Louisville names first Black woman as interim police chief amid unrest over Breonna Taylor's death

Darcy Costello, Louisville Courier Journal
·9 mins read

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Yvette Gentry, a former Louisville Metro Police deputy chief, will take over as interim chief of the embattled police force Oct. 1 and says she is ready to "move the needle forward."

The 50-year-old Louisville native will be the first woman and the first Black woman in Louisville history to lead the force, she confirmed in an interview with The Courier Journal. She retired from the department in 2014.

Interim Chief Robert Schroeder plans to retire at the end of September after four months in the role, Mayor Greg Fischer announced Monday.

In an emotional speech, Gentry spoke to "all of you that urged me to take this position and try to move the needle." And she reached out to West End residents who have been at the heart of more than 100 days of protest over racial injustice in the wake of the March 13 shooting of Breonna Taylor by police.

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"I'm not here just to help you unboard your beautiful buildings downtown," she said. "I'm here to work with you to unboard the community that I served with all my heart in west Louisville, that was boarded for 20 or 30 years."

She said the past four months have been tough on police officers trying to hold the line, as well as on protesters, adding that it's tough "seeing things just feel so hopeless."

Yvette Gentry was named the new interim LMPD Police Chief on Monday, Sept. 7, 2020
Yvette Gentry was named the new interim LMPD Police Chief on Monday, Sept. 7, 2020

"I will just say: That is just a glimpse of how a lot of people have been feeling for a long time, and we can't go back," Gentry said. "I think our city is at a point of reckoning that only truth can bring us out of."

"Only truth can break us out; only truth can take away darkness."

Timothy Findley, a senior pastor at the Kingdom Fellowship Christian Life Center who formed a coalition that called for the boycott of this year's Kentucky Derby, told The Courier Journal he supports Gentry's appointment.

"I think that she is the ideal candidate for the job, but with that being said, the LMPD has deep-seated issues that will need to be addressed," Findley said. "So that's a great first step, but it seems as though this is a thousand-mile journey."

Gentry said in an interview with The Courier Journal that she doesn't want to be the permanent police chief – and didn't apply for the position – but that a good transition is essential for whoever is named to the top job full time.

"When you live in Louisville, and you raise your kids here like I do, and your family's here, I want that chief to be successful," said Gentry, a Louisville native. "So, even though I wasn't interested in the full-time job, I realized that somebody has to stand in the gap."

Fischer is expected to name a new leader by the end of 2020. A Fischer spokeswoman said earlier this month the city received more than 20 applications for the permanent chief role. The posting closed Aug. 31.

Louisville 'has got work to do'

Gentry's new role comes at a low point in relations between police and Black residents in Louisville.

Locally, protesters have marched for more than 100 consecutive days, demanding "justice for Breonna" and calling for serious changes to the city's police and other systems that have perpetuated systemic racism.

In particular, outrage has swirled around Taylor's death. The 26-year-old Black woman was shot and killed as officers attempted to serve a signed, no-knock search warrant at her South Louisville apartment.

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When officers broke down the door, Taylor's boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, fired what he told police later was a warning shot, not realizing who was knocking. Police say Walker's shot hit Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly in the femoral artery.

Mattingly and two other officers – detectives Myles Cosgrove and Brett Hankison – returned fire, striking Taylor five times. She died in her hallway.

The case is under investigation by the FBI and Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who is expected to announce in the coming weeks whether criminal charges will be brought against the officers – a decision that has the potential to spark further demonstrations.

Protesters have demanded that the three officers be fired and charged with murder, but some experienced defense attorneys have said murder charges are unlikely because the officers had a right to defend themselves after they were fired upon.

On Monday, Gentry said the city needs to ask itself: "If Breonna Taylor's name came across an application in this city, would she get an interview?"

"Does your board of influencers and decision-makers – anyone who has influence – does anybody look like her?" Gentry said.

Asked her thoughts on LMPD's handling of the ongoing protests, Gentry said she "probably" would have done some things differently because she's "a different person."

But she emphasized she believed officers were "taking the orders that they were given and doing the best they could with them."

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Fischer said Monday that Gentry has "strong opinions" and, should disagreements arise, they would "talk through the issues and understand the pros and cons and then make a decision."

Gentry told The Courier Journal "law enforcement has to grow," but changes to policing won't be the only path forward. It's not a "single struggle issue," she said, when "minorities are struggling across the board."

"Even my well-resourced sons have run up against systems and systemic racism, in this city that I was willing to die for," Gentry said, explaining that within days of one of her four sons moving into a "good neighborhood," someone called in a drug complaint.

"It just showed him that he didn't belong there," she said. "Even a well-resourced young man is in this city, very angry because everywhere they go or a lot of places they go, they don't feel welcome.

"The police got work to do. The mayor's office, he's certainly got some mending to do. But the city, across all systems, has got work to do."

The police department's September report indicates the makeup of sworn members is 71% white men, 12% white women, 10% Black men and 2% Black women.

Gentry has opportunity to make change as 'chief for a while'

LMPD, under fire from vocal critics and protesters, is also facing rising violent crime, including homicides and carjackings, and frustrations from officers stretched thin and unhappy with city leadership.

Gentry acknowledged that improving community relations, reducing crime and boosting officer morale simultaneously won't be an easy task or one which will happen overnight.

But she said she's in as "good a position as anyone could be."

"Being a Black woman, and a veteran and a former police officer, when you've worn all the hats of people who are out here, wanting to be heard, and you've worked in a place where you've tried to be heard and didn't necessarily feel like you were, I just feel like I have that type of experience that I can bring in there," Gentry said.

"People are just so far apart. And maybe, I can be in the middle and I can bridge it," she said.

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Gentry left LMPD in 2014 after more than two decades on the police force, working her way from dispatcher to deputy chief. She went on to work in Fischer's administration for about 2½ years, leaving as chief of community building in October 2017.

Until recently, she worked as a project director at Metro United Way.

She'll take over from Schroeder, who became the city's top cop on June 1 when Fischer fired longtime Chief Steve Conrad after learning officers at the fatal police shooting of David McAtee, a popular West End eatery owner, didn't have body cameras turned on.

Ryan Nichols, the president of the union representing LMPD officers, said he'd known Gentry for most of his career and he has a great deal of respect for her.

"She has strong ties to our community, and a very positive outlook on policing, and a vision for our department," Nichols said. "I wish Chief Schroeder the best in his retirement … and I welcome the opportunity to work with Chief Gentry when she takes that office."

Louisville Metro Council President David James, D-6th, a former police detective, said having Gentry as interim chief would be a "positive step," given her experience with the department.

"She has street credibility as a police officer, and that's important," said James.

As interim chief – Gentry said she calls it "chief for a while" – she said she will focus on communication, both with the community and with officers.

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"That's what the community said: 'We want somebody who's going to look us in the face.' And not always be right – I don't think anybody expects the police to always be right, I don't think anyone expects politicians to always be right – but we've just got to be honest when we're not and commit to improving," Gentry said.

And when it comes to officers, Gentry said officers may not always agree with her, but she will "lead from the front."

"I'll answer a question when they have a question, and I won't leave them out there without an answer, and then be critical after," she said. "That's what I can offer them from Day One. There's a lot I don't know, and a lot I have to re-immerse myself (in), but I can give them that from Day One. I can give the community and the officers that."

Follow Darcy Costello on Twitter: @dctello.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Louisville names Black woman to become interim police chief