This story was produced by Louisville Magazine. For more, visit Louisville.com.
Four days after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and a little more than an hour before a police cruiser would be set ablaze near the spot where she had been standing in downtown Atlanta, police chief Erika Shields stuck out in her crisp white uniform amid the sea of protesters.
Like other parts of the country, Atlanta was boiling on May 29, 2020. In the days since video went viral of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck on the street outside Cup Foods, passionate protests had become fiery riots in Minneapolis. Early that morning, gas mask-wearing state troopers had handcuffed a Black CNN reporter and his crew while they were live on air. The night before, in Louisville, an unknown assailant shot seven people during a protest downtown calling for justice in the killing of Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old Black woman shot and killed by LMPD officers during a botched raid of her south Louisville apartment in March. President Donald Trump was threatening to use the federal government’s might to quell the spreading unrest. On that Friday night, the downtowns of many American cities — eerily empty for more than two months due to the pandemic — were suddenly full of protesters marching against police violence, the contagious energy of the movement radiating from the heartland to the coasts. The protesters in Atlanta and Louisville — sparked by the killings of Floyd and Taylor — were part of what would come to be regarded as potentially the largest such movement in U.S. history.
On the relatively quiet sidelines of the Atlanta protest on May 29, Shields, who became APD’s chief in late 2016, spoke to a reporter from the local CBS affiliate, calling Chauvin —who had knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes — “a really cold son of a bitch,” adding that the value of Black lives had been diminished in this country. Standing outside the CNN Center, she told the reporter that the Atlanta protest was “as orderly as something like this is going to be” and that she didn’t want it to turn into an “arrest fest,” as that would just make things worse. Soon, Shields’ presence on the ground attracted the attention of protesters, who jostled against one another to pepper her with questions and frustrations.
Why does it take so long for people to get arrested when they [kill] an unarmed Black man?
“I’m the first one to say it was bullshit. [Chauvin] shoulda gone to jail that day.”
Are police going to use tear gas today?
“We’re not looking to use tear gas. My ass wouldn’t be standing here if we were looking to use tear gas. I’m here to hear you.”
The commander-in-chief of the land says, ‘When there’s looting, there’s shooting.’ Why don’t we have any convictions?
“That’s not my guy. That ain’t my guy. I said — I said Trump is not my guy, all right?”
He’s not your commander-in-chief?
“No,” she said, laughing and shaking her head.
In a video released the day before, Shields said what had happened to Floyd was murder — almost 11 months before Chauvin was convicted of murder — and that the anger and fear on the streets was justified. While talking about Floyd’s death, she said, “These officers didn’t just fail as cops; they fundamentally failed as human beings.” She said the police force hires people who represent society, which means sometimes the worst parts of society end up on the payroll. She said the officers deserved to serve prison time for what they had done. For the police chief of a major American city — largely a fraternity known for circling the wagons in the face of harsh criticism — the video was a remarkable statement.
If the aim was to calm anger in Atlanta, though, it didn’t work. Now Shields was standing in the middle of a large protest trying to have conversations about policing and inequity, amid chants of Fuck the po-lice! Fuck the po-lice! Behind her, an officer well over a head taller than her watched her back. In front of her, a protester with an assault rifle slung in front of his chest offered her a business card so they could have a conversation later.
She told the protesters she didn’t want people to go to jail for “stupid shit” like possessing weed, jaywalking, drinking in public. She said police had to understand who criminals were: people who had guns and were shooting other people. She talked about the need to overcome economic and racial segregation in Atlanta. She said officers had been too lenient with employee misconduct.
A white protester lowered the broken surgical mask he was holding up over his nose and mouth to start telling Shields about how police were meant to be protectors of the people. His point was lost as he stopped talking, recoiled and fled as chaos engulfed those surrounding Shields. It was a mad stampede of retreat, reason unknown — a hallmark of those early days of protest. As some sprinted and some froze and tried to comfort one another in embrace, officers’ hands reached out to grab Shields and guide her past the giant red-and-white CNN letters outside the cable news giant’s headquarters and take her into the building.
A mass of protesters soon converged on the CNN entrance, with some scaling the massive letters now covered with graffiti. About an hour after Shields left, some started smashing police cruisers parked on the street, battering them with metal crowd-control barricades, skateboards and fists. A few climbed onto vehicles and stomped windshields with their feet.
At about 8:05 p.m., somebody set an already smashed-up police cruiser on fire. A shirtless man with a police riot shield spray-painted ACAB — All Cops Are Bastards — hopped on top of the burning vehicle, triumphantly raising his plunder to cheers as smoke rose over downtown Atlanta and flames licked out of the vehicle. On the door of the burning cruiser, was the police department’s seal: a phoenix emerging from an inferno.
A little more than two weeks later, Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old Black man, was shot and killed in a Wendy’s parking lot in Peoplestown, a neighborhood south of downtown Atlanta. The police had been called because Brooks was asleep in his vehicle, blocking the fast-food restaurant’s drive-thru. As two APD officers attempted to arrest him, Brooks, who appeared to be impaired, wrestled a taser away from one of them. After Brooks discharged the taser while trying to run away, one of the officers, Garrett Rolfe, opened fire and hit Brooks twice in the back. Brooks later died of his injuries at a hospital.
Following the killing, the Georgia NAACP called for Shields to resign, saying her department “continues to terrorize protesters and murder unarmed Black bodies.” Less than a day after the shooting, Shields stepped down. In a short statement at the time, Shields said her resignation was the result of “a deep love for this city and this department” and that she had faith in Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. Bottoms said Shields had resigned “so that the city may move forward with urgency in rebuilding the trust so desperately needed throughout our communities.” (Bottoms selected Rodney Bryant, a Black man who had retired from APD after more than 30 years on the force, to replace Shields.)
The racial-justice protests and unrest that had quieted in Atlanta as the death of George Floyd grew more distant were rekindled when news broke of Brooks’ death. The night Shields stepped down, the Wendy’s where Brooks had been killed was burned down and protesters blocked an interstate in dramatic scenes. Shields received the call about the shooting in the middle of the night. “I knew it was going to be problematic. How problematic, I wasn’t sure,” she tells me in July during an interview at LMPD’s training academy. She adds she had already been thinking of stepping aside “for unrelated reasons” but does not elaborate. By the next afternoon, she was gone. Later, grumblings in Atlanta suggested the mayor forced her out, but Shields says it was her decision. “I knew that for me to stay would be a distraction,” she says.
Her three and a half years as chief over in a flash, Shields stayed on the city’s payroll for a while, working as a project manager on the IT side of policing — things like APD’s computer-aided dispatch system that routed 911 calls; a records system that managed police reports; and upgrading the video integration center, which captured 10,000 video feeds from across the city. Shields didn’t have a background in computers (she doesn’t even use social media) but knew how to manage.
“When I stepped aside, I took a couple of months and I just — I didn’t turn on the TV news, didn’t look at the internet,” she says. “I really enjoyed [the IT job]. It helped me get out of a really dark space, because I loved Atlanta, I loved the Atlanta Police Department. It’s my home. And I really didn’t like how it ended.”
As she processed and decompressed after her tumultuous end as APD chief, she started getting offers to work for smaller departments and, in her words, “less-conflicted” departments, as well as the private sector, where criticisms are rarer. “I was really grateful, and the stuff that was being presented interests me, but I knew I wasn’t there yet. I still wanted to be in a position where I could really help mentor and bring forward the next generation of police leaders,” she says. “And the only way to do that is to be a chief of police in an agency that’s in the mix.” Eventually, she was contacted by the Police Executive Research Forum, which was conducting Louisville’s search for a permanent chief following the firing of Steve Conrad in June 2020.
Shields had never been to Louisville. “I knew they had good, I won’t say great, basketball and football teams. I’d always heard it was a really nice city, and that it’s like bourbon capital of the U.S. — which, I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I’d always heard really nice things about it,” she says. Her first visit to Louisville came in winter 2020, when cold and Covid gave the city a desolate feel. But she saw the personality of neighborhoods and fell in love with the architecture of Old Louisville. The city oozed character that Atlanta’s new builds lacked. “I love just driving around, looking,” she says. “And I want to go in like all of these old, creepy buildings and walk around, which is probably not the best idea.” Her partner, Amy, pushed a little to move to the northeast or California, but Shields told her she’d like Louisville.
On Jan. 6, national news of Shields’ hiring as LMPD’s new chief was muted by the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob egged on by the outgoing president. Locally, however, Black leaders involved in the protest movement were appalled by the decision to hire Shields. On Twitter the night before Shields’ hiring was officially announced, prominent Louisville activist Hannah Drake wrote, “In Louisville we are dealing with the murder of #BreonnaTaylor. You know what my city decided to do? Hire [Erika] Shields as the new police chief. Yes, that [Erika] Shields, the police chief that resigned after the murder of Rayshard Brooks. PRAY MY DAMN STRENGTH!!”
Shields, who is now 54, was the unanimous choice of an eight-member panel, which was made up mostly by people of color. Her hiring came at the end of a six-month search in which none of the other 27 candidates were ever named, a level of secrecy that stoked distrust among critics. For some, it was insulting that Shields was hired at a time when Louisville had not even begun to heal from its own traumas inflicted by police. To others, her decision to step down in Atlanta when things got hot represented a failure in leadership. Speaking from a podium inside Metro Hall on the day she was announced as the new chief, Shields struck a tone that echoed what protesters and their supporters had been saying and shouting: Racial disparities exist in Louisville policing. “This doesn’t happen to white people. It just doesn’t,” she said that day, referring to Breonna Taylor’s killing. “If we really are doing this fairly and impartially, why is this not happening in white communities? And don’t tell me that it’s because Black people are where the crime is, Black people are where the violence is. That’s crap. If you’re going to police fairly and equitably, your practices have to be consistent, and your standards have to be consistent regardless of the neighborhood.”
Shields’ rhetoric couldn’t have drawn a starker contrast with Louisville’s last permanent police chief, Steve Conrad, who had pushed back against accusations of racial bias in LMPD’s policing and, according to documents obtained by WDRB, said he had never “pondered” whether young white men and young Black men were treated differently in the city. Conrad was fired days into Louisville’s 2020 protests when David McAtee, a Black man who owned a barbecue restaurant, was shot dead when LMPD and National Guard soldiers, enforcing a curfew, moved into the West End, about 20 blocks away from the protesters downtown. Addressing the firing at the time, Mayor Greg Fischer, citing the fact that body cameras hadn’t been activated, said, “This type of institutional failure will not be tolerated.” (Shields was preceded by two interim chiefs, Robert Schroeder and Yvette Gentry.) After Shields’ unveiling, the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police — which represents all sworn LMPD officers, save for the chief and deputy chief — released a statement saying the organization was “cautiously optimistic” about Shields’ appointment but took exception to her belief “that race plays any part in LMPD investigations.”
Shields arrived in a Louisville where partisans of both the protesters and the police were skeptical, if not openly hostile. She came to a severely understaffed department that went through bouts of “blue flu” in 2020, to a city with a murder rate spiraling out of control, with its 173 homicides in 2020 — a nearly 90 percent surge over the 92 killings in 2019. (The city is set to surpass that grim record in 2021.) A city outsiders historically associated with Muhammad Ali and horses was now a byword for police killing Black people, mentioned in the same breath as Ferguson and Minneapolis. A department that, within months of her arrival, would be subjected to a wide-ranging investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, stemming from the killing of Breonna Taylor, LMPD’s response to protests and accusations of biased policing. A city where every move, every word, would be under a microscope. Who would want that job?
To those who knew they were police officers, they were Ebony and Ivory, two undercovers — one Black, one white — rolling through the impoverished streets of Atlanta in clunkers while working narcotics and prostitution operations. Sometimes, they’d stand in the street in, to hear Shields describe it, “booty dresses” purchased at Goodwill, waiting for johns to bust. “I was not very good. Jackie (Jackie Gwinn-Villaroel, aka Ebony, her partner) was the better prostitute,” says Shields, who was nicknamed Ivory.
The neighborhood they worked was nearly entirely Black. Prostitutes on the beat were about 50-50 Black and white. But the johns were a clearly defined demographic: mostly white men from the ’burbs, driving into a rough part of town to score cheap sex. “Almost to a person they all told me they were seeking quick sex that they didn’t feel right asking their wife for,” she says of the men she arrested. “This was in the middle of the crack epidemic. We weren’t call girls. I mean, I was healthy, but the people standing next to me, these folks had sores on their mouths. This stuff was bad.” She says the experience taught her things, for one: Men are transactional, women are emotional. “It was really very interesting to me. It helped me understand, it helped me do my job better down the road,” she says.
Working as a cop on the streets of Atlanta was a world away from the life Shields had known. Raised in rural, small-town (and almost all-white) upstate New York, Shields went to Webster University in St. Louis, getting a degree in international studies in 1990. She then struck out on a career as a stockbroker, moving to Boston. It was not a good fit. “I realized one day when I was sitting in the office that I just hated it. I was bored,” she says. “And I can’t stand being bored.” (Asked if her IT job with the city of Atlanta after she stepped down as chief was similarly boring, she quipped, “Even being a stockbroker seemed more interesting at that point.”) Law enforcement had always intrigued Shields. And if she was going to switch careers, she might as well change locales and get away from Boston’s punishing winters. “It wasn’t the most intellectual of decision-making processes,” she says. In 1995, Shields, then in her late 20s, joined the Atlanta Police Department.
In a 2018 TEDx talk, Shields recounted coming to Atlanta to interview for a job she didn’t get and seeing how different it was from the life she had lived so far, saying, “So I come down for this job interview and I’m on this corporate elevator, high-rise, and I’m going up, and I can remember this like it was yesterday: On either side of me are African American males, good-looking, in three-piece suits. And it hit me at that moment that the only Black individuals riding the elevator with me back in Boston in my corporate high-rise there were the cleaning people. And I knew then that my circle had a lot to be desired. And I knew then that I wanted to be in Atlanta. And I knew then that if I was going to ever drive change — that in my heart of hearts I felt needed to be driven — I had to become better educated.”
After moving to Georgia and signing on with the police department, she struggled to understand accents on 911 calls. But the city felt welcoming. After a few years of working on patrol — that is, responding to calls — she worked undercover in south Atlanta’s Zone 3, a place that was, according to Lou Arcangeli, APD’s deputy chief at the time, “very intense — high calls for service, lots of poverty, lots of problems.” Of Shields, he says, “She clearly was a diminutive-in-size female, but she had a big personality and all the cops liked her.”
A lot of the energy on the beat went toward people buying and selling crack cocaine: busting down doors in drug busts, picking up jaywalking prostitutes on possession charges and doing controlled buys. “At the time, oh my god, I loved it. It was an adrenaline rush serving drug search warrants, locking somebody up who had the drugs on them,” she says. “At the time I enjoyed it. I didn’t know better.” Decades later, Shields says she had gained a broader perspective on addiction and the failures of that kind of policing. When the opioid epidemic arrived — and was comparatively seen as a public-health crisis — Shields saw racial disparity in how it was treated. “We got into the heroin-opioid crisis — that directly mirrors crack — and yet the rules of enforcement are markedly different,” she says. “And it is no coincidence that it’s related to race.”
Working undercover, Shields and Gwinn-Villaroel formed a strong bond. “We taught each other; we were yin and yang,” Gwinn-Villaroel says. “I like to say for Erika and myself, what she lacked was my strength, and vice versa. We fed off one another.” Gwinn-Villaroel, Black and from Atlanta, allowed Shields to see the city through a different lens. And they just had chemistry, which, sitting in a 1984 Cutlass together for long stretches of time, was necessary. They were close, but Shields was also hiding part of herself from Gwinn-Villaroel, who was religious, often preaching to prostitutes they arrested, and from the Black community, which Shields considered intolerant toward gay people at the time. In her TEDx talk, Shields recounted the night she came out to Gwinn-Villaroel. “I can remember clearly that it was night, that we were in some crappy, unmarked car on a crappy side street — actually, trying to catch a rapist; that’s the good part we were doing. And I just thought: I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted from expending energy trying to keep this relationship upright. But I’m not being honest. So I tell her: ‘You know what? I’m gay.’ I figure we’re not getting the rapist, we may as well turn it into something. And what I should have seen at that time, Jackie just — she had no issue with it. She immediately wanted to run my dating life and boss me around.” Today, Gwinn-Villaroel, now LMPD’s deputy chief, has been shuttling back and forth between Louisville and Atlanta, where she remains a pastor.
In Shields’ office at LMPD headquarters downtown, I asked her if she had ever faced adversity in law enforcement because of her sexual orientation. She said women face issues as police because they’re women, and that her obstacles didn’t have to do with her being gay. She brought up a time when a supervisor had a conversation with a male partner of hers. “A supervisor asked him: ‘So tell me, you’re fuckin’ her, aren’t you?’” she recalls. “And ironically, when I came here, I had an almost-verbatim conversation with one of the females here; the same thing was done to her. It’s just one of those assumptions where, if you’re female, you’re going to be promiscuous, that you can’t just have the professional relationship.”
A no-knock warrant obtained under questionable circumstances. A shot fired as police breached the door. A salvo of return gunfire. A dead Black woman.
Before Breonna Taylor there was Kathryn Johnston. Johnston was at home in northwest Atlanta when the police showed up to execute a no-knock raid on the evening of Nov. 21, 2006, two days before Thanksgiving. They’d come to the 92-year-old Black woman’s house after a suspect, on whom officers had planted marijuana, pointed it out to avoid going to jail. (He said he’d seen a drug dealer there with cocaine inside when he went there to buy crack.) In applying for a warrant, officers said they needed a no-knock raid because the suspected drug dealer had surveillance equipment. Johnston lived in the Bluff, a neighborhood with a reputation as a high-crime, open-air drug market; Johnston’s home had bars over its windows and doors, and she’d been given a .38 pistol by a relative to protect herself. It took some time for officers to get through the bars on her front door — enough time for Johnston to retrieve the old gun and fire off a shot as they breached the door. In response, officers fired 39 shots, hitting her five or six times and killing her. After the shooting, officers planted marijuana in her basement to try to cover their tracks.
The killing of Johnston would eventually see three officers sent to prison on state and federal charges. Their suspect-turned-informant had seemingly picked out the home at random, fearful he’d be locked up after officers demanded a tip and threatened to charge him with dealing drugs. After the killing, the officers colluded to get their story straight. Another confidential informant police had previously used would later come forward and say police got in touch with him after the killing, telling him to say he did a controlled drug buy at Johnston’s home before the warrant was secured. When charges were announced, Fulton County’s district attorney called the killing “one of the most horrific tragedies to occur in our community,” adding that investigators showed that “the practices that led to her death were common occurrences” of the APD narcotics unit involved. The killing of Breonna Taylor more than 13 years later differed in that it was her boyfriend who fired the shot and that nobody was charged in the killing. But to Shields, the two killings have “dramatic similarities.”
The Johnston killing — as well as a 2009 raid by a tactical narcotics unit at a gay club, the Atlanta Eagle, where officers allegedly used homophobic slurs and found no drugs — created a stinging black eye for the police department. Those incidents “probably set us back decades in terms of trust factor with the community,” says Jeff Glazier, who served as Shields’ deputy chief in Atlanta. For Shields, still years away from being chief, the incidents were formative, preparing her for what was to come in Louisville in the wake of the Breonna Taylor killing and the protests that followed: the denials of wrongdoing, the refusal to take responsibility, the constant scrutiny, the urgent need to change the department’s culture. “It was scripted for me because I’d lived it,” Shields says. “It opens up the floodgates. Everything’s being scrutinized and lawsuits are being slapped on you like yellow sticky notes. And so, I knew the path that LMPD was going to go down and I thought: This is a department that has to change, because we cannot have major-city police departments committing infractions such as this.” In Atlanta, she witnessed a policing culture in which higher-ups pressured those beneath them for results without making sure officers were getting those results lawfully. “That’s what I see coming here. I think there was a lot of that: Get those results,” she says.
Atlanta in the late aughts showed her that police can lie. On the raid of the gay club, she says the police department’s posture was that the Eagle was a seedy bar and that the officers did nothing wrong. In reality, she says, police had targeted the gay community without any probable cause. I asked her if, as a gay woman, that felt personal at the time. “The police culture is so strong,” she says. “I firmly believed the police.”
Shields watched the George Floyd video. An alert popped up on her phone and she clicked on it and watched. She feels an obligation to watch such videos, so she can try to understand the climate of the country, to spot any training deficiencies at play, to be able to understand law-enforcement issues beyond her jurisdiction.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I watched it, and I thought: That just can’t be right. And I watched it again. Literally, I had to sit down. I just could not believe I was watching that. It was just that appalling. I wasn’t even processing it through my police lens.”
Amy, her partner, entered the house and asked what Shields was doing. Shields just pushed the phone to her; Amy couldn’t make it the whole way through. Shields knew protests would follow (“Rightfully so,” she says), but she didn’t anticipate their size, spread and longevity.
I asked if she would have called what happened to Floyd murder right away if it was her own officers involved. “Oh, for sure,” she says. “I think George Floyd was so shocking and appalling. I mean, who in their right mind is going to think that was rational? Even by misconduct standards, that was an outlier. I still can’t get my mind around it, quite honestly.”
It wasn’t until she stepped down as chief in Atlanta that she had time to read more about Breonna Taylor’s killing. She remembers how it felt odd that the killing had happened months beforehand. “I was heartbroken,” she says. “I saw a young lady who was dead who should not be dead. There’s no two ways about it: It was because of the decision-making of a police department she was dead.” I asked Shields where blame lies in Taylor’s killing. “I would put the bulk of the responsibility on the individuals who secured the warrant,” she says. (The warrant that resulted in the raid of Taylor’s Springfield Drive apartment was tied to a narcotics investigation involving Jamarcus Glover, an ex-boyfriend of Taylor’s. In applying for the warrant, detective Joshua Jaynes said postal inspectors had verified that Glover had been receiving packages at Taylor’s residence; they had not. Jaynes was terminated in January for lying in obtaining the warrant.)
In the aftermath of the killing, Shields saw the missteps continue. Breonna Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, was left frantically waiting for 10 hours for news on her daughter before learning Taylor was dead. Shields says a “lack of leadership” was on display at the scene. And in the days, weeks and months after, LMPD clammed up and closed ranks instead of being transparent and taking ownership of mistakes that occurred the evening Taylor was killed. In a press conference, former chief Conrad described Taylor as a suspect. Her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, was charged with attempted murder of a police officer — charges that would later be dropped under scrutiny.
Shields saw LMPD’s widely criticized, heavy-handed response to the protests last year as problematic as well. “You do have to allow for wide latitude when you’re dealing with something as emotional as what we saw last summer,” she says. “The arrest numbers I found to be quite high.” Between May 29 and Sept. 28 of last year — the height of Louisville’s protests — the city saw nearly 900 protest-related arrests, according to documents obtained by the Courier-Journal. LMPD’s response has attracted federal attention, with the wide-ranging DOJ investigation into the department also looking at whether LMPD officers used excessive force against protesters. In July, former LMPD officer Cory Evans pleaded guilty to federal charges for a 2020 incident in which the government says he struck a man in the head with a riot stick while the protester knelt with his hands in the air, surrendering to arrest.
In an interview in June, Shields told me she expects more federal charges — particularly charges for actions by police on the night David McAtee was killed at his barbecue restaurant at 26th and Broadway, across the street from Dino’s Food Mart. Soon after LMPD officers and National Guard soldiers moved in to disperse a non-protest crowd gathered in violation of curfew, in the early moments of June 1, 2020, LMPD officer Katie Crews began firing pepper balls in the direction of people in front of McAtee’s restaurant. As patrons retreated into his kitchen, McAtee stepped into the doorway and fired a pistol twice (what his family’s attorney said were warning shots into the air), prompting LMPD officers and National Guard members to fire back, with a National Guard soldier killing him with a bullet from a M4A1 assault rifle. (McAtee’s family has said he would never intentionally fire at police.)
Shields says the firing of pepper balls at 26th and Broadway the night McAtee was killed “really jump-started the chaos that ensued” and characterized it as the result of the decision-making of one individual. “I think you’re going to see that there had been a culture that had allowed for last summer to really go sideways on multiple fronts,” she says.
“There was decision-making by individuals — not even commanders — that was very unprofessional,” she says. “Whether it’s firing paint balls at people or smoke balls or whatever the hell they were firing at them when you certainly didn’t need to, or hitting people in the head when they were allowing you to handcuff them.”
I asked her if she believes LMPD would have made the decision to break up a non-protest crowd violating curfew in a whiter, more affluent neighborhood — if what happened to David McAtee could have happened in the East End. “I would say, just based on my experience with human beings in America, that the answer in every city would be no. And I think that’s the core of what’s wrong with law enforcement.
“It’s not even so much how we police; it’s that we police differently depending on the color of the community.”
When she took over in Atlanta she saw problems, too — and turned to discipline and reform to try to solve them. For one, she worried officers weren’t using their body cameras. Shields, who describes herself as a “huge proponent” of body cameras, ordered an audit, which revealed officers were routinely violating the body-camera policy and failing to activate their devices.
Shields would go on to introduce strict penalties for those who failed to activate their body cameras. That kind of discipline isn’t “particularly popular,” said Dean Dabney, chair of the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Georgia State University, but “she kind of had a way of standing up in front of people and saying: ‘I understand that’s not popular — here’s why I did it. We’re not going to continue to be unsuccessful in our mission.’” And the discipline yielded results. Jeff Glazier, Shields’ deputy chief in Atlanta who left the department in 2020 and now serves as chief of police in Ponce Inlet, Florida, a small coastal town just south of Daytona Beach, says, “As soon as we started handing out written reprimands, and one- and two-day suspensions, then you can kind of see the culture change and people were turning their body cameras on when they were en route to their calls. And it worked. You can see the complaints go down, you can see the use of force go down.”
In January 2020, Ty Dennis, then an APD officer, was moonlighting as security at a nightclub when he was called to respond to the scene of a nearby shooting. Driving to the scene in his personal car, he says he forgot to turn on his body camera when he arrived. “I got dinged for it. But I wasn’t mad at her for it; I’m man enough to take responsibility for my own actions,” he says. For the rest of his time with APD, he was not allowed to work side jobs — jobs that help pad the incomes of many officers. Despite the discipline, Dennis says Shields gave off a feeling that she had officers’ backs. Sometimes, she’d leave thank-you notes or gift cards on his desk to show appreciation. “It’s just like a football coach: If you’ve got your troops behind you, you’ll run through a wall for your coach. And when you see that your coach or your chief has your back, like she did and like she does, it makes you want to go harder for her because you know she’s appreciating it.”
In 2019, after an APD officer on an FBI task force shot and killed Jimmy Atchison, a 21-year-old Black man, as he emerged from a closet he had been hiding in, allegedly to surrender, Shields moved to outfit all of her officers on federal task forces with body cameras. When the feds refused to allow cameras on their task forces, Shields pulled her officers from them.
In Louisville, where officers did not turn on their body cameras during the killing of David McAtee and were part of a unit that was not required to use body cameras during the raid on Breonna Taylor’s apartment, Shields says staffing is too tight right now to allow for a dedicated team to audit body-camera footage like she did in Atlanta. But she says they are keeping an eye on body-worn camera usage, while also acquiring technology that will enforce usage. “I feel as though the compliance is good, but I also know that we’re not where we should be,” she says. “If an officer’s camera is not on during a serious incident, you’re going to have problems.” In more “egregious” incidents, Shields says, officers will face problems not just with the police force, but with the judicial system. In the nearly $196-million 2022 police budget approved by Metro Council in June (more than any other city department’s budget), Shields included a system that automatically turns on body cameras whenever an officer draws their firearm. There is no firm timeline on its implementation, but Shields hopes to have it up and running early next year.
In Atlanta, Shields was also a partner in setting up a community-led, pre-arrest diversion program, which gave officers the option of calling on social workers instead of arresting individuals for actions that resulted from mental illness, addiction or low quality of life. This could include someone causing a disturbance by shouting outside a downtown restaurant or disrobing and bathing in a public fountain or, like the folks Shields locked up back when she was a plainclothes street cop, having a small amount of drugs in their pocket. Moki Macias, executive director of Atlanta’s Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative, says, “The constant challenge that we had was the culture change needed inside the department. There had to be structural changes within the department that would create incentives to divert people from arrest.” Over the first two years of the program, which began in 2017, Macias says just 150 diversions were made while there were likely thousands of arrests for low-level offenses that could have been diverted. This year, the program has launched a number that members of the public can call instead of 911, bypassing police altogether for appropriate issues.
As part of the reforms Louisville announced in the aftermath of the killing of Breonna Taylor, the city said it would explore creating a diversion program similar to the one in Atlanta and other cities. The University of Louisville is working with the city to study how to implement such a program, which is months away at the earliest. Shields envisions a deflection program routed through 911, with dispatchers trained on how to direct calls and whether to get cops or a deflection team on the scene. “We’ve seen police across the country shoot people who have no clothes on — explain that to me,” Shields says. “At that point I’m like, ‘I don’t even want a cop out there.’”
To Shields, when people say “defund the police,” they are actually calling for something she wants as well: more resources for social services. “I think there are people who truly believe: abolish police. I think the more common meaning I’ve encountered is: People want more money put toward social services,” she says. “And I do think there has to be far greater investment in social services if we’re ever going to get a handle on the underlying issues.”
Shields was not without criticism in Atlanta.
Tiffany Roberts, community-engagement and movement-building counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, first met Shields in the context of setting up Fulton County’s pre-arrest diversion program around 2015. Her first impression was that Shields was open-minded on ways to prevent people from entering the criminal legal system. Her opinion of Shields changed when Deaundre Phillips was killed just weeks into Shields’ tenure as chief. The 24-year-old Black man was shot and killed by APD officer Yasin Abdulahad on Jan. 26, 2017, when he accompanied a friend picking up documents at a police annex building. Abdulahad and another officer, both in plainclothes, had approached the car Phillips was sitting in after, according to Abdulahad, they smelled marijuana. What followed remains a unclear, but after talking with the officers outside the car, Phillips re-entered the vehicle through the passenger side and was followed through the same door by Abdulahad; as Phillips drove away with the Abdulahad in the vehicle, Abdulahad fired a shot and killed him. It remains unclear what exactly happened, and security-camera footage later contradicted Abdulahad’s version of events — notably, that he was being dragged by the car when he fired. In the spotlight for the first time, Shields criticized the lack of transparency surrounding the shooting while also describing the officer involved as “widely respected.”
“She completely failed to respond in a manner that was compassionate,” Roberts says. “She avoided the family for quite some time.” Roberts started to see a difference between the image Shields presented and how the APD operated. “I think there is a difference between Erika Shields the spokesperson, the public figure, and Erika Shields the leader within the police department,” Roberts says. “Erika Shields the spokesperson is working really hard to align her image with that of Atlanta, which is considered to be a progressive city. But I think Erika Shields the leader within the APD did very little to change the culture of the Atlanta Police Department.”
Columbus Ward, a longtime Atlanta activist and community leader in Peoplestown, the neighborhood where Rayshard Brooks was killed, was also critical of Shields’ time as APD chief. “I expected more than what we got,” he says of her response to the killing of Brooks. “I expected her to step up to the plate and talk about what’s going to be some new…initiative of the police department to make sure this kind of stuff doesn’t happen anymore.”
Shields also faced backlash for her handling of the protests in Atlanta. While she viewed LMPD’s 2020 protest response as heavy on arrests, APD initially outpaced their counterparts in Louisville: Through June 6 of last year, at least 170 had been arrested during protests in Kentucky’s largest city, while 532 were arrested in Atlanta according to local press reports. (Louisville’s figures eventually surpassed Atlanta, but large-scale protests here continued throughout the summer and into the fall.)
In a May 30, 2020, incident that quickly went viral, body-camera footage showed APD officers using tasers on a young Black couple after breaking one of their car windows. The college students had gone out to get something to eat before getting caught in traffic resulting from the protests. Police enforcing a curfew confronted them. Shields and Atlanta’s mayor reviewed the footage and determined that two of the officers should be fired for excessive use of force. Within days, the Fulton County district attorney charged six officers in the incident. In a memo obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Shields said the terminated officers were “good people and good cops” who made mistakes. She also said the decision to charge six officers was politically motivated and that she would not “sit quietly by and watch our employees get swept up in the tsunami of political jockeying during an election year.”
When Shields was tapped to be Louisville’s chief, among those who criticized the city’s decision were two protest leaders, pastor Timothy Findley Jr. and Shameka Parrish-Wright, both of whom have since launched runs in the 2022 mayoral race. Back in January, Findley considered how Shields had been chief in Atlanta when Brooks was killed, telling NBC News her hiring here was “mind-blowing.” Today, he says, it’s still too early to tell how Shields is doing. “I think that it’s difficult to give a rating — passing, A+ or anything like that — because our city hasn’t changed,” he says.
What Shields says about race and policing is a departure from Louisville’s last police chief, Findley says, but adds that’s somewhat expected in the wake of protests, a time when Netflix added a Black Lives Matter section and the way many Americans talk about race has shifted. “It creates a great story for her to say those things, but the problem is, the words have to line up with action,” he says. “There has to be substantive change and action behind those words.”
Parrish-Wright says, “To me, you can say one thing, but do your actions match that? So, you know what to say because you come from Atlanta, which has a larger Black population than we have.” (Regarded as a Black mecca, Atlanta is more than a third African American, and Shields was the city’s first white police chief since 1990. Louisville, by comparison, is about 22 percent Black.) “She says one thing, but we still have someone that was beat up right outside our Hall of Justice by police for simply standing out in the street with a cross,” Parrish-Wright says, referring to the April arrest of protester Dee Garrett. Parrish-Wright says, if elected, she’d ask Shields why she should keep her on. (Craig Greenberg, the former CEO of 21c Museum Hotels who has raised the most money in the mayoral race so far, says LMPD still has work to do and that he would like to see the organization be more transparent. He says he’s “rooting for her to succeed” and that “her success is the city’s success.”)
While Shields’ rhetoric in both Louisville and Atlanta has been met with skepticism, others see her worldview as rare for a major city’s police chief. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a more progressive chief in 2021 America than Erika Shields,” says Dabney, the Georgia State University criminal justice department chair. “I don’t think the city of Louisville could have made a better choice.”
Councilwoman Jessica Green, who represents west Louisville’s District 1 and who was on the board that interviewed and selected Shields, was impressed by her ability to talk about race and the history of policing. “It was refreshing to have a chief speak about these issues without biting their tongue, who had real-world and life experiences,” Green says. “She just rose to the top at every level of the interviews. She was sort of three levels above every other person that we interviewed.”
Metro Council president and former Louisville police officer David James also was on the committee, and when he saw Shields’ résumé and bio, the first thing he thought of was how she went into the streets to talk to Atlanta protesters. “I thought: She’s got that much going for her because Steve Conrad certainly never would have done that,” he says. During the interviews to find LMPD’s next chief, James says, “Everyone picked Shields as No. 1. She was just saying all the right things.” James recalls how Shields discussed the history of policing and how policing relates to African Americans and other people of color — something he says none of the other candidates did. “She recognized it, she knew it — I knew it because I was a police officer and I’m Black,” James says. “The fact that she recognized that and knew that spoke volumes to me.”
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum — the firm the city hired to find candidates — says Shields “speaks her mind, and she calls it as she sees it. She doesn’t suffer fools.” Wexler says he has seen other chiefs handle incidents similar to the killing of Rayshard Brooks “badly” by withholding videos, being deceptive and shifting blame. After Brooks’s killing, Wexler says, “When we talked, she said: ‘I need to own this.’”
Green says, “Listen to her. She’s talking differently than any chief we have ever had.”
The number of homicides on the whiteboard keeps climbing higher. It’s at 85 today, June 11, but will soon hit 100. Today is the day Kentucky is lifting coronavirus restrictions. Tourists are back downtown, wandering out the doors of 21c in search of lunches and posing with the giant baseball bat in front of the Slugger Museum. Life in Louisville feels a little like it’s returning to normal — like it was before the pandemic. But things are not normal; Louisville is on pace to shatter its homicide record, set just last year at 173. Before 2020, the most homicides Louisville had seen was 117 in 2016. By late-September, Louisville will have seen at least 151 criminal homicides this year, with 21 of the victims under 18.
A few blocks away from the bustle of Museum Row, LMPD headquarters is mausoleum quiet. The halls feel like an elementary school while class is in session. The front door to the Brutalist building is locked, so I’m let in from an alley. Inside, Shields sits at the end of a conference table in her wood-paneled office with a laptop and a plastic Nalgene water bottle. Binders and files are piled up around her. Atop the stack sits the book “Life Behind the Veil: Blacks in Louisville, Kentucky, 1865-1930.”
As far as officials go, Shields is easy to talk to. She can be surprisingly candid, especially for somebody in the typically guarded world of police. She curses. She smiles slightly when listening. She seems more likely to admit problems than to double down, or dance around and deny, as is so often the case with officials. She’s observant, calling me out when my eyes move to her office whiteboard, which includes the number of homicides and what looks like a list of investigations.
Over the five months I spent reporting on this story, LMPD was constantly in C-J headlines: LMPD chief pushes for police on campuses – JCPS board member calls remarks ‘reprehensible’; Rep. Scott files suit on LMPD officers – Daughter, activist also suing over protest arrest; ‘I want justice,’ protester says – Arrest video shows man being punched by officer; Will salary hike keep cops on the force? Smaller departments offer more pay, less stress. On this day in June, Shields has been on the force for almost five months, enough time to settle in, so I ask her about her hardest day so far. She isn’t direct now, saying it’s easier to ask her about what day hasn’t been difficult. “I’ve struggled with the number of children who are being shot and killed or who are shooting and killing. That for me as a whole is what’s weighing the heaviest,” she says.
To slow the bloodshed, Shields says, first officers need to start being proactive again — something she says they have been reluctant to do, even before the killing of Breonna Taylor, for fear of becoming the next viral face of police misconduct. Demetrius Latham, a former officer who left LMPD earlier this year and who has been a lecturer at U of L, says, “There is no benefit to you as a police officer to go out there and engage in proactive policing — no benefit whatsoever.” Then there is the introduction of intelligence-led policing: identifying the people and groups responsible for driving violence in the city and targeting them. Closely related to that is something called group-violence intervention — essentially talking to people at a high risk of becoming a victim or a perpetrator. The strategy sounds simple but is full of pitfalls. “Proactive policing” — doing things like making traffic stops to make contact with the community and try to find illegal guns — has been a major source of friction between the African American community and police.
While the killing of Breonna Taylor was the reason for the 2020 protests, those protests were also about racial disparities and inequities in the city. The feeling that African Americans were targeted when behind the wheel helped drive anger on the streets, and there was no shortage of Black protesters who said they’d been unfairly treated by the police. And it’s not just a feeling that the community was targeted: A 2019 Courier-Journal analysis of traffic stops between 2016 and 2018 found that African Americans, while constituting just 20 percent of the driving-age population, represented a third of the stops and 57 percent of searches. While Black drivers were more likely to be searched, contraband showed up only 41 percent of the time, whereas it showed up 72 percent of the time when white drivers were searched.
“Removing someone from the vehicle and searching them or the car should be the exception, not the norm,” says Shields, who added that cops need to make clear that they’re looking for illegal guns, not weed, and ensure that most traffic stops result in “mostly positive” interactions with the community. Returning to that kind of policing requires careful monitoring to make sure racial disparities don’t exist, she says. “If your division is 90 percent white people and I see that 80, 70 percent of your traffic stops are Black people, I can drill down and see, OK, who’s doing these traffic stops?” she says. “It only takes a couple employees to really make things go sideways.”
Tim Findley, the protest leader and mayoral candidate, says, “When I hear proactive policing, I would ask: How is that different than stop-and-frisk? How do you deal with the fact that there may be officers out there who are racially profiling and now they can hide behind that notion of proactive policing?” Former interim chief Yvette Gentry, who served in the role for three months before Shields took over in January, says traffic stops are an essential pillar to a proactive-policing strategy. “The guns are getting there in cars. People are not necessarily walking down the street with guns,” she says. “Some of these scenes that we have, they’re firing 100, 200 shots. They’re coming in cars to do that.”
Shields has started having senior officers — herself included — go out on patrols to lead by example. But being proactive when short 300 officers is difficult, says Dave Mutchler, spokesperson for the River City Fraternal Order of Police, which represents nearly all of LMPD’s roughly 1,000 sworn members. “We are undermanned to the point that we are going from call to call, from run to run, and those proactive measures that we can take in the violent parts of the city — that time simply doesn’t exist anymore,” he says. Gentry sees the officer shortage as the single biggest obstacle facing the department. While it’s a challenge, she says it’s also an opportunity. “The people that sign up to do this job now are fully aware of the expectations; you can really set the tone for them,” she says. Having such a large chunk of the force vacant — more than 20 percent — “is an opportunity,” she says, “to really select and shift and mold and cultivate the type of officers you want out there representing your agency.”
But recruiting and keeping officers is difficult. Attitudes toward policing — and a stained reputation for LMPD after years of criticism — can be off-putting for candidates. FOP members overwhelmingly shot down a proposed salary that would bump up pay. “The members listened to their chief say that the LMPD should be the highest paid police department in the state. The proposed agreement does not accomplish that goal,” the FOP wrote in a statement. Currently, recruits in LMPD’s 26-week training academy earn just under $40,000, while graduates start at about $50,000. The proposed contract would have boosted first-year pay to $51,000. The Mayor’s Office said guaranteed raises every two years would mean a recruit joining the force now could expect to make $65,000 in two years’ time.
Demetrius Latham, the former LMPD officer, says the force is not only competing with other departments for officers but also with the private sector. For officers like him who joined LMPD after having a civilian job (he worked in insurance and took a pay cut to join the force), LMPD’s pay and benefits can be low and the lure to leave can be high. “You could go work in the private sector — you know, an insurance company, a factory even, a warehouse — and you can make $40,000, $45,000 and have decent benefits and nobody wants to hurt you for doing your job,” he says. “Postal workers are making good money delivering the mail and nobody wants to hurt the postal person unless they don’t have their checks on the first of the month.”
Less controversial than proactive policing is Group Violence Intervention, or GVI, a program that, when pioneered in Boston in the 1990s, resulted in the “Boston Miracle” — a 63-percent drop in youth homicides and a 30-percent drop in overall homicides in just one year. In Louisville, the plan is two-pronged: to identify and target members of gangs, while also having conversations with those involved with or on the peripheries of violence to provide them with a potential escape route so they don’t end up locked up or dead.
The idea is that the act of starting a conversation — getting those involved in crime to understand they can be charged and arrested if they are not killed by rivals first — can reduce violence. It is also based on the premise that a very small percent of a city’s population is responsible for an overwhelming share of the violent crime. Basically: If you can get through to members of that group and get them to stop — either by coercing people or, if they refuse to stop, by arresting them — violent crime will drop.
In a July episode of On the Record, LMPD’s semi-regular podcast, officer Ivan Haygood, whom Shields says runs point on LMPD’s GVI program, said his team reviews fatal and non-fatal shootings to identify persons who have a high probability of retaliating. Then they go talk to them. “I’m coming to talk to you. And I’m coming to talk to you either at home, in the hospital or on the street,” he said on the podcast. “We go to the hospital, and we talk to John. ‘John, how are you doing? First of all, how is your recovery?’ It’s a very simple and pointed conversation.”
Haygood added: “We find out what makes John go. Come to find out, John has a little girl. John still has his mom. John still has a wife. And I says: ‘Are they worth living for? Are they worth finding a different path?’ Because you can’t go back to the path (where) it’s either death or prison.”
To Gentry, the interim chief before Shields, the city’s failure to properly invest in violence-prevention efforts — things like the Office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods — has led the city to its current level of violence. “As a city over the past decade, we have half-heartedly funded a lot of the prevention efforts that could have put us in a better position than we are today with violent crime,” she says. “People talk about a path away from violence, but it has to be real.”
Shields does see limits to how much success these strategies can have — in part because of how many illegal guns are on the streets, a symptom of what she sees as overly lax gun laws in Southern states. “The gun laws make it hard because obviously when so many people can own guns legally, it allows for many stolen guns,” she says. “As a result, the volume of illegal guns is far greater than it is up north.” (Reporting by the Courier-Journal earlier this year found that, between 2014 and 2019, nearly 10,000 guns were reported stolen in Louisville and more than 1,000 of those firearms were recovered at crime scenes.)
Shields says another roadblock is the judiciary, which she says releases violent offenders on low bonds. “I think, realistically, we’re in a place where judges don’t have much sympathy for police,” she says. In one of her YouTube podcasts in September, Shields mentioned a “broken system” where people committing violence are handed “abysmally low bond, no bond (or) they’re put under house arrest. So the reality of it is, repeat violent offenders tend to get back out and right back in the game.” Both to me and on her podcast, Shields has highlighted the case of Laron Weston, a man police apprehended in south Louisville after he allegedly shot two women. Police say he later aimed his gun at officers as they moved in to arrest him. In a five-and-a-half-minute arraignment in July, Weston received a $10,000 bond by District Court Judge Anne Haynie. “How do you get your arms around violent crime when someone can shoot two women and be out, I don’t know, 12 hours later?” says Shields of the case, in which she claims LMPD had to petition the feds to intervene and bring charges so Weston would not be released.
Haynie, the judge involved, disputed Shields’ characterizations of the case, saying Weston already had a federal hold on him and was never at risk of being released. Furthermore, Weston was being placed on home incarceration, which Haynie says has proven to be a safe system. “Judges aren’t policy-makers. We have to apply what the statute says. We don’t make legislation. We don’t do any of that,” Haynie says. “If the police department has a concern about what judges are doing or about the statute, they need to take that to the legislators because they’re the ones that make the law.” Jefferson County’s chief public defender, Leo Smith, called Shields’ criticisms of the judiciary “inappropriate, inaccurate and irresponsible. At best, the chief’s remarks are cynical, misinformed and misleading. At worst, they threaten the independence of the judiciary and compromise its integrity by attempting to undermine confidence in the courts and trying to politicize the judicial decision-making process.”
Despite the obstacles facing LMPD in combatting crime, deputy chief Gwinn-Villaroel says, “I do believe that we can see a decrease in homicides — I have this crazy faith. We have to, because we’re losing too many.”
On Facebook in early September, LMPD somewhat unexpectedly declared a degree of victory. An LMPD newsletter posted to the Facebook page stated that, as a result of its new violent crime detail — focused on encouraging proactive policing and being active in the city’s deadliest 2nd and 4th Divisions in the West End and south Louisville — the pace of violence in the city was slowing. It cited a citywide “69% Reduction in the Rate of Homicides” (not to mention a 95-percent reduction in the 2nd Division). But if you follow homicide numbers in the city, the claims were eyebrow-raising: The 19 homicides in August and 15 in July were lower than the year-leading 23 in June and 20 in May, but those numbers aren’t indicative of a 69-percent drop. With a minimum of six homicides in the 2nd Division over July and August, according to LMPD’s weekly homicide reports, a 95-percent reduction there over a two-month period seemed unlikely. It is unclear how LMPD calculated the rates or what time frame it was referring to. However, on a podcast released Sept. 8, Shields, without citing any numbers, said data showed that there had been a “dramatic reduction in the rate of homicides” where the violent crime detail was active. (LMPD did not respond to repeated requests for clarification on the claims. While LMPD granted three interviews with Shields between May and July, as this story’s publication neared spokespeople for the department would not answer any follow-up or fact-checking questions. WAVE-3 also reported that LMPD did not respond to attempts seeking clarification to questions on the homicide reduction statistics.)
Longtime anti-violence activist Christopher 2X, who heads the local organization Game Changers, says LMPD’s statements about the reduction in the homicide rate have left him “perplexed.” Even if homicides were limited to 10 per month — which has not happened yet this year — 2X points out how that would still equal 120 homicides for the year, more than the old 2016 record of 117. The last time the city saw a monthly homicide figure in the single digits was in April 2020, almost 18 months ago. “We are in territory we’ve never been before,” 2X says. “It gives no relief to safety in the community when we stay in double-digit homicides on a monthly basis.”
In late July during our last interview, at LMPD’s training academy near Churchill Downs, I ask Shields about how local and national stories involving LMPD still frequently have some version of the line “LMPD did not respond to requests for comment,” despite her emphasis on the importance of transparency.
“Like what? Gimme one?” she shoots back quickly.
I come back with the case of Maj. Aubrey Gregory, the training-division commander demoted for using racist language, and a short April documentary released by Vice that investigated the killing of David McAtee and provided the most intimate look so far at what happened on June 1, 2020. “I’m concerned if somebody comes to me who’s reputable. I can’t say I felt that with them,” Shields says of Vice. (Just before the McAtee documentary came out, Vice correspondent Roberto Ferdman and his team won a prestigious George Polk award for television reporting for their coverage of the killing of Breonna Taylor.)
On Gregory’s demotion, she says LMPD had been immediately clear about what happened by saying that the officer had used a “racially inflammatory term” and also about the discipline faced. (At the time he was demoted, Shields said he’d used “inappropriate and offensive language” — the racial nature of which was not revealed until a Metro Council meeting weeks later. In the meantime, LMPD kept tightlipped about what had transpired.)
If hearing Shields talk — how racial disparities exist in policing, how “defund the police” really just means more money for social services, how police culture can turn toxic — evoked a radically transformed LMPD, the cold silence of not even a “no comment” from public-information officers evoked the old way of doing things.
Eight months after activist Hannah Drake posted that late-night tweet about how upset she was by the news of Shields’ hiring, she remains unhappy with the city’s decision. “I will always feel like that was a slap in the face to Black people, people of color, white people — everybody — that were protesting against this,” she says. “And you bring in the very person who was in charge when somebody was shot in the back in Atlanta. It makes utterly no sense. Quite frankly, I don’t think that does well for the community, and I don’t think it did well for the police department.”
In the days before this year’s Kentucky Derby, concrete barriers blocked off the parking lot of the Kroger on Broadway, one of two supermarkets in west Louisville, and near where David McAtee was killed a year before. The placement of the barriers forced the Kroger to close early. The rest of the city remained open as preparations for Louisville’s first real Derby in two years were underway. The placement of the barriers brought swift anger, feeling to some as if LMPD was openly policing Black neighborhoods differently than their white counterparts. Shields would later say the early placement of the barriers was the result of a “miscommunication.”
But to Drake, the incident was indicative of Shields not being the one calling the shots, indicative of, despite her words, LMPD continuing its actions as it always has. “The fish rots from the head, and she’s not the head. It’s other people controlling your department,” Drake says.
To others, though, LMPD is changing. David James, the Metro Council president and former Louisville police officer, says LMPD was set on a course of fundamental change the moment Shields took over. “It’s like night and day having a real police chief and a fake police chief,” he says. Under Conrad, James says, a culture at LMPD emerged in which officers could do what they wanted with little worry of repercussions. “It became a culture of: cover things up, don’t let people know about things,” he says. “And so now, when you hear reporters or media or just people talking about this transparency issue with the police department, that’s because Conrad was the main transparency obliterator. Because he didn’t want the public and the media to find out about the things that were going wrong (with) the police department.” James adds that changing that culture could take years.
Appearing in front of Metro Council’s Public Safety Committee on Sept. 15, Shields stressed that LMPD had to change — that it had no option but to change. “Do you want to be a part of an organization that is continually reading about its employees indicted?” she asked. “Reading about the DOJ coming in to turn everything upside down? You’ve done it your way. Guess what? It’s not worked.”
She went on: “It’s a mistake to think — in any law-enforcement agency — that you can dig in your heels, have it be the way it was 20, 25 years ago and you’re going to be unscathed. The world’s moved on past you years ago. And that’s why law enforcement’s in the space it’s in. The world’s moved past us and we’re still back in the wooden bleachers.”