Yvette Gentry, the interim police chief we need

Yvette Gentry might call herself “chief for a while,” but she could be the police chief who saves the city.

That might sound hyperbolic, but consider the issues that face the city and what it will take to repair the community’s distrust of police and the unequal justice Black residents face.

Mayor Greg Fischer is still months away from hiring the next full-time chief of police, and the protests — uninterrupted for over 100 days — may escalate if the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor are not charged.

But Chief Gentry has enough time and is the right person to begin rebuilding community trust today, before it gets worse.

She can do this, in part, because of her background, but also, more importantly, because she has proven she understands what the community needs, not just what the police department needs. Sure, her history with the police department is important and will help to command trust and respect from the officers she now leads.

She was a decorated officer with over 20 years of service who rose to the rank of deputy police chief before retiring in 2014. She was Fischer’s chief of community building and most recently a project director at Metro United Way. Now, she is Louisville’s first woman and the third Black police chief.

But, Gentry’s 10-minute introduction address last week made it clear that it isn’t just her biography that makes her the police chief the city needs right now. She demonstrated an emotional empathy with the community and an understanding that her role is a lot bigger than fixing any particular issue or problem — a message to both police officers and protesters.

“I caution you to not make this a single-struggle issue,” she said. In other words, whatever one issue you think she was hired for… that’s not it.

If you think she was hired to fire the officers who killed Breonna Taylor, for instance, you may be disappointed. She returned to do much more than fire people or help resolve Breonna Taylor’s killing. Her job is much bigger and more complex.

At her introduction, Gentry recognized, implicitly, her role in addressing the community’s concerns on critical issues, including economic, integrity and transparency within the department and what we can expect going forward.

“For all of you that urged me to take this position … I’m here,” she said. “I’m not here just to help you unboard your beautiful buildings downtown. I’m here to work with you to unboard the community that I served … with all my heart in West Louisville that was boarded for 20 or 30 years, and I just could not find the help. So I’m here to help you do that, because you promised to help me do that.”

It sounds to me that she wants to help end the protests — so the boards come down from the windows downtown — but that you, the mayor, council and the rest of the community are going to have to help bring down the boards off the windows in The West End.

“For the past four months, [it’s] been tough for everyone. It’s been tough on police officers out there trying to hold the line. It’s been tough on the men and women out there protesting. Over a hundred days. Seeing things, just feel so hopeless. But I will just say that is just a glimpse of how a lot of people have been feeling for a long time and we can’t go back.”

What I hear her saying is that the police, as well as the community, will recognize that the protesters’ pain, frustration and suffering are legitimate. And, going forward, the police will not be used to return things to the way they were. There is no returning to the way things were.

“I think our city is at a point of reckoning, that only truth can bring us out of,” she said. “Our city is going to crumble if we don’t start telling truths.” No more concealing and covering for misdeeds, personal or institutional failures. No more cover-ups. No more excuses when it comes to accountability.

But, beyond her words, Gentry conveyed an emotional empathy that can restore confidence in the leadership of the police department. Plus, she’s going to serve in this position for only four to six months, until Fischer hires the next full-time chief. She said she does not want to be the next chief, so what she is doing is not meant to elevate her personal career — it’s genuine public service.

In hindsight, Chief Gentry’s reassuring presence and selfless leadership exposed even more deficiencies in police leadership than before she took the podium.

But, by the time she finished speaking, for the first time in four months, perhaps years, optimism began to show through on the city, and it felt as though, as Gentry said, “This is going to signal a change. A new day is coming.”