Ga. chief urges police leaders to fight prejudice, reconcile wrongs

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

A Georgia police chief who made an historic apology for his agency’s role in a lynching of a black man took the helm of the world’s largest law enforcement leadership organization on Tuesday and said the need to build trust with minority communities is the most urgent challenge facing modern police leaders.

LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar announced an international trust-building initiative in his opening statements after being sworn in as president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) in Philadelphia. Dekmar is believed to be the first police chief in the country to publicly apologize for his agency's role in a lynching.

The initiative will be supported by a $1 million grant from basketball legend Michael Jordan.

Describing past injustices as the "darkest hour" of their proud profession, Dekmar urged thousands of fellow police leaders gathered for the IACP's annual conference to acknowledge past wrongs in their communities. His speech echoed comments he made to a packed church in LaGrange in January when he expressed regret over his agency's role in the murder of Austin Callaway, a black man taken from the city jail in 1940 by a group of white men and shot to death on a rural roadDekmar's apology in January drew worldwide attention.

The push for acknowledging past misconduct, some of it decades old, is a controversial subject in some police circles. There is a sentiment that current police chiefs and officers have enough issues to confront without having to reconcile for misdeeds that occurred decades before many of them joined their agencies.

Dekmar made the case that past injustices can’t be ignored. In minority communities, he said they pass down from generation to generation and harm relationships with police.

“The fact is, law enforcement institutions responsible for these instances are still here,” Dekmar said. “Like it or not, the officers serving today bear the burden of that history.”

Founded in 1893, IACP is considered the oldest and largest police leadership organization in the world. It has 30,000 members from 150 countries around the world. Some 15,000 of them gathered in Philadelphia this week for the group's four-day annual conference this week.

In addition to the trust-building initiative, Dekmar outlined other areas he hopes to address in his one-year term as president. He wants to continue to improve police policies and training to handle mentally ill citizens. De-escalating these situations help avoid encounters that can quickly turn violent or deadly. He said studies have shown roughly 25 percent of people killed by police were affected by a mental illness.

He also plans to promote policies and training to help deal with the abuse and exploitation of at-risk adults as the population ages. GBI Director Vernon Keenan and Pat King, a manager with Georgia Department of Human Services, division of aging services, will co-chair the initiative to help develop training videos and investigative protocols.

Keenan said Dekmar will carry out his agenda the way he has operated as a chief for 26 years.

“Being frank, very direct and having factual arguments,” Keenan said. “He uses facts to back up what he says.”

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Build ‘stepping stones of trust’

It remains to be seen if Dekmar’s trust-initiative can help change how police agencies interact with communities across the country. The rise of activism that followed police shootings in the past several years caught law enforcement leaders flat-footed.

The Black Lives Matter movement has led to calls for better police accountability. Past IACP President Terrence M. Cunningham formerly apologized for historical mistreatment of minorities by police before he ended his term at last year’s conference.

His apology made national news and drew praise from many police leaders, but also criticism from police unions and others who said he legitimized modern-day police protests. Cunningham, the former chief in Wellesley, Mass., said law enforcement officers had been the "face of oppression for far too many of our fellow citizens."

With his words, Dekmar tried to prod leaders to action, while not alienating those reticent to focus on past wrongs. He said not every community faces these issues, but he hopes to support leaders who do.

“We can change the consequences of history by building stepping stones of trust within communities affected by a history of prejudice,” Dekmar said.

On Monday, the Anti-Defamation League will honor Dekmar and three others from across the nation with hero awards at a concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The awards recognize those who "battle against intolerance, injustice, and extremism."