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19 people applied for Louisville police chief, but officials won’t say who

Interim Chief Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel stands at a podium with Mayor-elect Craig Greenberg behind her
Roberto Roldan
/
LPM
Mayor Craig Greenberg watches in December 2022 as Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel addresses the media. She became interim chief of the Louisville Metro Police Department the following month.

Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg announced last week that 19 people applied to be the city’s next police chief, but he has no intention of telling the public who they are.

The Greenberg administration also held “over a dozen focus groups,” according to its press release, along with two virtual town halls.

Erika Shields resigned as chief of the Louisville Metro Police Department at the start of the year and her second-in-command, Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel, has run the department on an interim basis since then. The next police chief will lead the department in trying to repair a fractured relationship with the community and institute dozens of reforms following a scathing U.S. Department of Justice investigation. Greenberg is expected to announce a new police chief by the end of the month.

Despite promising to make transparency a top priority, the Greenberg administration says it will not disclose the names and resumes of applicants. A representative cited the privacy exemption to the Kentucky Open Records Act and previous rulings by the Attorney General’s Office.

“These records will be withheld … because they contain information of a personal nature where the public disclosure thereof would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” an open records official wrote in denying an open records request by LPM News last week.

Transparency advocates, however, argue that the public’s interest in ensuring the right candidate is selected for this important role should outweigh any privacy concerns.

What does the law say?

When it denied the open records request, the Greenberg administration cited a 2010 Kentucky Attorney General decision involving the Whitley County School District. The AG upheld the school district’s ability to withhold the identities of people who applied for the superintendent position.

“The Office of the Attorney General has consistently recognized the privacy interests of applicants for public employment outweigh the public's interest in disclosure of application materials,” the Greenberg administration argued in its denial.

Amye Bensenhaver, who wrote the decision as an assistant attorney general, said it’s not as cut-and-dried as Louisville officials suggest. She said the decision also made clear that there is no “bright-line rule” about disclosing, or not disclosing, applications for public office.

Bensenhaver said government officials instead are required to engage in a balancing act — with the public’s interest in holding their elected leaders accountable to good governance on one hand, and the privacy of unsuccessful job candidates on the other.

“The privacy exception, the courts have said, is ‘intrinsically situational.’ Each case turns on its own facts,” she said.

Bensenhaver, who now heads the Kentucky Open Government Coalition, said she thinks the public benefit outweighs privacy concerns in this case.

“The circumstances here are such that the public's interest is magnified, is more substantial, given we’re in the midst of a crisis in public trust and [there is] a strong commitment to getting the best candidate in there,” she said.

The Greenberg administration said it will not release the names of finalists for the police chief position, as many other cities do. Officials in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Fort Myers, Florida and Tempe, Arizona recently released the finalists for their chiefs.

In a statement to LPM News on Monday, Greenberg’s General Counsel, David Kaplan, said only the application of the successful candidate will be released. Kaplan argued that past AG decisions “requires” Louisville Metro to “respect the privacy interests of candidates for positions who are not chosen.”

While the Kentucky Open Records Act’s exemptions, like the one for privacy, allow officials to keep government records private, they do not require that. Even when an exemption may apply to certain documents, officials can waive those exemptions to serve the public interest.

As Kentucky’s Open Records and Open Meetings Guide notes, exemptions are “a shield, not a shackle.” The guide also urges caution when it comes to privacy.

One reason officials often cite when withholding the names of applicants for taxpayer-funded positions is the potential embarrassment to someone if they aren’t ultimately chosen for the job. There are also concerns about an applicant’s current employer finding out they’re looking at other jobs.

Officials sometimes apply that logic in searches for police leaders, as well as in other industries like public higher education. But research suggests public searches don’t necessarily harm applicants.

In 2020, the Brechner Freedom of Information Project at the University of Florida analyzed the most recent university president searches at public colleges with more than 10,000 students. They found that 65 of 230 hiring searches, or about 28%, were conducted openly.

The study also looked at who ultimately got the job. Researchers found that someone from outside the organization was actually more likely to be hired in an open search compared to a secret one. They found that hiring another college’s top executive was slightly more likely to happen in a closed search, 62%, compared to an open search, 55%.

Researchers did not find that candidates who publicly lost out on a university president job suffered career consequences.

“Statistically, there does not appear to be support for the contention that being publicly considered for a university presidency is likely to produce severe professional harm,” researchers concluded. “The most common outcome for those who sought presidencies and were not chosen is to be hired for a different presidency.”

Moving forward

The process of hiring a new police chief, the sixth for Louisville in three years, is now moving forward behind closed doors.

Greenberg announced last week that he plans to select a new head of LMPD by the end of July. He’s put together a seven-person committee that will “assist him in interviewing candidates” and give their feedback.

“Choosing our Chief of Police is one of the most important decisions I’ll make as Mayor and I want as much input as I can get in making that choice,” Greenberg said in a statement Friday.

Members of the advisory committee include:

  • J. Michael Brown, former Secretary of the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet
  • Keturah Herron, Democratic State Representative representing District 42 in Louisville
  • Rebecca Grignon Reker, Executive Director of the Louisville Metro Police Foundation
  • Paula McCraney, District 7 Metro Council member and Democratic Caucus head
  • Rev. Corrie Shull, District 6 Jefferson County Public Schools Board member
  • Ryan Nichols, president of the local police union
  • Kungu Njuguna, policy strategist for the ACLU of Kentucky

While the public will not know who the candidates for police chief are, or who is moving on to the interview round, residents were asked to weigh in with their expectations.
Roughly 1,200 people responded to an online survey in May that asked what qualities they want in a new chief. The majority of respondents wanted someone who had a track record in reducing crime and believed honesty, integrity and holding officers accountable should be the top leadership qualities.

The survey was conducted by Public Sector Search and Consulting, Inc., a third-party firm the city has contracted with for its national search.

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