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Why a majority-minority panel backed Erika Shields to lead Louisville police

When Breonna Taylor was killed in her apartment by police in Louisville, Kentucky, last year, Erika Shields thought of another Black woman who had been shot to death by officers more than a decade earlier.

Kathryn Johnston, 92, was killed in 2007 in what was later described as an illegal drug raid on her Atlanta home. An autopsy revealed that she had been shot five or six times.

Shields, who is white, was an Atlanta police officer at the time and was not involved in the incident. She remembers that officers were at first in denial that their colleagues had done anything wrong, and were then angered by the public scrutiny they faced and resistant to any suggestion that the department’s issues were systemic and rooted in racism.

“And at every benchmark, we were getting blown out of the water with evidence that said otherwise,” Shields recalled in an interview Friday.

Having been there, she said, “I knew the thought process” within the Louisville Metro Police Department. “And I knew what was going to have to be said and done to move the department forward.”

Shields, 53, was hired to lead the Louisville Metro Police Department last month, undertaking the outsize tasks of building public trust in the department and also building a department worthy of that trust.

It will be an uphill climb.

‘Who’s ever said something like that?’

Mayor Greg Fischer appointed Shields to helm the troubled police department after a unanimous recommendation from an eight-member panel that considered 28 candidates.

Fischer said Shields’ experience in the fallout from Johnston’s killing was a distinguishing factor and panel members said they were impressed that she voiced a belief that policing — in Louisville and nationally — needs a culture change.

But her selection has not been met with universal support, with much of the dissent driven by the baggage Shields brings to the job.

She resigned last year as chief of the Atlanta Police Department hours after the high-profile police killing of a Black man.

Even supporters in Louisville have said that they will be closely observing her.

During a recent Public Safety Committee meeting, Councilwoman Jessica Green, who was on the interview panel, issued a warning to Shields.

“I told her point-blank to her face: ‘I will be with you when you are right. But I will be at your neck when there are problems and when there are issues,'” Green recalled in an interview. “‘The fact that you are here does not mean that we will stop holding you accountable, that we will stop asking questions and that we will stop demanding excellence in law enforcement.'”

Still, Green said, “Shields was head and shoulders above every candidate,” and she was particularly impressed by the candor with which Shields spoke about race relations and police officers.

“I’ve heard her directly say, which I have never heard a chief before say, that there is a direct linkage between racism and policing,” Green said. “Who’s ever said something like that? I have never in my life heard anybody acknowledge that, say that without choking and without stammering or being pushed into a corner to be able to try to talk about race relations.”

Green, a lifelong resident of West Louisville and chair of the public safety committee, said the interview panel “had deep roots in the urban core of Louisville.” A majority of the panel members were African American; just two were white.

“And so, the fact that we still made that recommendation, I think that that should tell people a lot about what it is that she had to say consistently throughout the interview process, what she has continued to say even after she has been hired and here on the ground,” said Green, who is African American.

Shields acknowledged that residents might have misgivings about “bringing in a white person” after the city had “just had a horrible racial incident.” Louisville is a city rife with racial tension — an issue Shields has indicated she is ready to take on.

“You cannot have segments of society that feel as though police are going to kill them. And that literally is the space we’re in now,” Shields said. “And the problem is, you might say, ‘Well, it’s only a handful (of officers).’ But if you’re Black, you don’t know. You just know you sure as hell don’t want to be stopped by a cop.”

She said her experience in Atlanta, where 51 percent of residents are Black and where she served for 25 years under Black police chiefs and mayors, taught her how policing and race intersect.

“What separated Chief Shields from everyone else, and perhaps this is an advantage of having grown up in Atlanta, is she understood the history of the racism that has been involved in certain aspects of policing,” said James Peden, a council member who was part of the panel that interviewed her. “She understood the history. And maybe that resonates with me because I’m a history teacher by trade.”

Among Shields’ top priorities in Louisville is diversifying the police department, including its midlevel leadership, and building morale. A consulting firm hired by the city, Hillard Heintze, released a sweeping report last month that said the department needs “a true transformation.” Only about 6 percent of the department’s sergeants and 10 percent of its lieutenants are people of color, the report said, in a city where nearly 24 percent of the population is Black.

Shields said the report “drilled down” and provides data “to support a lot of things that many of us probably assumed.” For example, she said, the traffic-stop data showed “that there is clearly a disproportionate number of Black motorists being stopped and/or ticketed, in what are largely majority, if not exclusive white neighborhoods” — proof, to her, of racial profiling.

Shields said she also intends to shift the department’s drug-centric approach to curbing violent crime to focus more on getting illegal guns off the streets. There were 173 homicides in Louisville in 2020, more than the two previous years combined. In the month that she’s been in the job, Shields said that at least two children have been killed.

Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields speaks with the media as protesters gather on May 29.Mike Stewart / AP file

‘What you see is what you get with her’

Not everyone is convinced Shields is the right person to lead the department.

Attica Scott, a Democratic state representative who has attended racial justice demonstrations and been vocal about the need to overhaul the police, criticized the secretive selection process that led to Shields’ hiring. Members of the interview panel signed nondisclosure agreements and the list of finalists was not released publicly. (Fischer said that he followed the same approach as cities such as Philadelphia and Baltimore and that many applicants didn’t want it known they were looking for a new job.)

Scott said she also had “concerns with someone being hired who left when things got hot in Atlanta,” a sentiment she said she shared with Shields.

Last June, Atlanta police officers responded to a call that a Black man, Rayshard Brooks, 27, had fallen asleep in his car in a Wendy’s parking lot.

Authorities said Brooks failed a field sobriety test, and as officers attempted to arrest him, he resisted, a struggle ensued and he took an officer’s Taser. He fired it and then ran, they said, and one of the officers, Garrett Rolfe, shot at Brooks as he fled, striking him twice in the back.

The killing ignited protests for racial justice and against police brutality. Shields, who had been police chief for three and a half years and was the second woman and first openly gay person to hold the position, resigned the next day. Rolfe was fired hours after Shields resigned.

“More than anything, what I recognized at the time was that if I stayed it was going to be a distraction,” Shields said. “It wasn’t an easy decision, but you also sometimes know what you have to do.”

She said she was surprised by the negative reaction her decision to resign has drawn from some in Louisville.

“It was interesting because stepping down in Atlanta was perceived as really taking the high road,” Shields said. “And then I come here and it’s 180 degrees the other way — that somehow, I shirked my responsibility.”

The interview panel, however, found her actions honorable.

Amy Hess, the public safety chief in Louisville who was on the panel, said she knew Shields’ resignation would be a flashpoint.

As part of the interview process, Hess said she and other members of the panel spoke to police officers, city officials, faith leaders and other residents in Atlanta about Shields and her resignation and determined it was generally well received.

“The interesting thing is, it’s the folks here in Louisville that seem to be more critical of it,” Hess said. “I heard several of them say that she was running away from a problem. And if you hear her describe it, and you talk to the people in Atlanta, that’s not the way that they interpreted it. So I thought that that was kind of interesting — the folks in Louisville were coming to a conclusion that people who actually experienced it did not.”

Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C., which has been a consultant to troubled agencies in Minneapolis, Chicago, Los Angeles and Camden, New Jersey, was hired by the city of Louisville to aid in vetting Shields and other candidates.

Wexler said Shields had promoted a culture of transparency in Atlanta and is “really well thought of wherever she goes.” At demonstrations there, spurred by the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody, Shields “was out there” talking to the community and to police officers, Wexler said.

“Being a police chief today, it’s inevitable you’re going to be faced with some kind of situation where police use of force is involved. It’s just inevitable,” Wexler said. The ways that Shields handled situations demonstrated a level of maturity and progressive thinking, he said.

In January 2020, for example, Shields put a policy in place that prohibited officers from pursuing fleeing suspects after a series of high-speed chases resulted in multiple deaths, Wexler said.

“When she had concerns about police pursuits, she put a moratorium on them until she could have them independently reviewed, and we assisted in that,” Wexler said. “She just said: ‘That’s enough, we have to develop a new policy. And we have to evaluate it.'”

“I think what is important about her is she understands the need for change and reform,” Wexler said. “She walks the talk, if you will. What you see is what you get with her.”

‘I know what I can do’

Still, Shields was not without critics in her previous role.

Richard Rose, 72, president of the NAACP chapter in Atlanta, said he was surprised by her appointment in Louisville.

“She presided over bad situations to go to a worse situation,” Rose said. “So at best, she’ll bring it up to a bad situation.”

He spoke specifically of the police killing of Jimmy Atchison. In 2019, an Atlanta police officer working with an FBI task force tried to arrest Atchison, 21, after a chase. He hid in a closet and eventually attempted to surrender, but was shot in the face and killed by the police officer who said that he believed Atchison was holding a weapon. No officers were wearing body cameras at the time of the shooting. Afterward, Shields announced that the police department would cease to partner with the FBI and other federal task forces that do not wear body cameras.

Rose said that he had told Shields at least a year before Atchison’s death that police officers should be required to wear body cameras.

“Her response was, ‘Yeah, well, we can’t do that because when they’re assigned to a federal task force, they can’t wear body cameras,'” Rose said. “I said, ‘Well then, don’t assign them.’ And she said, ‘Well, you know, we can’t do that.’ And I said, ‘OK.'”

Rose said he doesn’t believe Shields “has the capacity to act without being pushed.”

“She waited till somebody was killed,” he said. “Then there was a public uproar, and then she acted.”

Shields said Rose’s account is “patently false.” “The city did not have the infrastructure to support the cameras,” she said. “It made rolling out the cameras a very slow process that began prior to me being chief.”

Fischer, a Democrat whose third and final term ends next year, said it is an overstatement to say that many people are unhappy he appointed Shields to lead the police department.

“I’d say much of the activist community was,” he said. “I would say, give her a chance and if you talk to people that she’s interacted with so far, you’ll see that some of that resistance is starting to melt away.”

Shields issued a similar appeal.

“I know what I can do and I know I can make changes to this department,” Shields said. “I truly hope that people will give me an opportunity and will see that I am serious about what I’m doing and that we are making a change.”

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