After Breonna Taylor Case, Louisville Police Face Precarious Next Chapter
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The news conference on a Friday afternoon in March was brief and opaque. The Louisville police chief said officers serving a drug warrant at an apartment had been met with gunfire. An officer had been shot and a woman had been killed, the chief said, and a man inside had been charged with trying to murder a police officer.
When a reporter asked about the bullet holes that riddled the woman’s sliding door and window, the news conference abruptly ended. But as details of the raid trickled out, they painted a much darker picture of a botched operation: The police had fired 32 shots into the apartment of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician, whose boyfriend had shot and wounded one of the officers when they burst through the door, later saying he thought they were intruders. Ms. Taylor, awakened from sleep, had died in the hallway outside her bedroom.
The department’s refusal to hold anyone accountable eventually became untenable. As protests mounted, the mayor fired the police chief, the attempted murder charge against Ms. Taylor’s boyfriend was dropped, and one officer accused of wantonly firing into a neighbor’s apartment during the raid was fired, but many residents said it was not enough. Now, Yvette Gentry, a veteran officer who came out of retirement to lead the scarred department through the end of the year with a promise to mend its strained relationships with the Black and Latino communities, has only days left to leave her mark.
The Louisville Metro Police Department remains one of America’s most troubled police forces, distrusted by many residents and now facing a crucial transition. Chief Gentry has said she is not interested in a permanent appointment, and Mayor Greg Fischer said in an interview on Wednesday that he expected to name her successor in January after a secretive search that has left some worried there may be no serious reform.
Mr. Fischer said the city hired an outside consultant to conduct a full review of the department, and he said he hoped Louisville would become an example of a city that made significant changes following a tragedy.
“We can be that city that when people look at the tough year we’ve had, they’ll say, ‘Wow, look how Louisville transformed from a really tough situation into this beacon of opportunity and beacon of equity for the country,'” Mr. Fischer said.
But restoring faith in the Police Department will not be easy. Many residents have grown frustrated by how long it has taken to address the failings that led to Ms. Taylor’s death, and to hold officers accountable. Still others have become disillusioned by protests that turned their city into a national story.
“The issues run way deeper than the case of Breonna Taylor,” said Keturah Herron, who works on criminal justice issues for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky.
Chief Gentry took over the department in October with a primary mission of holding officers more accountable. When she got to work on the Breonna Taylor case, she found plenty of wrongdoing to punish: One detective had lied to get a judge’s approval for the search of Ms. Taylor’s apartment, she concluded, and the detective who killed her had fired without clearly identifying a target. On Tuesday, she moved to fire both of them.
Some officials expect her to hand down more sanctions, but any long-term changes will have to be overseen by the next police chief. A search panel unanimously recommended a candidate to the mayor, but the name has not been made public and the mayor has declined to say whether he has selected someone.
“In any type of big challenge, there’s some people that are really excited and turned on by that,” Mr. Fischer said. “I think our new police chief will be one of those people.”
Louisville was rocked by an outpouring of grief and sometimes destructive protests that followed Ms. Taylor’s death and grew more pronounced during nationwide demonstrations over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. The protests kicked back up in September when a grand jury declined to indict either of the two officers who shot Ms. Taylor, instead indicting the one officer with three counts of recklessly endangering Ms. Taylor’s neighbors. That officer had previously been fired.
Even after Chief Gentry moved this week to fire two more officers, many in the city worry about whether Louisville officials are prepared to order top-to-bottom change in a department that has a long history of combative treatment of Black and Latino residents, and a tendency to hide those problems from public view.
“What’s the vision for 2021 in Louisville? I just feel like that doesn’t exist,” said Attica Scott, a Democratic state representative from Louisville. “If that’s how we’re ending the year, then we’re definitely not starting it out on the right foot.”
Ms. Scott was among those arrested during a protest in September in response to the announcement that no officers would be charged with killing Ms. Taylor. She said the secretive police chief search and the fact that Chief Gentry had not adopted more sweeping reforms made her skeptical that a reimagined Police Department was around the corner.
But Mr. Fischer and members of the City Council point to a long list of changes since Ms. Taylor’s death and say they show that city leaders are confronting the department’s problems head-on. The city banned the use of “no-knock” warrants that had allowed officers, with a judge’s approval, to raid someone’s home without first announcing their presence, and moved to tighten the guidelines on when the police can use force. The City Council also established a civilian review board to monitor the Police Department.
“Shame on us if we don’t start getting things right going forward,” said Barbara Sexton Smith, a member of the City Council, who said that she, too, was frustrated it had taken so long to make some changes, but that she and others were more focused than ever on improving policing in the city.
Still, the mayor is facing pressure from all sides. Even some residents who say the city acted too slowly after Ms. Taylor was killed also say it erred in not quelling the destructive protests that followed. During the September protests, two police officers were shot.
“To single out police and to believe they’re horrific and everyone is wrong, that’s absurd,” said Richard Scott, a retired heavy equipment salesman who has lived in Louisville for three decades and leans Republican. He said he supported the idea proposed by some activists of sending social workers instead of police officers to some situations, but worried about proposals to “defund the police” when he saw what looked like chaos in Louisville’s streets. “I was embarrassed to see the rioting and destruction, and seeing it allowed to happen,” he said.
For the Police Department, its reputation for opacity may be hard to shake, given that it extends back much further than the raid on Ms. Taylor’s home.
In 2017, an investigation by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found that the department had secretly worked with federal immigration officers to deport immigrants who had illegally entered the country, despite city officials marketing Louisville as a “compassionate city” for undocumented residents.
Two years later, two officers were sentenced to prison for abusing children while they served in a youth mentorship program plagued by sexual abuse scandals. A third officer was recently indicted in that case. The Courier Journal newspaper reported in November that the Police Department had lied about not having records related to the scandal when it actually had hundreds of thousands.
Chief Gentry did not respond to a request for comment for this article, but in an interview in October, when she took over, she said that one of her primary goals was to be able to tell Ms. Taylor’s story “from start to finish” by the time she finishes her work, sometime next month.
Given the lingering impacts of Ms. Taylor’s death and the subsequent protests, it seems unlikely that the end of the story could come so quickly.
“It’s just one step forward, two steps back here in Louisville, from what I’ve experienced,” said Tija Jackson, a private investigator and former juvenile probation officer who said she was discouraged that the identities of the candidates for police chief have been kept secret.
Ms. Jackson’s son, Tae-Ahn Lea, who is Black, was pulled over in 2018 by a white Louisville police officer who accused him of making a “wide turn,” then handcuffed and searched him in what many saw as an example of racial profiling. The officer resigned, but Ms. Jackson said the episode had traumatized her son.
“They can’t fix that,” she said.
Will Wright and Austyn Gaffney reported from Louisville, and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs from New York.