At a church in Louisville’s South End Saturday afternoon, new LMPD Chief Erika Shields got a crash course on the deep fractures of the city she now calls home. An event billed as a “community conversation” with Shields, faith leaders and anti-violence advocates quickly devolved into an angry shouting match as community members demanded answers for a litany of unresolved problems.
When Shields first took the mic, people booed her. One man shouted “You’re not welcome.”
“I’m not here to convince you to support me. I’m not here to convince you to support LMPD,” Shields said. “What I am here to say though is, I would hope we can all agree that 173 homicides is too much. If we’re going to reduce the number of people killed in this city…it is not going to be solved by the police alone.”
She voiced her support for the Office of Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods, which leads the city’s anti-violence work, and thanked the faith leaders who had expressed an interest in working with the police.
Fischer announced in early January that Shields had been hired to helm the city’s police department. She had resigned from the top post at the Atlanta Police Department in June after the fatal police shooting of Rayshard Brooks.
Longtime LMPD Chief Steve Conrad was fired in June after the death of David McAtee at the hands of law enforcement. He had already agreed to retire in the wake of the police killing of Breonna Taylor.
When it came time for questions, Shields sat on stage mostly silent as the crowd raged — at her, at Mayor Greg Fischer, at former interim police chief Yvette Gentry, at representatives from the Office of Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods.
The concerns would sound familiar to anyone who followed the protest movement from this summer. Community members asked for more input in negotiating the city’s police union contract. They asked for more transparency from Fischer. They asked for solutions to rising gun violence that don’t just retread the same over-policing tactics of the past few years. They asked for justice and, they assured Shields, there would be no peace until they got it.
“Nothing against you, ma’am, but you worked in Atlanta. You did absolutely nothing. You failed, but we gave you another chance,” said community activist Neal Robertson. “What are you going to do here?…What are you going to do for us?”
Most of the ire was aimed at Fischer, who sat in the front row of the church, rather than on stage. One woman asked why community activists who have been trying to get in touch with the mayor have never heard back, despite months of phone calls.
“I’m very sorry if you were calling the office and not getting a response,” Fischer said. “That’s bad.”
But he had little to offer to the crux of her complaint: that the public is being cut out of negotiations for the new police contract.
“There’s an agreement between what the FOP will allow and what the city will allow,” Fischer said. “The public oversight of the process is when the Metro Council approves the contract.”
One young man began shouting, demanding answers for the lack of jobs and opportunity for Louisville’s Black community. Steven Kelsey, the faith-based liaison for the Office of Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods, shot back, asking him to respect the church setting. The young man was escorted out by some community leaders, with the heated debate continuing in the atrium.
There was also a lot of residual anger over how the city handled protests this summer. People in the crowd accused Gentry of tear gassing protesters and she stood up, shouting back that she didn’t. Gentry became interim chief in October, after the largest protests had subsided.
Bishop Dennis Lyons, community activist and pastor at Gospel Missionary Church, said afterwards that community events are going to continue to devolve into shouting matches until Mayor Fischer takes the time to sit with protesters and hear their concerns at length.
“This is the only chance they have to share with the mayor what’s on their hearts,” Lyons said. “That tells us he is not opening up his office…this is the result of the government not connecting with the people.”
The meeting happened just nine days after an independent audit showed LMPD’s relationship with the community is “deeply strained.”
In a statement, Fischer said, “People want to be heard. I understand that. My team and I have worked hard to connect with protesters and others as we work toward greater equity and reimagining public safety in our community, and we have implemented a number of reforms based on those conversations, including the no-knock warrant ban, a Civilian Review Board and changes in our search warrant process among many others. And we will keep listening as we continue reforms.”
“Chief Shields, Vincent James and our Office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods, and I welcome all productive conversations as we continue to move our city forward,” Fischer said.
On Sunday, LMPD released a statement in which Shields said a critical part of her role is to “listen to the concerns of the community.”
“I hear the frustration residents are expressing and I appreciate the open and honest dialogue. These conversations are an essential part of the process of unifying our city,” she said. “I am committed to leading LMPD through necessary reforms and improvements to get to a place where we, as a community, are working together. I welcome feedback and I always will.”
Shields previously told WFPL News she believes LMPD needs to “own” its missteps.
This story has been updated.