Shields, 53, took the reins of that department in January, weeks before the city prepared to recognize the first anniversary of Taylor’s killing on Saturday with hundreds expected to rally downtown. The city’s ongoing tumult symbolizes the difficulty of healing a community touched by police violence, despite one initiative after another aimed at promoting racial justice, as a recent exodus of major-city police chiefs forces officials to reconsider who is equipped to lead their departments.
In Louisville, Shields is saddled with repairing the broken relationship between distrustful residents and the more than 1,000 officers sworn to protect and serve them. Hailed by Mayor Greg Fischer (D) as a “progressive, reform-minded leader,” she vowed to establish community trust.
But the circumstances of her past resignation weigh heavily. Shields stepped down from her Atlanta job in June, a day after one of her officers fatally shot Rayshard Brooks when he grabbed another officer’s Taser. The killing launched citywide protests that sometimes turned violent.
Many in Louisville saw Shields’s hiring as a tone-deaf decision that unwisely placed a chief embroiled in her own police-violence uproar into a city still rocked by a similar incident. Shields is now tasked with navigating that opposition while fixing a police department and a city described as “in crisis” by outside consultants hired to examine police policies and procedures.
She said she knows residents are watching police officers and are unlikely to give them the benefit of the doubt.
“I’ve really come in and worked very slowly, deliberately and cautiously internally,” Shields said. “Because we cannot afford a mistake.”
A temperature of ‘1,000 degrees’
Louisville officials announced Shields as their hire six months after she left Atlanta — the result of an opaque search that included 28 applicants and 20 interviewees, according to Council President David James (D), whose names were not announced publicly.
After this story published, Jean Porter, a spokeswoman for the mayor, disputed these numbers, saying although the hiring panel reviewed 20 applications, they interviewed 12 people. Porter said the city also held about two dozen listening sessions with residents about their hopes for the next chief.
In a survey, more than 10,000 residents demanded that their next chief develop standards to police neighborhoods consistently and make the department’s racial makeup mirror that of the city. The new chief needed to engage in the community. And, residents said, they had to stop officers from killing people who are unarmed.
“The things that the citizens were saying they wanted from their police chief were not new,” James said. “The only difference is, this time we listened.”
Shields’s department in Atlanta emphasized community policing, said Vince Champion, Southeast regional director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers union. She assured residents that she would take their complaints seriously, he said, while giving officers due process in disciplinary proceedings.
“Even though she’s making the decisions, she always is willing to look and see if they work,” Champion said. “If they don’t work, she’s willing to change her mind.”
When George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody last May, Shields was among the nation’s first chiefs to go out into the streets and talk with protesters. Her resignation after three years followed not just the Brooks shooting, but also outcry over some of her officers using Tasers on college students.
The dozens of resignations of major-city police chiefs since Floyd’s killing have prompted city officials to reflect on who can transform departments beset by low morale and community trust. Residents are expressing exhaustion with what they see as a lot of talk and little action on policing overhauls, while officials want job candidates who will reimagine the role of officers.
Gary Peterson, CEO of Public Sector Search & Consulting, a headhunting company for police chiefs, said his firm handled about 50 percent more searches in 2020 than in previous years but got roughly half as many applicants for each job.
Candidates for chief roles face higher standards and more scrutiny than ever, especially in cities that have experienced police violence, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which consulted with Louisville in its hiring process.
“If it was medicine,” he said, “you’d need a great trauma surgeon.”
All eight members of a panel formed to choose the new Louisville chief, six of whom were people of color, selected Shields as their first choice, James said. He said they were impressed with her deep knowledge of the historical nexus between policing and racism, including officers’ role in enforcing segregation during the Jim Crow era.
James said he didn’t blame Shields for Brooks’s killing, and he credited her with the fact that the officer who shot him was quickly fired. But Shields’s resignation was announced nearly simultaneously with the firing of the officer, Garrett Rolfe, and Shields has declined to elaborate on her involvement in the decision. Rolfe was later charged with murder in Brooks’s death.
Other Louisville residents viewed Shields’s resignation as a failure of leadership. Council member Jecorey Arthur (D) said she seemed unable to “take the heat in Atlanta” and then came to Louisville, where the temperature remains “1,000 degrees.”
“Louisville don’t want to look in the mirror at itself,” he said. “It really doesn’t.”
Fixing a broken department
Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency-room technician, was killed March 13, 2020, when plainclothes police officers carried out a search warrant at her apartment in a drug investigation. There is dispute over whether the officers identified themselves, and Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, fired a shot with a gun he legally owned. He later said he thought the officers were intruders.
Several officers returned fire, and Taylor was struck five times.
“What I experienced in Atlanta allowed me to know exactly how [the Louisville Metro Police Department] was going to process what occurred with Breonna Taylor: ‘We didn’t do anything wrong, we operationally are a sound agency, this was just a mistake by one officer, and most significantly, that this is not race-related,’ ” Shields said. “And so I knew, from where I was sitting, that for LMPD to go forward, it was as much about coming to terms with the racial component of Breonna Taylor as it was the operational component.”
Louisville has undergone changes in the past year. The city banned no-knock warrants, established a civilian review board to oversee the police department and promised a list of reforms that accompanied a $12 million settlement with Taylor’s family. Charges that Walker assaulted a police officer were permanently dismissed. Three officers were fired in connection with the raid, and one, Brett Hankison, was charged with wanton endangerment for bullets that allegedly entered a neighboring apartment.
Still, the police department remains dysfunctional, according to Hillard Heintze, the law-enforcement consulting firm hired by the city. The firm concluded that leadership does not effectively communicate its mission and the force does not consistently follow its owns policies around search warrants. Officers also disproportionately target Black residents for traffic stops, street interactions and arrests, the report found.
Some residents are hesitantly open-minded about Shields’s ability to tackle those problems.
“It’s not in my interest to just sit back and throw darts,” said Sadiqa Reynolds, president of the Louisville Urban League, which aims to help Black Americans achieve social and economic equality. “She is our police chief now. I have two children in this city. I need this city to be safe.”
Shields will also have to work with Louisville’s police union. Dave Mutchler, a spokesman for the city’s branch of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the union backs Shields’s goal of driving down gun violence, which has recently surged in Louisville. Combating those shootings means increasing police presence in the neighborhoods where residents least trust officers — a challenge that Shields said will require teaching those officers why they are unwelcome in Black communities.
Shields’s other priorities include studying traffic-stop data for evidence of racial profiling and diversifying her department’s upper levels. She said she wants her officers to spend more time chasing illegal guns and less time pursuing drugs, a tactic that she believes will focus efforts on the people perpetuating violence instead of low-level offenders.
But Shields said she knows that no matter how much she talks about racial justice in policing, none of it will matter unless her department lives out that goal.
On Saturday, the attention of the city’s racial-justice activists and their allies will be elsewhere. A rally and a march with Taylor’s family in Jefferson Square Park, the unofficial center of Louisville’s protest movement, will symbolize that although time has passed, the city has not moved on.
Justice for Taylor, many residents feel, still has not been served.
A monument to her and the protests of 2020 will be erected this spring in a corner of the park, colloquially known as Injustice Square. The marker will serve as a permanent reminder that this was the city where Taylor was killed — and where residents raised their voices over and over in their fight to press forward.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story identified the incident in which Taylor was killed as a “no-knock raid.” Whether officers identified themselves as police is in dispute, not whether they knocked.