LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Atlanta police chief who resigned last year after a high-profile police shooting has been hired to run the department in Louisville, a city still reeling from its own prominent shooting that helped fuel the outcry for police reform that became a defining factor of 2020.
Erika Shields will become the fourth chief to lead the Louisville Metro Police Department since the death of Breonna Taylor in March, Mayor Greg Fischer announced Wednesday. She will replace the city’s interim chief, Yvette Gentry, when she is sworn in Jan. 19.
Shields will arrive in a city rife with racial tension that ballooned with the killing of Taylor and subsequent protests, which drew thousands of people this summer and fall. Much of the anger is still evident in Louisville today, nine months later, and activists said they will ramp up demonstrations in an effort to reinforce their demands for a transformation in the police force.
“Erika is definitely coming into chaos,” said Milly Martin, a political and social activist in Louisville. “Hopefully she can handle it.”
Shields served as Atlanta’s police chief for 3 1/2 years but resigned two days after a police officer shot and killed Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old Black man, in June. Officers had responded to a call reporting that Brooks was asleep in his car in a Wendy’s parking lot.
Her selection highlights the difficulty of filling police chief vacancies nationwide, particularly in troubled departments like Louisville where candidates cannot expect even the briefest of honeymoons. Seattle has yet to fill the vacancy left after Chief Carmen Best resigned in August. After the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, Baltimore churned through four commissioners before luring Michael Harrison away from New Orleans.
A host of qualified chiefs with progressive views, including Shields, have been sidelined after high-profile incidents of police violence, often sacrificed by elected officials looking for political cover. Many were focused on changing the culture in their departments but hamstrung by contractual protections for bad officers, opposition from powerful unions and a hands-off approach by the Justice Department under President Donald Trump.
Further complicating matters, demands for immediate changes to policing have reached a crescendo, but law enforcement experts say changes take time and are more successful when they occur at a measured pace. Shields, who rose through the ranks of the Atlanta Police Department, was well-regarded by the rank and file even when she made changes they did not like, according to Vince Champion, a spokesman for the union there.
Chiefs say that if they cannot prevent every instance of unjustified police violence, they can increase transparency about incidents and take swift disciplinary action. In the case of Brooks, officers tried to arrest him after 40 minutes of questioning and sobriety tests. Brooks, who hit one officer, took another one’s Taser, fired it and then ran. One of the officers, Garrett Rolfe, pulled out a handgun and fired at Brooks as he fled, striking him twice in the back.
Prosecutors said that Rolfe then kicked Brooks as he lay dying, while another officer stood by. Neither of the two officers rendered first aid for more than two minutes.
Officials fired Rolfe and charged him with murder and aggravated assault within a week of the shooting. His case is awaiting trial.
Shields resigned the same day that Rolfe was fired, saying she was stepping down “out of a deep and abiding love for this city and this department.”
Fischer said Shields is “an experienced, progressive, reform-minded leader who believes in the role of policing.” He said that he admired Shields’ decision to step down at a difficult time, a move that he said gave Atlanta an opportunity to heal.
“One of the unfortunate realities is that if you are the chief of a major city in this country, you have dealt with issues like this,” Fischer said, adding that her decision to resign “showed a lot of class on her behalf.”
Appearing with the mayor and other city officials at a news conference, Shields said that the past year has shown that law enforcement agencies have “a long way to go.” She pointed to her experience in Atlanta, where about 50% of residents are Black, to show that she understood how policing and race intersect.
“Policing and race to me is not mere training blocks of instruction or a work rule in a disciplinary manual,” Shields said. “Instead, it’s that history that tells us and shows us, day in and day out, that these challenges remain for individuals of color.”
Shields comes to a city that is still dealing with an even more prominent police shooting than the one she had to deal with in Atlanta — that of Taylor, who was killed during a raid on her apartment in March.
No officers have been charged for Taylor’s death. One officer, Brett Hankison, faces charges of endangering Taylor’s neighbors when he shot into their apartment. The Police Department has fired two other officers for their roles in the deadly raid, the department confirmed Wednesday.
In death, Taylor became an international icon for renewed calls to change police departments and hold officers accountable when they commit unnecessary violence. That is especially apparent in Louisville, where fallout from the deadly raid continues to reverberate through the city. Protesters, though fewer in number than during the summer and fall, still occupy a public square in her honor downtown, and public officials continue to clamor for changes and accountability measures.
Martin, the political activist, said she was disappointed that officials appointed Shields, who was asked to resign by the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP after the killing of Brooks.
“I just don’t see how she’s going to be a good fit for Louisville,” Martin said. “As the Black community, why would we want a woman like Erika Shields coming to our city to be the next police chief when clearly, clearly she could not get Atlanta PD under control?”
Atlanta had several police shootings while Shields served as chief, some of them leading to changes.
In one instance, in 2019, an Atlanta police officer was working with an FBI task force when the group attempted to arrest 21-year-old Jimmy Atchison after a chase. Atchison eventually attempted to surrender but was shot in the face and killed by the Atlanta police officer. The officer said at the time that he believed that Atchison was holding a weapon.
None of the officers were wearing body cameras, and the shooting remains under investigation, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In response, Shields announced that the Police Department would cease to partner with the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration or U.S. Marshals Service because those agencies do not wear body cameras.
Shields, Atlanta’s second female chief and its first openly gay one, also won some support among progressives when she met with protesters who took to the streets after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in May.
“I thought the way she waded out into the crowds to try and better understand the pain and worry that people were feeling in Atlanta last summer was really admirable,” said Matt Westmoreland, a Democratic City Councilman in Atlanta.
Like many cities, Louisville experienced a sharp increase in homicides and other crimes last year. The Louisville Metro Police Department logged 173 homicides in 2020, more than the previous two years combined.
Chris Wells, a Louisville activist who attended a meeting Tuesday to promote a truce between the city’s feuding gangs, said he doubted that someone from outside Louisville could come in and correct the myriad problems that only worsened for the city’s Black residents in 2020.
Shields said Wednesday that reducing the number of shootings would be one of her primary goals as chief and promised to instill a culture that encourages officers to build personal relationships in the neighborhoods they patrol.
The selection process leading up to Wednesday’s announcement unfolded in secrecy. City officials faced public criticism for not releasing the list of finalists before making a selection, in view of the calls for increased transparency in the wake of Taylor’s death.
“We were not given a choice,” said Attica Scott, a state representative from Louisville who participated in several racial justice demonstrations. “We weren’t engaged as partners; we weren’t engaged as community — activists, protesters and leaders have been left out.”
On Wednesday, city officials said the confidentiality was essential to attracting the best candidates. They also pointed to a number of community outreach programs that the city promoted during the process, including surveys that drew more than 10,000 responses, and conversations with activists and business leaders.
Gerald Griggs, second vice president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP, said that despite some reform efforts, Shields was ultimately unsuccessful in preventing unnecessary acts of police violence. He said the death of Brooks was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“To hear that now she’s going to one of the epicenters of the issues around police brutality is disheartening,” Griggs said. “I think it’s a bad decision. I like her as a person, but as an administrator of a police force, she’s been unable to curtail the activity that gives rise to police brutality.”
He added that activists in Atlanta “have a kindred spirit with Louisville because we understand what it’s like to lose a member of the community” and that Shields “can expect activists from Atlanta to be in Louisville — we want to hold her accountable.”