Louisville Is Clamoring for Police Reform. Can an Interim Chief Deliver?

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Louisville Is Clamoring for Police Reform. Can an Interim Chief Deliver?

Yvette Gentry won’t be in the job long, but her city is hoping for swift progress after a series of scandals and police shootings.

Credit…Xavier Burrell for The New York Times

By

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — By anybody’s estimation, Yvette Gentry inherited a mess.

It was Oct. 1 when Chief Gentry, 50, was sworn in as the interim chief of the Louisville Metro Police Department. Trust between police officers and the city’s Black and Latino residents was more frayed than it had been in decades.

Chief Gentry’s job, on its face, was simply to serve as police chief until the city could find someone to fill the role permanently. But it was commonly understood within City Hall and the Police Department — and among the protesters who had demonstrated outside for months — that residents wanted more.

“The expectation is on me to hold officers accountable,” she said in a recent interview.

A series of scandals has engulfed the Louisville police force in recent years: In 2017, an investigation by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found that the department had secretly been working with federal immigration officers to deport undocumented residents. In 2018, a teenager was handcuffed and frisked and had his car searched during a 25-minute traffic stop that resulted in a viral video. In 2019, two officers were sentenced for their involvement in a sexual abuse scandal that occurred when they served on a youth mentorship program; a third was recently indicted.

“We want to live in a place where we are not scared that somebody is going to kill us or take us to jail just because of how we look,” said Karina Barillas, the executive director of La Casita Center, a group that advocates for the city’s Latino residents.

There is a sense that fair treatment is not a guarantee, Ms. Barillas said. With frustration already smoldering, the highly publicized death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman who was killed during a botched police raid on her apartment in March, acted like gasoline.

So the city turned to Chief Gentry, a decorated police officer who led two Louisville nonprofit organizations after retiring as deputy chief in 2015.

“She is uniquely situated, perhaps more so than anybody in the city of Louisville right now, to really be a vessel for reconciliation,” said Jessica Green, a city councilwoman and chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee.

Chief Gentry is trying to restore trust in the department after Breonna Taylor was killed during a botched police raid on her apartment in March.
Credit…Xavier Burrell for The New York Times

Chief Gentry’s reputation precedes her in almost every crowd. City Council members who disagree with her on policy nonetheless speak highly of her honesty and her loyalty to the city. Even many activists who regularly protest the police temper their criticism when asked directly about Chief Gentry.

But the divide between police officers and many residents has grown so wide that reconciliation can seem like a dream. Protesters want stronger accountability measures for officers who break the rules. Many City Council members agree. Even some police officers acknowledge that the department needs reform.

“We lost every credibility,” said Yolanda Baker, a retired police officer who returned to serve as Chief Gentry’s administrative assistant.

Still, Chief Gentry, who is Black, has given residents some hope. She speaks plainly about the department’s problems and those of the city at large. During a recent conference with business executives, she accused city leaders and the business community of failing to provide opportunities for Black residents.

“Why would it take people coming into some of the precious communities that you have preserved so well, busting out windows and busting out doors, to get people’s attention?” she asked, referring to protests that sometimes led to property destruction in the summer and fall.

“They can fire me tomorrow, they can fire me the next day, I don’t care,” she said. “I have no fear in what I have to do.”

The city found itself needing an interim chief after a popular restaurant owner was shot and killed in June as police officers and National Guardsmen attempted to disperse protesters. The mayor fired the previous chief after learning that officers at the scene did not have their body cameras turned on.

It is not entirely clear what Chief Gentry will be able to accomplish during her remaining time as interim chief — a period that could last several more months. She has said she is not interested in the permanent appointment.

She started her short-term role by tearing down plywood boards that covered the windows of the downtown police station to protect the building from racial justice demonstrators — a gesture that the department would again open its doors to the outside world.

She met with some of the protesters. And she set other goals: educate the public on when, and when not, to call the police; instill in officers a mission to build relationships with the communities they patrol; foster more diversity within the police force; and secure a major pay raise for starting officers.

Credit…Xavier Burrell for The New York Times

She has made some progress, but a fatal police shooting on Nov. 22 cast doubt on her ability to usher in the transparency that people were hoping for.

Body camera footage of the shooting, which happened during a traffic stop, was released on Monday — more than a week after it happened.

The Police Department had a policy to release body camera footage within 24 hours. But this summer, facing backlash after Ms. Taylor’s death, the department handed over the investigation of police shootings to the Kentucky State Police. While the new policy was meant to improve accountability, critics argued that it effectively eroded transparency.

“Whoever had the brilliant idea to entrust the public’s right to know with K.S.P. was seriously misinformed,” said Amye Bensenhaver, a retired assistant attorney general in Kentucky who specialized in open records cases.

Chief Gentry said she would prefer that a regional task force of law enforcement agencies handle these cases. She added that while some so-called reforms can seem like a good idea, they often do not mesh with reality.

“Everybody’s goal right now is to get us better, to get past the pain and heal our city,” she said, but “I’m not going to be doing stuff hastily to make people happy.”

Some demonstrators, she noted, have called for a ban on the use of chokeholds by the police. But, she said, the restraint can give officers an alternative to using their guns in life-threatening situations.

“If somebody has one of my four sons in a situation where they’re not in their right mind, Lord help them, please don’t shoot my son if you can do something else,” she said.

Credit…Xavier Burrell for The New York Times

Chief Gentry began her career in law enforcement as a dispatch operator, answering 911 calls and directing officers to emergencies. By the late 1990s she was a sworn Louisville police officer, assigned to patrol the Park Hill housing project.

In the summer of 1999, a heat wave descended on the city, leaving many Park Hill residents sweltering in apartments without air-conditioning.

Seeing their need, Chief Gentry raised enough money to buy dozens of air-conditioning units. Along with other officers, she installed them. It would not be an exaggeration to say her project possibly saved lives; more than 250 people in the Midwest died from the heat that summer.

“Policing is a privileged opportunity to just really dig deep into how you help people,” Chief Gentry said. “Very few people get the privilege to actually peek behind the curtains, so it’s what you do with that information, you know, what are you going to do with it now that you see it?”

Over the next two decades, Chief Gentry moved up the ranks, becoming deputy chief in 2011 and retiring from the force in January 2015.

Then, this summer, she was asked to return. Some friends told her not to. Her husband was skeptical as well, worrying for her health — Chief Gentry was declared free of breast cancer in 2016.

During her swearing-in ceremony, Mayor Greg Fischer described the uneasiness in Louisville as “a challenging time unlike anything any of us have ever seen.”

One night in October, at the suburban home of the state’s attorney general, Daniel Cameron, about four dozen demonstrators gathered to protest his office’s investigation into Ms. Taylor’s death. Police officers were there too: They formed a line and began to march, urging the crowd to get off the street. Reluctantly, the protesters moved back, in a scene that has become typical in 2020.

Asked about Chief Gentry’s ability to improve conditions in Louisville, the demonstrators expressed disagreement. Travis Nagdy, 21, said he would wait and see, though he was skeptical that she could solve the problems that led to the protests in the first place. About a month later, on Nov. 23, Mr. Nagdy was shot and killed in Louisville. The police have made no arrests in the case.

Delaney Haley, who helped organize the protest at Mr. Cameron’s house, said she was happy to see a Black woman at the helm but doubted that she would bring the systematic changes many residents wanted.

“We definitely want to be hopeful,” she said, “but we’ve seen these chiefs come in and out and not much change is made.”

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