Police chiefs have to lead officers toward strong relationships with the communities they serve, but in the past, the same department may have participated in or enforced racial discrimination.
That history can prevent healing and can make police reform a nonstarter.
On this week’s episode of 90.5 WESA’s Criminal Injustice podcast, host and University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris talked to Chief Louis Dekmar of LaGrange, Georgia.
Dekmar said it was important for his department to acknowledge and apologize for an incident that happened decades before he was born.
Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
DAVID HARRIS: Why do members of modern law enforcement need to acknowledge the harm done to communities of color in the past?
LOUIS DEKMAR: The past is responsible for forming the history and influencing the relationships that we have presently. So if the relationship the police department desires with the African American community is going to be positive and one that involves trust, then it's important to acknowledge those things that were done in the past that were wrong.
HARRIS: Unless you acknowledge what happened in the past, it's hard to take seriously a promise that things are going to be better in the future?
DEKMAR: Yeah. Our African American community doesn't look at incidents in isolation. It's just another chapter in a book of injustice that they've experienced historically.
HARRIS: It's often said that when white people talk about a bad incident with the police they talk about a bad incident. But black people talk about history. That's what you're referring to?
DEKMAR: Yes. Even though this history may not be taught, it may not be captured in books, it's passed on from generation to generation. That history is much stronger than the current initiatives the police department may be involved in in an effort to build trust in communities of color.
HARRIS: Take us into the room that night you made your own public apology. Yours was very specific; it was for the lynching of Austin Callaway, a young black man who was dragged out of jail by a group of armed white men 77 years ago. What did you say, and how did the room react?
DEKMAR: I acknowledged that what the police department had done was wrong, and apologized and assured the community that behavior would never happen in the future and that the acknowledgement and apology should serve as an opportunity for other institutions to come forward and acknowledge where they fell short as it relates to the fair, equal and just treatment of our African American [community] members.
HARRIS: And how did the people in the room react to that?
DEKMAR: They were very supportive. We received, locally, nothing but the positive comments as it relates to not only the African American community, but the white community. And as a result, there was a follow-up acknowledgement and that was done by the faith community where individual churches stepped up and acknowledged that they failed in their role as Christians to intervene and call for just treatment of African Americans during that time.
HARRIS: Has this changed anything between your officers and the black community in LaGrange?
DEKMAR: It's another step in an evolving relationship. A significant one, but just another step that's got to be followed up with action. Some of the things that we've done before that and continue to do is our work with the homelessness, an education initiative [and] work with mental illness. We're in the process of working with numerous agencies to [complete] a one-day expungement or record restriction. So the acknowledgement and the apology is the foundation, but it's got to be followed with action.
Criminal Injustice is an independent podcast recorded and produced in partnership with 90.5 WESA. Find more at criminalinjusticepodcast.com.