New Louisville Police Chief Takes The Helm During Tense Time In The City

Sep 30, 2020
Originally published on September 30, 2020 4:48 pm

Yvette Gentry will become the third police chief in the city of Louisville, Ky., since the police killing of Breonna Taylor in March.

After serving in the department for two decades — including time as a deputy police chief — Gentry retired in 2014. She will be the first Black woman to lead the department and will serve on an interim basis.

Gentry says she decided to take the role as police chief after hearing from the community.

"I could see a lot of people both inside the agency and out here protesting that really were uncomfortable with the way things were happening," Gentry tells All Things Considered. "And so I feel like I was best suited to stand in the gap because I know the agency, I know the city, I know a lot of the inequities that have taken place across the city, and so I can come in here and make sure that we create better conditions for people so that they don't feel left out and they don't feel angry all the time and disenfranchised."

Yvette Gentry will be the first Black woman to lead the Louisville Metro Police Department. She is the third police chief in the city of Louisville, Kentucky since the police killing of Breonna Taylor in March.
Louisville Metro Police Department

Gentry takes the helm during a tense time in the city. For months, there have been protests over Taylor's death. A Kentucky grand jury declined to charge any officers with the actual shooting of Taylor, prompting protesters to demand the release of court recording that led to the decision. Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron agreed to release the recordings, but on Wednesday, a judge granted Cameron's request for more time in order to redact witnesses' personal information. Now, the deadline to release the recordings is Friday at noon.

"I am, too, anxiously awaiting to see what the [attorney general] presented, because what's important to me is that the proper scope of the investigation was done at that level," Gentry says. "People want to know from start to finish what happened in that case, and I certainly want to know that, and I think the public and the family deserve that as well. And the officers who are out here on the front lines."

Here are excerpts from her interview, in which Gentry discusses why she took the position, the Taylor case and the changes she hopes to implement in the department.

Black Americans make up about a quarter of Louisville's population, but only about 10% of the department's officers are Black. What's the disconnect?

I think a lot of it is the pushback that they get in the community. If you look at any of these videos, from some of the protests and some of the ways that the Black officers were portrayed as traitors, a lot of the things that happened in the media and also happened on the streets every day, really make it a very, very tough sell for African American officers.

One of the officers involved in the Taylor shooting, Jonathan Mattingly, sent a letter to his colleagues, calling some protesters "thugs" and saying criminals were being canonized. How widely do you think his views are shared in the department?

I still wholeheartedly believe in the overwhelming majority of the police officers here. There is a lack of discipline. We had several commanders, getting on social media ... and putting those comments out that are very disheartening, inappropriate and they send the wrong message to the officers that are on the front lines. So we have to deal with that lack of discipline at the top.

For people who feel like the department hasn't done enough to reform, what is the case for putting you in charge?

The reforms are going to take a life of its own, but I will tell you this: I am not a fan of taking a lot of tools off the table because the reality is, it moves deadly force up, which is supposed to be the overarching goal that we're trying to prevent. So I think the important thing is to focus on recruitment, to make sure we have the right person, because the right tool in the wrong hands is always going to be a bad idea. So if we get the right men and women in here, then the tools are going to be used appropriately.

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TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

Tomorrow, the city of Louisville, Ky., will see its third police chief take office since the police killing of Breonna Taylor in March. Yvette Gentry will serve on an interim basis and will be the first Black woman to lead the department. She previously served as a deputy police chief with the force before retiring in 2014. Gentry takes on the helm during a tense time in the city. There have been protests over Taylor's death for months, followed by anger over the lack of charges for her killing and now a delay in the release of grand jury recordings, which her family and others have demanded. Chief Gentry joins me now.

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

YVETTE GENTRY: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

MOSLEY: Well, let's start with the killing of Breonna Taylor. There's been a lot of criticism about the actions of the officers involved that night. To remind listeners, Breonna was asleep with her boyfriend when police arrived. And most witnesses say police did not identify themselves. Taylor's boyfriend says he shot towards the door in self-defense, thinking the police were intruders. Taylor was shot and killed after police opened fire. How do you characterize the police activity that led to Breonna's death?

GENTRY: Well, that is the part that we're looking at now. I take over tomorrow. I've had just one quick briefing yesterday. So everything I know about the Breonna Taylor case really is just as a citizen getting information from media. I am, too, anxiously awaiting to see what the AG presented because what's important to me is that the proper scope of the investigation was done. People want to know, from start to finish, what happened in that case. And I certainly want to know that, and I think the public and the family deserves that as well and the officers who are out there on the front lines.

MOSLEY: How do you view your role in this moment? You've been in law enforcement for a very long time, and you've decided to step in at this pivotal point in history after being in retirement.

GENTRY: Right. I gave up a whole lot of comfort because I could see a lot of people both inside the agency and out here protesting that really were uncomfortable with the way things were happening. And so I feel like I was best suited to stand in the gap 'cause I know the agency. I know the city. I know a lot of the inequities that have taken place across the city. And so I can come in here and make sure that we create better conditions for people so that they don't feel left out and they don't feel angry all the time and disenfranchised because I know how that feels to be a Black woman to have lived in various parts of this city over the course of my 50-year life.

MOSLEY: I'm curious - did the department come to you, or did you step up?

GENTRY: I really had more community people coming to me and some police officers, but I had a lot of leaders across the community that came to me and said, Yvette, I believe you're the person for this time. But the more and more that I thought about it - and you know, I'm a Christian person who believes in prayer, and I prayed about it. And I thought about the sacrifice of some of my co-workers over the years - other Black women across the city. And so I said I know the systems, and I will come in here. And I believe that even for a short time, I can head us in a direction that is going to make Louisville a better place.

MOSLEY: Black Americans make up about one-quarter of Louisville's population, but only about 10% of the department's officers are Black. What's the disconnect?

GENTRY: I think a lot of it is the pushback that they get in the community. I mean, if you look at any of these videos from some of the protests and some of the way that the Black officers were portrayed as traitors, you know, a lot of the things that happen in the media and also happen on the streets every day really make it a very, very tough sell for African American officers.

MOSLEY: One of the officers involved in the shooting, Jon Mattingly, sent a letter to his colleagues, calling some protesters thugs and saying criminals were being canonized. How widely do you think his views are shared in the department?

GENTRY: You know, I still wholeheartedly believe in the overwhelming majority of the police officers here. There is a lack of discipline. You know, I think we had several commanders kind of getting on social media and different things and putting those comments out that are very disheartening, inappropriate. And they send the wrong message to the officers that are on the front line. So we have to deal with that lack of discipline at the top.

MOSLEY: You have spent 20 years with the department, including several as deputy police chief. You heard from your community, who said they wanted to see you in this role. For people who feel like the department hasn't done enough to reform, what is the case for putting you in charge?

GENTRY: You know, the reforms are going to take a life of its own. But I will tell you this. I'm not a fan of taking a lot of tools off the table because the reality is it moves deadly force up, which is supposed to be the overarching goal that we're trying to prevent. So I think the important thing is to focus on recruitment, to make sure we have the right person because the right tool in the wrong hands is always going to be a bad idea. So if we get the right men and women in here, then the tools are going to be used appropriately.

MOSLEY: That's Yvette Gentry, who starts as interim police chief of Louisville, Ky., tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.