This spring and summer, as tensions in Louisville mounted over the police shooting of Breonna Taylor, Yvette Gentry watched from the sidelines as the city and law enforcement seemed to drift farther and farther apart.
Gentry retired from Louisville Metro Police Department in 2014 after more than 20 years on the force, including four years as deputy chief. As her hometown grew more polarized over the death of Taylor and the subsequent investigations, friends and colleagues encouraged Gentry to return to LMPD to help the embattled agency, especially after Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer fired long-time Police Chief Steve Conrad in June.
“At first I was like, no way,” says Gentry, “not a chance.”
But the more she thought about it, the more Gentry realized that as a Black woman with law enforcement experience, she was uniquely prepared to help LMPD through this difficult time.
“Who knows what inequity looks like inside the agency, who knows what inequity looks like in the city, and who knows how tough it is to be a police officer,” says Gentry. “Knowing all of those sides I felt like I could come in and help bridge the gap because I refuse to let anybody’s voice just be voided out as if there’s no validity to the issues that they were raising.”
In October Mayor Fischer selected Gentry to serve as interim chief of police for six months while the city conducts a nationwide search for a permanent chief. During her brief tenure, Gentry says she wants to address transparency, systemic racism, and other issues that have plagued the department. But mostly, the woman who grew up wanting to be a schoolteacher before turning to law enforcement says she wants to be a good listener.
“Listening to a variety of different people from different neighborhoods has been helpful to me to make sure that I’m managing everything that I need to do,” Gentry says. “I’m not too busy to listen to what you have to say because it makes a big difference in what we do going forward.”
Avoiding Use of Deadly Force
That includes finding the truth in what led to the death of Breonna Taylor. On March 13, police killed the 26-year old as they executed a no-knock warrant on her apartment. The validity of the warrant and the shooting of an unarmed Black woman have been the focus of multiple investigations and incited weeks of protests on the streets of Louisville.
An investigation by Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron led to wanton endangerment charges against one of the three LMPD officers involved in the shooting. That officer, Brett Hankison, has been fired. The other two officers are on leave, pending the outcome of an internal investigation, which Gentry says should be completed in a few weeks. She says she wants to give the public a full and honest accounting of what happened, who is responsible, and what policies need to be changed.
“People need those answers before we can start to move forward as a community and as an agency,” she says.
Protests erupted nationwide earlier this year over the police-involved deaths of Taylor and George Floyd in Minneapolis. The protests have intensified calls for police reforms, including bans on the use of no-knock warrants and chokeholds. (A Louisville ordinance passed in June outlaws no-knock warrants, and similar legislation will come before the General Assembly next year.)
Gentry says George Floyd’s death, which was the result of officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, was “one of the most clearly excessive things that I’ve seen in law enforcement.” But she worries that the rush to outlaw non-lethal methods of restraint could have unintended consequences.
“Force is a continuum,” says Gentry. “It’s not ban it and it goes away. It’s ban it and something else replaces it, which can be deadly force or a more serious level of force.”
The chief says civilians and police share the same goal of de-escalating situations before they require deadly force. But she says that means officers need other tools to control uncooperative or dangerous suspects. If police had to confront one of her sons or brothers, Gentry says she would want the officer to use a chokehold rather than shoot them.
“It’s not a popular conversation, but it’s just the reality,” the chief says. “When you start taking that stuff away, you’re actually left with less tools and deadly force can increase.”
Addressing Racism, Equity and Other Issues
Gentry says systemic racism does exist in law enforcement and within the LMPD, but she adds that she doesn’t think it’s widespread. She describes it existing more within a subculture of people who have bias that can include racism. LMPD is 87 percent white, and Gentry says there are certain networks within the department than African Americans find hard to penetrate. For example, she says there is only one Black detective on the entire force.
Gender equity is also an issue. Gentry is the first woman of any color to serve as chief. Currently there are only four black females serving in command positions in LMPD, and Gentry says each them have enough years of service that they could retire today. That would leave the department without any women of color in command.
“That is crazy,” she says. “A police department our size in an urban area like us shouldn’t be in that position.”
A recently approved contract between the city and the police union should help improve recruitment to the force. All officers are slated to receive raises, while new LMPD officers will see their starting salaries go from about $35,000 a year to $45,000. Gentry hopes that will help the department attract more minority hires.
“When you have competitive pay, you can go out and recruit and retain good officers,” says the chief. “Officers should make a decent enough wage to be able to pay fair market rent and live in a city if they’re going to put their life on the line – that’s not too much to ask.”
Gentry also hopes to reduce Louisville’s escalating homicide numbers, and she wants to launch an education campaign to help cut the number of 911 calls the department receives. She says 70 percent of their runs are dispatched based on 911 calls for situations that may not really require police intervention.
“We have got so dependent on just calling 911 for everything,” says Gentry. “We had 40,000 times just this year alone where people are calling us to come because they’re mad at somebody and not afraid of them.”
Even though she signed-up for only a six-month stint, the interim chief has even more items on her agenda. She is exploring a co-responder model of policing, where a medic or a social worker better skilled to handle a medical or mental health situation would accompany a LMPD officers on certain calls. She is also awaiting results of not only the Breonna Taylor internal investigation but a top-to-bottom review of the entire department.
“I’m excited about what we can learn from that because I really feel like they’ve thoughtfully done it and are going to give us some really, really good information that we can use to go forward.” she says.