Racial profiling allegations cloud Decatur’s liberal image

Decatur, one of the metro area’s hottest destinations in recent years, is renowned as a bastion for Southern liberalism and probably has a concentration of more white guilt than any other Georgia locality. So it’s with a sense of anguish and surprise that leaders here are wrestling with charges the city’s police force racially profiles black men.

Don Denard, a soft-spoken 63-year-old former school board member who works at the Carter Center, last week told the City Council he was singled out because of his color. On Dec. 15, police stopped him as he walked near Agnes Scott College, thinking he might have burglarized a house. However, it turned out to be the brick bungalow where he has lived since 1987.

Police, after an internal investigation, denied Denard’s contention that he was targeted for “walking while black.” Both sides largely agree on the facts of the case. The difference is in perceptions and attitudes, about what’s in people’s minds and why exactly police targeted Denard for questioning.

More troubling for city leaders is his accusations have brought out several other complaints that Decatur’s finest target black men for extra scrutiny and interrogation.

“Since this happened to me, there’s been a flood of anecdotal evidence of people who were victimized, as I was,” Denard told the council. Then several more residents followed Denard to the podium to say black friends or acquaintances felt ill at ease walking or driving through the city’s residential streets.

Mayor Jim Baskett, who has lived near Denard since the 1980s and has known him for decades, was visibly troubled by the situation.

“My heart from the moment I heard about it went out to Mr. Denard,” he said at the meeting. Still, Baskett added, police have done a good job of cracking down on a rash of break-ins in that area. “We asked them to watch very carefully, to see anything suspicious and follow up on that. It’s very hard to balance these competing interests.”

It started as a Sunday afternoon stroll. Dressed casually, Denard walked down his driveway and then north on Candler Road toward downtown Decatur. A couple of blocks later, a squad car pulled up. The officer asked where he was going. Denard said he lived nearby and did not have to answer where he was headed. The officer got out of his car and demanded to see Denard’s ID. Denard initially refused. He said he had done nothing wrong, telling the officer, who is black, he felt he was being racially profiled.

Two more squads arrived as the officer continued his questioning. Denard noted that several cars, some possibly with neighbors, passed by on the busy street.

“It was humiliating,” said Denard, the associate director of finance at the Carter Center. “There’s a method to this tactic: They want people to see it. Whites will think, ‘They’re really on it.’ Blacks will think, ‘Watch out.’”

It turns out an undercover officer said she saw Denard walk from the house, adjust his jacket and look around before walking away. The officer did not see any cars in the driveway, so she knocked at the front door, walked to the rear and noticed the back door was slightly ajar. She called for another unit to stop the man walking away.

Denard was never under arrest, police said, and the encounter was brief. An officer told him he should be glad they were diligent.

“If it wasn’t a cool-headed guy like me, it could have gone out of control,” Denard said later in an interview.

In a letter to Denard, Police Chief J.M. Booker wrote: “Given the totality of the circumstances, Inv. (A.) Hall had a reasonable basis to issue a suspicious person look out. Officer (Tavius) Brown had reason to stop and contact you. In hindsight, your actions were entirely innocent, but neither Inv. Hall nor officer Brown had that knowledge.”

“Unfortunately, the unintended consequence of that effort was we caused you to lose faith in the police department,” the chief added.

Decatur has long touted a narrative of being a progressive, diverse, forward-thinking city, a place where residents black and white, gay and straight live in mutual tolerance. The mayor, in an interview, joked that the neighborhood where he and Denard live used to be known as “The People’s Republic of Winnona Park” because of its residents’ leftist leanings.

In recent years, the success of Decatur’s small school district has been a beacon for the city, increasingly drawing well-healed couples who are tearing down small homes and building $700,000 to $800,000 dwellings. Winnona Park is dotted with them, and with that, the mayor said, “the character of the community is changing.”

Older residents have moved away, as have many working class and black families. The nearby neighborhood of Oakhurst went from about 70 percent black in 2000 to 30 percent 10 years later. The loss of racial and economic diversity is changing the city’s character.

The Rev. Nibs Stroupe, pastor of Oakhurst Presbyterian, has been in Decatur 31 years and has seen the change from a community struggling from white flight to one economically booming.

“The younger whites moving in think race is over; that it’s a chip on (black people’s) shoulders,” said Stroupe. “Sometimes, it’s harder for white liberals to deal with (issues of racial bias) than conservatives. We’re so invested in not being called racists.”

Stroupe said when the church hired a new associate pastor, a 34-year-old black man, he warned him to watch out driving through Decatur; that police will stop him.

Despite being seen as a liberal “oasis” in a red state, several people say residents are quick to call the police on “suspicious” persons — meaning black men walking.

Meredith Gordon, a 48-year-old actor and professional clown who is black, knows this first hand. While taking his morning walk a year ago, the Winnona Park resident was accosted by three police cars. The officer was polite and quickly determined that he had a non-emergency on his hands.

“He told me someone called 911; they thought they saw a person with a gun,” Gordon recalled.

Gordon was carrying a coffee mug from Disney World. Later, he said he wrote “an open letter to the person who called and to the community at large. The point was, ‘I’m your neighbor. I’m the guy with the coffee mug.’”

Dennis Linn, a lifelong Winnona Park resident who worked as a sign painter, has seen longtime residents like himself move on, replaced by young professionals building expansive homes.

The self-described “left-leaning” Linn said his attitudes on race have evolved, adding that most people carry some sort of bias.

“Everyone has prejudice; I don’t think anyone is as liberal as they think,” he said. He said the area has had waves of break-ins, putting neighbors on edge. Several reports from a rash of burglaries in the area last summer listed descriptions of the suspects as African-Americans.

Linn was not surprised hearing of cases like Denard’s and Gordon’s.

“This neighborhood is virtually all white,” he said. “There might be calls by people just being vigilant. It’s just reality.”

Mayor Baskett said residents get upset by reports of crime, especially as people are increasingly connected technologically.

“There’s been an aggressive checking up on anything that catches anyone’s eyes,” he said.

Baskett said the evidence indicates the Denard incident wasn’t racially targeted. But, he added, “motivation is a hard thing to get at.”

“If (Denard) says he felt embarrassed, then I believe he felt devalued,” the mayor said. “If people think there isn’t racism in our culture and community, then they have their heads in the sand. The question is what do we do with our biases.”

The last major racial controversy in Decatur, Baskett said, was in 1997 when the school board hired a new superintendent. The board hired Ida Love, a black woman from Kansas City, but ignored public demands to widen the search. The 3-2 vote hiring her was along racial lines.

Denard also mentioned that controversy. “They like their diversity but they didn’t want Dr. Love,” he said. Months later, he and another black board member were voted from office and the panel became 4-1 white. “There’s always been a tale of two cities here,” he said.

Denard, who rejected the police department’s review of his case and remains unhappy about it, said he will return to the council with ideas of what the city should do to move forward.

“We need to work on making our community true to the image that we project,” he said.