Skepticism and hope for Police Chief Erika Shields

The announcement of new Metro Police Chief Erika Shields, understandably, evoked intense feelings of shock, resentment and anger throughout the community. How could the city hire the former-Atlanta police chief who resigned after police in her department unjustly killed a Black person, Rayshard Brooks, in a Wendy’s parking lot? Hearing the news, I shared the same initial outrage, frustration and concerns. 

But, Shields deserves a chance to succeed. Whether it’s a chance to win our trust or exceed our expectations, it’s in the best interest of the entire city to wish her luck and support every opportunity for success. That said, my concerns haven’t gone away, and even more have risen in the days since her hiring.

For instance, Georgia NAACP accused Shields of not holding accountable six officers who tasered two Atlanta University students in May of last year. Although the Fulton County district attorney criminally charged the officers, Shields said the charges were politically motivated (because the DA was approaching a primary election). Local reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed Shields acknowledged that the officers “had escalated a ‘low-level’ encounter … and behaved inappropriately,” and that she never discussed criminal charges.

At her introduction in Louisville, I was again shocked and angered by Shields’ statement, “I think it does an injustice to Breonna Taylor to say that they’re similar instances,” referring to Brooks’ killing. “They’re not.”

Actually, they are similar. In fact, they’re similar to countless other unjust killings of unarmed, nonviolent Black people by police. Anyone who doesn’t recognize or understand that similarity is not qualified to be a police officer, much less a police chief.

That said, I believe (and hope) she misspoke. I believe she was attempting to draw distinctions between the circumstances that led to each police encounter, as well as recognizing a difference in the systematic and personal failures that led to each killing. Even then, the default position should not be to find ways in which they were different. To do so is to search for the ways in which one was more justified — or less of a failure — than the other.

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I’m also concerned that Shields’ 25-year career with Atlanta police limits her ability to be a transformative leader of LMPD. The city is desperate for major reforms to restore trust and accountability to the police department, and it’s rare — if not unheard of — for meaningful change to come from within the very institution needing reform, where the gravitational pull of entrenched forces is strongest.

This is not a criticism of Shields. The same is true of most jobs and workplaces: When a company promotes its best sales person to sales manager, for example, the skills that make a great salesperson don’t necessarily translate to the qualities of a great manager. But I’m not ruling Shields out, and neither should LMPD’s most ardent critics or skeptics.

Shields won unanimous approval from the city’s diverse, eight-person search panel. It’s also significant that the panel chose Shields, knowing that her selection would draw immediate outrage from many in the community — which indicates that they picked the person they believe is far-and-away the best person, not just the most popular. 

There’s also merit to the argument that Shields resigning her position in Atlanta is, at least partially, a positive sign of leadership — recognizing that her departure was best for the city at that time (a virtue devoid of former-Chief Conrad). If nothing else, it’s a two-year audition under intense scrutiny for what will certainly be at the center of the next mayoral election (which begins any day now).

Four years ago, I wrote that I couldn’t wish newly-elected President Trump success. I knew then what success meant for him, and it was not good for America. I wished I was wrong, and had no idea how right I was. So I don’t take lightly the concept of blindly wishing our leaders luck and success. But, while Chief Shields should be welcomed with unusually high expectations, standards and skepticism, she should also be welcomed with our support and best wishes for success. •

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