During the GMA Virtual Convention, GMA Executive Director Larry Hanson hosted a virtual conversation with LaGrange Police Chief Louis Dekmar to talk community policing, trust building and more.
LH: Chief Dekmar, let’s start by discussing the Georgia community service police trust initiative.
LD: As a result of the experiences that I had here in LaGrange, we started with learning and understanding the impact and history of specific incidents involving the police department. Although they may have happened generations ago, those stories are passed on from generation to generation, and they impact the relationships that police in LaGrange have primarily with the African American community.
The epiphany for me was understanding that I wasn’t responsible for only the history of the department that I create when I became police chief, but that all of the challenges and the history created before I was police chief is also a responsibility of leadership. That became even clearer after learning of a lynching that the LaGrange Police Department had been involved in and struggling for several years on how as a police department we should address it. That opportunity presented itself as a result of trust building training sponsored by our elected officials and me receiving an invitation to join that initiative by Mayor Thornton. Somewhere between 300-350 individuals have gone through the training.
As a result of that trust building training, I worked closer with NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] Chapter President Ernest Ward. Shortly after sharing the idea of an apology to address Austin Callaway’s lynching with the NAACP chapter, Mayor Thornton, the president of LaGrange College, the state court judge, and members of the faith community and the African American church became involved, as did the family of Austin Callaway. This work galvanized the community to get behind this effort to address an act that should never have happened.
LH: Please share more of your thoughts on use of force, the Commission on Accreditation for Law and how the law enforcement community and elected officials can meet higher standards.
LD: The LaGrange Police Department has been training de-escalation for at least 15-20 years. We recognize that many of our encounters involved people that are either affected by mental illness, substance abuse or emotionally disturbed. The re- search on police involved shootings is consistent not only nationally but here in Georgia where 25 percent of those individuals that are fatally wounded are affected by mental illness. There was another study done that looked at 707 shootings in several metropolitan areas and 36 percent suicide by cop, which involved somebody who was mentally ill or somebody that was emotionally disturbed. If we know this, we have an obligation as police leaders to address this area related to use of force. So, how do we do that? We address it through clear policies and training that not only captures the intent of the policy but also the resources of the community. This assists us in making effective referrals and helps those living with substance abuse issues or those affected by mental illness.
As it relates to accountability, every officer needs to under- stand that when the government uses force against any citizen that is the strongest measure a government can impose on its citizens. Where I think police departments fall short (and ultimately government entities) is in their responsibilities for their police department and elected officials to uphold the social contract between the police and the public. Through this social contract, the public gives the police, through their elected officials, the authority and the tools to protect and provide for public safety. But any time the police exercise that authority, they have an obligation to explain that use of force or that arrest regardless of who the suspect is and their standing in the community.
LH: What are your thoughts of the role of law enforcement to address systemic racism in our society and in our state?
LD: What I’ve seen is that there are a lot of listening sessions, but not a lot of action sessions. When I was president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, we did four listening sessions across the nation. What I found is that if you are really listening, the community will provide a clear path in addressing community concerns. But if that path, based on the information and those expectations communicated during the listening sessions is not acted on, community members disengage, because they are tired of the studies and discussion unaccompanied by action.
What distinguished the initiatives in LaGrange is that the trust-building created an environment for us to identify what is troubling our community and uncover ways to enhance the department’s value in all communities, including:
Creating partnerships with various criminal justice agencies and asking them to waive all fees while we sponsored a Record Restriction Day. We’ve done two so far, which have positively impacted over 350 of our citizens. These free events streamline the criminal record restriction process of eligible citizens that may more effectively remove barriers to employment. This is life changing. It’s more than the public relations veneer of getting out of your car and asking, “Hey, how are you doing?” It’s a “What are the issues and how can we help you address them effectively?”
Historically we’ve looked at law enforcement as compliance related as opposed to cooperation related, and you want people cooperating with the law, not submitting themselves to the law. An example is LaGrange Police Department’s “Car Care” program. We addressed traffic stops related to defective equipment violations with a discount coupon instead of a traffic ticket and all the frustration and hostility those traffic stops can cause. We did that by partnering with all our car parts stores, and they provided 10 percent discount coupons. After we give them the coupon, we log it, and if they are stopped two weeks later for the same violation, then they get the ticket. But they will understand why, because they had the opportunity to fix it and they didn’t.
Another program is “Handle with Care.” Many of our calls affect school age children who are witnesses or victims. They may be awake at 2 and 3 a.m. and then have to go to school the next day. They are unrested and may put their head down on their desk due to being tired. Not knowing what the child has been involved in the night before, their teacher may handle this as a disciplinary issue, when in fact this child has been through trauma. To prevent this sort of incident we engaged a “handle this student with care” program, by an email to the superintendent’s office right after the situation to make the school aware of the incident prior to the student arriving for class the next morning. Those kinds of programs demonstrate that the police department and its officers care about the community.