LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Louisville city leaders praised the former Atlanta police chief who has been hired to oversee their struggling department in the wake of Breonna Taylor's death, but some critics questioned if she was the right choice after a rocky departure from her previous job.
Erika Shields was introduced this week after winning plaudits from Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and a panel that unanimously selected her after a months-long search process. The panel included two Black city council members who have been instrumental in police reforms since Taylor was fatally shot by city officers in March.
One panelist, city council member Jessica Green, urged Kentucky’s largest city to give Shields "an opportunity to earn your trust.”
Asked Ricky L. Jones, chair of the Pan-African studies department at the University of Louisville: “Why would you make a hire in which you have to beg people to give her a chance?”
Shields stepped down from the top Atlanta post in June after the death of Rayshard Brooks, a Black man who was shot in the back by police in a restaurant parking lot after reports that he fell asleep at the wheel in a drive-thru lane. Shields remained with the Atlanta department in a lesser role.
“There’s so much riding on this hire. I just wish we were going a different route,” said Sadiqa Reynolds, CEO of Louisville’s Urban League, who has joined protesters in the streets after Taylor’s killing.
“I wish we didn’t have to have someone that Atlanta didn’t want,” Reynolds said. She hopes Shields moves away from the military-style response police often used on protesters. She also said she wants Shields to succeed and is willing to work with her.
Jones, an Atlanta native, called the city's decision "a really odd hire.”
“I’m not saying there was any ideal candidate. I’m saying this candidate, because of her track record, was not ideal,” he said.
The city surveyed residents on what they wanted in a new police chief and used those comments to craft the job description.
David James, city council president and a former police officer, said Shields hit all the marks.
“She was very transparent. She was very authentic, admitted her flaws and mistakes in life,” James said. “Even when it came to the horrible shooting of Mr. Brooks, she was very forthright about that."
The mayor said he initially had concerns that potential applicants would not want the challenging job, but the search committee ended up with 28 candidates, including 11 current or former police chiefs. About half were Black.
Green and other city leaders said Shields is a proponent of modern police techniques that focus on increasing contacts and cooperation between officers and residents to reduce crime.
James said Shields is also an advocate of body cameras and pursuing illegal guns, which he said has a trickle-down effect of curbing other crimes.
While leading the Atlanta police force, Shields won praise in the days following George Floyd’s death in May, when protests erupted across the country. She said the Minneapolis officers involved should go to prison. She walked into crowds of protesters in downtown Atlanta, telling them she understood their frustrations and fears.
When she decided to step down after Brooks’ killing, she said her presence would be too much of a “distraction” for a city trying to heal.
“That to me spoke volumes as a person that is willing to take responsibility and ownership," James said, adding that the move was something longtime Louisville Police Chief Steve Conrad “would never do.”
Conrad was fired after officers at the scene of the deadly shooting of a Black restaurant owner failed to turn on their body cameras. David McAtee was killed during early protests of Taylor’s death.
Shields, who is white, will be the fourth person to lead the police force since Taylor’s death. She starts the job Jan. 19.
Conrad had already planned to retire after the Taylor shooting, but he was forced out after McAtee’s death. His temporary replacement, Robert Schroeder, retired in September. Schroeder was followed in October by interim Police Chief Yvette Gentry, the first Black woman to lead the department.
Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency medical technician, was killed in her home as officers attempted to serve a no-knock search warrant. None of the three white officers who fired into the residence were charged by a grand jury in her death, but two have been fired.