks of protests, her family members have been cursed at, spit at and treated disrespectfully by protesters, the caller told the council. She said the protesters needed to be stopped and "have to be put in their place."

Many alumni from the citizens police academy, a program that gives citizens an opportunity to see how Lexington police operate, also called to express support for the police department and urged the council not to take away its funding. The council recently passed a $378 million budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. There is no current proposal to remove funds from the Lexington police department.

Gail Lightner said she fully supports the police department and has worked with officers while working at the Salvation Army and as a past president of her neighborhood association.

"I hope the council is not distracted by the voices of just a few," Lightner said.

Others urged the council to enact reforms that would make it easier for police officers' misconduct records to be public.

Wednesday's public comment came after a marathon six-hour Tuesday council meeting to discuss police accountability, no-knock warrants, use of force tactics and the police collective bargaining agreement. Many people who signed up to speak Tuesday were not able to do so because the council ran out of time. Wednesday's public comment session was for those who wanted to speak.

The hearings come after protesters have marched for more than two weeks on Lexington streets demanding more police accountability and a week after Preston Gage Slone, 18, and Elena Amayrany Perez, 19, said they were assaulted by Lexington police and a Kentucky State Police trooper when Slone tried to redeem several U.S. savings bonds at Chase Bank on Richmond Road. Slone said officers kneeled on him and he struggled to breathe. The department expressed regret over the incident and said the officers involved were "under review"

©2020 the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.