The city of Louisville is paying a police officer $75,000 in settlement fees, almost a year after the officer was suspended for protesting outside a local abortion clinic while armed and in uniform. After being suspended for four months with pay last February, Officer Matt Schrenger sued the city for supposedly violating his constitutional rights while off-duty, and discriminating against him for his “pro-life” views. Schrenger was notably represented by the aggressively anti-abortion Thomas More Society.
Anti-abortion activists are celebrating the settlement as a victory, amid an alarming rise in violence targeting abortion clinics. A report from December found that over the course of 2020, clinics reported a 125% increase in assaults outside clinics, as well as increases in reported vandalism, arson, and targeted harassment. Officer Schrenger’s settlement sends a clear message to cops—who have a demonstrated history of taking actions that seem sympathetic to anti-abortion activists or being overtly hostile to reproductive rights—that they can intimidate clinic patients and staff and possibly even get paid for it.
In a letter to the public from last June, Louisville Police Chief Erika Shields explained that the department had placed Schrenger on leave for engaging in protest activity while wearing a uniform, which is against the department’s policy. Despite placing Schrenger on paid leave for four months, the police department itself has previously been accused of neglecting to hold anti-abortion protesters accountable and putting Louisville’s EMW Women’s Surgical Center at risk amid heightened protest of the clinic since last fall, around when Texas’ near-total abortion ban took effect.
Last October, clinic escorts at EMW Women’s Surgical Center told Buzzfeed that police officers failed to respond to their multiple calls for help when the clinic was being inundated with protesters. Louisville PD later cited “staffing issues and other priorities” that kept them from showing up. When cops had previously responded to calls from the clinic, volunteers said they were slow to cite protesters who violated the city’s noise ordinance and breached the buffer zone around the clinic.
Last year, one New Mexico police officer who had adopted a child from a pregnant woman he found using heroin appeared in uniform on an anti-abortion billboard in the state. At last year’s Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, reporters identified many anti-abortion activists and police officers from across the country among the throngs of violent protesters, appearing to deploy the violent tactics that are often used outside clinics.
But even more concerning than documented cases of police officers playing footsie with anti-abortion protesters, police departments across the country have repeatedly targeted, criminalized, and jailed people for allegedly self-managing their abortions, or experiencing miscarriage and stillbirth. According to the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, prosecutions of pregnancy outcomes have tripled in recent years, primarily targeting Black, Indigenous, and other pregnant people of color who already face heightened, racist discrimination from law enforcement. This prompted California Attorney General Rob Bonta to issue a recent guidance advising law enforcement in his state to not charge people for murder over pregnancy loss.
No one should be particularly surprised by possible anti-abortion sympathies among law enforcement—not when there are so many anti-abortion laws to be enforced. Just last year, Arkansas’ legislature passed a bill that would only allow an exception for people seeking abortion care after 20 weeks of pregnancy in the extremely rare event that they’ve already reported their rape to police. Other laws in some states require health care providers to report patients who might be seeking abortion care supposedly due to the fetus’ race, sex, or disability to law enforcement. Texas’ abortion ban is enforced through the deputization of a citizen police force to surveil and sue anyone who helps someone have an abortion for upwards of $10,000.
Some advocates see anti-abortion lawmakers as directly responsible for the emboldenment of clinic protesters, who often increase in numbers or become more vocal outside clinics following the passage of new abortion bans and restrictions. The outcome of Louisville Officer Matt Schrenger’s lawsuit, appearing to reward him for intimidating a clinic, is a grim reminder that clinic staff and patients who are overwhelmed or possibly even afraid for their lives may not be able to turn to law enforcement for help.