Metro Louisville

New Louisville Metro Police chief Erika Shields said one of her first priorities is connecting with those who distrust police, particularly Black Louisvillians — and the department has to put in work to become more open to criticism.

Shields spoke with WFPL Tuesday about her goals for the department.

Residents who lack trust in police have long expressed their concerns about disparate policing in Louisville, perhaps never more so than in 2020 after LMPD officers killed Breonna Taylor.

Shields is the former Atlanta police chief who resigned after the fatal shooting of a Black man by police. Given the circumstances of Shields’ departure from Atlanta, some in Louisville called her hiring tone deaf or suggested she may be a quitter.

She said Tuesday the same thing city officials said when they announced her as the new police chief: She hopes Louisville residents will give her a chance.

Shields, who is white, identified the city’s record-setting homicide rate and the need to build trust with the Black community as the top issues affecting policing in Louisville today. And she said addressing both simultaneously is necessary.

She said now is the time to foster relationships. But she acknowledged the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as an additional challenge in making those connections.

Reducing the homicide rate will require an operational response, while relationship-building will take one-on-one contacts and making herself accessible to community members, she said.

Louisville’s vocal citizenry opens the door to connections, she said.

“I would much rather have someone in my face telling me that you think that we’re doing an awful job. At least they’re communicating with me,” she said. “And [when] there’s indifference and apathy, it’s really hard to turn things around.”

Shields believes there are “a number of people” in LMPD who care about improving trust with residents and just need direction.

That’s something she aims to provide.

Discouraging Defensiveness

Shields was appointed by Mayor Greg Fischer after a national, secret search. Her hiring was spurred by the June 2020 firing of former chief Steve Conrad in the wake of the fatal shootings of Breonna Taylor and David McAtee by law enforcement.

She spent 25 years in the Atlanta police department, including three-and-a-half years as chief. There, Shields said she saw a tendency for police officers — and whole departments — to be defensive. She said she sees it in Louisville, too, and the agency needs to own the missteps.

“We need to own it, we need to acknowledge it, and we need to understand that accountability at its core means we don’t rationalize our colleagues’ behavior,” she said.

Shields said she recognizes that some of the defensive attitude comes from officers’ fatigue. LMPD heavily staffed protests in the wake of Taylor’s killing, at times cancelling scheduled time off to cover months of protests last summer and fall. The department was also under a global microscope as petitions, celebrities and protesters called for the firing, arrest and prosecution of the officers who killed Taylor. (Three have been fired, and charges are still pending against one officer indicted by a grand jury on three counts of wanton endangerment of Taylor’s neighbors.)

But Shields said continued defensiveness could impede her goal for cultural change at LMPD — of accountability and diversity.

For accountability, she hopes the police union will be supportive of a push for change. Historically, the River City FOP has often sided with officers in the face of civilian complaints. The union’s president did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Shields said she has met with the union leadership, and told them her door is always open.

“But at the end of the day, my obligation is to lead this department forward,” she said.

Her ideal for LMPD down the road is a department where officers are well-paid and well-trained. Police and city officials have said for months that the department loses officers to suburban departments with better salaries and benefits.

She believes improving pay and training could help with retaining good, experienced officers — a goal the city is on board with, since it recently increased officer salaries through a temporary contract.

But Shields is also concerned with attracting a more diverse officer pool, particularly Black officers. LMPD is currently majority white and majority male. Black officers make up about 13 percent of all officers, including leadership, according to a demographics report from this month.

Mayor Fischer has described Shields as a “change agent” and someone who could turn LMPD into a model for other cities to emulate.

Shields said diversifying LMPD will require thoughtful recruiting, and retaining the best current officers. The work of instilling diversity in the department will start at the training academy, which she described as “forward-thinking.”

“More than anything, you just want the person to be in an environment where you can start to mold them, so they understand the significance of thinking outside of their lane,” she said.

LMPD runs its own police academy, and Shields said Major Paul Humphrey, who commands the training and recruitment division, is progressive, and she feels confident the academy will take recruits in the right direction. She sees her job as providing support to academy leaders, while also pushing to draw in recruits that don’t all look alike.

Amina Elahi is WFPL's City Editor.