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Police were investigating a deadly shooting Thursday at a park in Louisville.
USA TODAY

LOUISVILLE — Gunmen exchanged about 20 shots at a Thanksgiving Day youth football event, thrusting Louisville past its homicide record and into the national spotlight.

Two people were killed and four others were injured during the brazen act of violence just yards away from Mayor Greg Fischer, who was among the hundreds of children, men and women attending the annual Juice Bowl at Shawnee Park.

The deaths push Louisville’s homicide total for the year to 112, which is the record citywide.

Fischer took to Twitter on Thursday afternoon to condemn the shooting and implore the public to help police find the shooters. He said his thoughts and prayers were with the families of those killed and injured.

“To have people with guns so disrespect life, Shawnee Park, and neighborhood tradition is sad and has no place in our city,” Fischer said.

“The increase in homicides in our city should be alarming to everyone,” he added. “And LMPD needs the public’s help to solve these crimes.”

Children had finished playing football and two women’s teams were in the middle of a flag football game when several shots were fired. One player, who asked not to be named, said she didn’t hear shots but saw patrol cars rush in with blue lights flashing. The men’s football games were then canceled.

Charlotte Waddell, a cousin of Muhammad Ali, said she had just finished talking to the mayor when she heard several gunshots.

“This is the worst Thanksgiving ever, I’ll never be back,” said Waddell, who has attended the event for years. “I’m pretty shaken up.”

Near the bodies, dozens of people gathered, some crying and hugging and others shouting angrily.

“Get me a gun! Get me a gun!” a woman bellowed after collapsing to the ground yards from one of the two bodies.

A source familiar with the investigation said Metro Police believe the shootings may have stemmed from an argument when a man in his 60s bumped into the motorcycle of a man in his 20s who had a gun. Once one person was shot, other people nearby pulled out guns to retaliate, the source said.

Police spokesman Dwight Mitchell offered few details Thursday afternoon at the crime scene, where the bodies lay under bright blue tarps as detectives combed the park and talked to witnesses. Two more of the shooting victims were rushed away by ambulance and two were taken by private cars to hospitals. All were expected to live, Mitchell said.

News of the double murder was picked up by several national media outlets. After seeing a report on cable news, state Rep. Reginald Meeks, D-Louisville, asked: “Can national shame and attention bring the local response needed to stop the bloodletting? We certainly don’t seem to have the resolve to do it on our own.”

Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who survived being shot in the head in 2011 in Tucson, tweeted that the “tragic shooting … is another sad reminder of our gun violence crisis.”

Metro Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton, whose 5th District encompasses all of the West End, said she was exiting Shawnee Park when she heard several gunshots.

She called the shootings a first for the Juice Bowl, a tradition that dates to the 1950s. It is a neighborhood homecoming for current and former residents before their Thanksgiving dinner.

Hamilton said Thursday’s violence underscores the need to rethink a plan by Police Chief Steve Conrad that dismantled each division’s flex platoons, specialty units that deal with street-level crime.

“A lot of people are feeling emboldened because there are not enough police officers out in the street anymore,” Hamilton said. “I’m still harping on that. We don’t have our flex platoons and our undercover people walking through the crowds. They may have been able to catch some of this before it happened.”

Councilman David James, chairman of the Public Safety Committee and a former narcotics detective, said Fischer saw firsthand how his and other council members’ constituents live. He said the mayor needs to bring back the flex platoons, add a unit focused on gangs and expand the narcotics unit.

“We’ve been telling the mayor for quite some time that police don’t have enough resources,” said James, D-6th District. “I hope that now he’s seen it firsthand, he’ll understand now. I hope it’s a wake-up call for the mayor.”

Under the reorganization, the police added 14 officers and two sergeants to narcotics to create two new squads of detectives. But in doing so, the chief disbanded the flex platoons, which division commanders — and council members — have relied on to respond to citizens’ tips, including reports of street-corner drug dealing, robberies and suspected drug houses.

Earlier this week, Fischer said that the reorganization has only been in effect for two weeks and “needs to be given a chance to work.”

Though the shootings jolted some city leaders, Thomas “Chickenman” Clarke, who has been smoking sausage at the Juice Bowl for at least a decade, said he wasn’t fazed.

“Killings every day are getting to be normal,” he said. “Ain’t nothing new.”

Contributing: Taylor Riley, The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. Follow Phillip M. Bailey and Beth Warren on Twitter:  @phillipmbailey and @BethWarrenCJ