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New interim LMPD chief wants to rebuild community relationships

Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel, in uniform, looks off-camera while standing in front of blue, yellow and white Jefferson County flags.
J. Tyler Franklin
LMPD interim chief Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel has not said whether she will apply for the permanent position.

Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel is promising to restore community trust in a Louisville Metro Police Department that’s currently under federal investigation. She took over last week as interim police chief.

Gwinn-Villaroel came to Louisville from the Atlanta Police Department two years ago, recruited by former chief Erika Shields to be her second-in-command. The two had worked together in Atlanta, even partnering in undercover operations in the early 2000s.

While Gwinn-Villaroel said she was happy to call Shields a co-worker and a friend, she plans to bring her own vision to the Louisville Metro Police Department. It starts, she said, with “bringing the community in.”

“We want to hear that feedback so we actually know where we’re standing,” she said. “There’s a lot of healing that needs to be done in Louisville. It’s not going to happen overnight. I’m not naive to believe that, but I am optimistic that we can get on the road and head that direction.”

As interim police chief, Gwinn-Villaroel will lead LMPD while Mayor Craig Greenberg’s nascent administration conducts a national search for a permanent replacement. Last month, she said she wasn’t sure if she would put her name in for that role.

Rebuilding LMPD’s relationship with residents is critical, she said, following the 2020 police killing of Breonna Taylor, which led to an investigation by the United States Department of Justice. There have been other high-profile cases, too, like the Explorers program sex abuse scandal and controversial traffic stops.

These relationships can have big implications for LMPD’s other priorities, including combating rising gun violence.

In 2020, Louisville saw a record-breaking number of homicides. While the annual murder count has decreased since then, it is still well above pre-2020 numbers. LMPD has struggled to keep up with the wave of violent crime, solving just a third of all homicides in 2021.

The department’s homicide clearance rate increased last year to around 50%, in line with the national average, Gwinn-Villaroel said this week. She attributed that to residents’ willingness to cooperate with investigators.

“It’s huge to build that relationship and that trust, because it’s critical to our investigations,” she said. “It’s critical for us to make sure that we don’t have a murderer in the midst of the community.”

Gwinn-Villaroel said she wants to ensure officers know they can get out of their patrol cars and have positive interactions with residents.

At a press conference Wednesday, Gwinn-Villaroel appeared with Greenberg to ask for the public’s help in reducing gun violence.

Her plans to shift LMPD toward what she calls a “community policing” model could be hampered, however, by staffing challenges. The department is currently short 290 officers. According to LMPD, officer applications increased by 24% in 2021 and resignations were down 65% in 2022 compared to the prior year.

LPM’s Roberto Roldan recently sat down with Gwinn-Villaroel to discuss what she hopes to accomplish as interim chief. An excerpt from that interview, edited for length and clarity, is below:

You're coming into this leadership role at LMPD at a pretty pivotal time.The city is awaiting a report from the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. Your predecessor said she thought what comes out in this report would potentially be “scathing.” How are you preparing the department for whatever the DOJ comes out with?

Some of those findings within there, we're aware of. And also, when we got here, we uncovered some things, some flaws. So we've been operating and moving forward to correct those areas. My focus right now is to ensure that the officers continue to do the right thing, police the right way. Because the community deserves that, they require that.

What specific reforms do you think have helped the department prepare for this DOJ report?

Well, first, having our early intervention system in line and giving those supervisors the support they need to actually notate if an officer is needing assistance. Standing up the Accountability Bureau, that is huge to make sure that we actually incorporate the wellness center within that, wellness being onboarding a chaplain. [We’re] in the process of trying to onboard a psychologist. Those are so needed.

Mayor Craig Greenberg recently appointed you to this interim position as part of his promise to move Louisville in a new direction. What does a new direction for LMPD look like? 

Ensuring that we are partnering with our community and being aggressive about that. It's also to support the officers in ensuring that they have every tool afforded to them to do a great job. Understand that we're going to correct bad behavior, negligent and negative behavior, but at the same time giving that support and giving the accolades when it's needed.

You will be seeing an actual faith and clergy forum that I am developing. You'll be seeing an activist forum that I'm developing. More of a business forum that I will be creating and sitting at the table and ensuring this gets done.

Louisville Metro saw record breaking rates of homicides and gun violence in 2020, and high numbers since then. There were some small improvements last year: an 8% reduction in homicides, fewer non-fatal shootings. When do you think that we'll see some major improvements to the gun violence epidemic here? And how is that going to happen?

Having open dialogue, open discussions. What can you help LMPD do? How can LMPD serve you better? That's a start. We have different initiatives already in play: We have the Youth Advisory Council, which is wonderful. I've also, too, developed Conversations and Cuts, where we're actually going into the barber shops and having those very courageous conversations.

The independent audit of LMPD released two years ago, the Hilliard Heinz report, found that the department's relationship with the Black community was “deeply strained," and, at the time, the city had no strategy to develop that trust. How do you plan to change that?

Well, it starts with me, right? The top seat. I have to demonstrate to my officers, which they're doing right now, but we need to do better and, like anything, raise the bar and actually build upon those relationships and actually be intentional about our relationships by actually embedding ourselves within the community more. The messaging has to be clear, and you will actually be able to look back and say, “I do see some changes.”

We want to hear from the community, the changes they’re seeing. We need to hear that. Are we moving in the right direction? Do you need more? Are you seeing a difference?

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.

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