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Louisville’s new permanent police chief is Jackie Gwinn-Villaroel

LMPD interim chief Jacquelyn Gwinn-Villaroel sits down for an interview with WFPL's Roberto Roldan.
J. Tyler Franklin
/
LPM
Jackie Gwinn-Villaroel joined the Louisville Metro Police Department in 2021.

Louisville has a new police chief with a familiar face. Mayor Craig Greenberg announced Thursday that Jackie Gwinn-Villaroel is moving from interim chief to the permanent position.

Gwinn-Villaroel was appointed as interim chief of the Louisville Metro Police Department in January. She will continue to lead LMPD through the process of negotiating and implementing a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. That agreement, monitored by a federal judge, will outline dozens of reforms LMPD will institute in order to transform a department that federal officials say has routinely violated residents’ civil rights.

At a press conference Thursday, Gwinn-Villaroel said she’ll also focus on rebuilding the community’s trust in its officers, which has waned for several years. Factors like the recent DOJ report, the police killing of Breonna Taylor in 2020 and other department policies contributed to that lack of trust.

“The doors are open,” she said. “I will be reaching out to many of our stakeholders within the community — our members of the clergy, NAACP, Urban League, ACLU, Mothers of Murdered Sons and other organizations — to see how we are able to do the work we are called to do better.”

In an interview with LPM News in January, Gwinn-Villaroel said she wanted to improve community relations by ensuring LMPD representatives were visible at public events, and creating new ways of reaching residents, such as small meetings in Louisville barber shops.

She said Thursday her immediate priorities include tackling violent crime and setting clear guidelines for how policing should be done in Louisville.

Since 2020, the city has seen record breaking numbers of homicides and nonfatal shootings. There have been 90 murders and 243 shootings in Louisville so far in 2023, a slight increase compared to this time last year.

Gwinn-Villaroel promised to focus on bringing the people engaging in violence into custody.

“We are ensuring that we actually address those violent offenders that want to prey on the beautiful citizens of our city, and you’re going to be seeing more [arrests],” she said.

Her salary is $238,000, in line with what the previous chief was paid.

 Jacquelyn Gwinn Villaroel, smiling in police uniform, walks toward the camera.
Jacob Ryan
/
LPM
Jackie Gwinn-Villaroel arriving at Metro Hall Thursday to be announced as the permanent chief of police.

A secretive process

Nineteen other people applied to be Louisville’s next chief of police, according to city officials.

Greenberg spent $95,000 to hire an outside search firm. He also created a seven-person advisory committee to give him feedback on candidate interviews. The committee included representatives from the ACLU of Kentucky, local elected officials and the police union president.

Metro Council Member Paula McCraney, who heads the Democratic Caucus and represents District 7, was one of the advisors. She said the committee spent the past two weeks interviewing candidates, asking them about their personal experiences and career goals.

“Chief Gwinn-Villaroel stood out among the finalists,” McCraney said. “She has her officers’ backs. I’ve seen it time and time again. But she also holds them accountable.”

Only a few people know who Gwinn-Villaroel triumphed over for the job, a situation that created controversy around the selection process

During the police chief search, Greenberg refused to release the names of applicants. He also declined to name finalists, as many other mid-sized cities do. Members of his advisory committee were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements to ensure the selection process was done behind closed doors.

Some community leaders and transparency advocates said the secrecy prevented the public from independently evaluating the police chief candidates and holding elected officials accountable to making the right choice.

Greenberg defended his decision Thursday after declining to release any additional information about who else applied. He said making the identities of applicants or finalists public could have created issues for the unsuccessful candidates at their current job or harmed their career prospects.

“So the advice that we had was, if you truly want to get the best candidates, this is the direction to go,” Greenberg said.

‘The proof is in the pudding’

Louisville has cycled through police chiefs since mid-2020, when longtime head Steve Conrad was fired in the midst of intense scrutiny and protests over the police killing of Taylor, a 26-year-old unarmed Black woman, in her home.

Two interim chiefs briefly succeeded Conrad, after which then-Mayor Greg Fischer appointed Erika Shields to the position in early 2021. Shields had recently resigned from the Atlanta Police Department, following the controversial killing by police of Rayshard Brooks, a Black motorist who fell asleep in his car in a fast food drive-through.

Although at the time city leaders said they hoped Shields would restore residents’ trust in the beleaguered police department, which was one of the subjects of months of mass public protests following Taylor’s killing, critics said Fischer’s choice was “tone deaf.” Shields resigned when Greenberg took office this January.

Gwinn-Villaroel came to Louisville in 2021 to be Shields’ second-in-command. The two worked together in Atlanta, even working as partners in undercover operations in the early 2000s.

During his campaign for mayor last year, Greenberg promised to move Louisville Metro Government and the police department in “a new direction.” Despite her close relationship to LMPD’s former chief, he said Gwinn-Villaroel had already shown her willingness to do things differently.

Greenberg pointed to LMPD’s decision earlier this year to release the names of officers involved in alleged misconduct highlighted by the DOJ, as well as recent efforts to allow independent misconduct investigations by Louisville’s Civilian Review and Accountability Board to move forward.

“Those are just a few of those things that have already happened and we are both committed to continuing to do,” Greenberg said.

While a number of city officials heaped praise on Gwinn-Villaroel’s vision during Thursday’s press conference, Louisville Inspector General Ed Harness was more restrained. Harness oversees the Civilian Review and Accountability Board’s independent investigations.

He acknowledged the past difficulties getting LMPD to cooperate with civilian oversight, but he’s hopeful the “seamless transition” with Gwinn-Villaroel will be different.

“The proof is in the pudding,” he said. “We have our job to do…and no matter who the chief is, that’s what we will continue to do.”

Harness said the Greenberg administration has been more helpful than the previous mayor, Fischer. And a year from now, when LMPD will likely be under a consent decree, he’ll gauge Gwinn-Villaroel’s success on how the police department embraces oversight.

Greenberg said he’ll judge Gwinn-Villaroel on different metrics.

“I want us to be working hard every day to implement the reforms and improvements needed to comply with the consent decree and to serve our city,” he said.

For the mayor, success in a year looks like less violent crime, fewer homicides and more police on the streets.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.
Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.
Amina Elahi is LPM's City Editor. Email Amina at aelahi@lpm.org.