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Georgia Today: Small Town Georgia Police Chief Is Hard On Crime But Soft On People
Public trust is a priority for Lou Dekmar, police chief of LaGrange, Ga., since 1995. Chief Dekmar is evolving and adapting his force to an era when police are social workers with guns. In this episode of Georgia Today, host Virginia Prescott talks with Dekmar about some of his ideas and initiatives in policing.
Virginia Prescott: I'm Virginia Prescott; it's Georgia Today. Discussions of the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act are being revived on Capitol Hill a year after Floyd was murdered.
[TAPE] NBC NEWS: It's a reform bill that would ban chokeholds and end racial and religious profiling. It also eliminates qualified immunity for law enforcement and mandates data collection on police encounters.
Virginia Prescott: Proponents say the bill passed by the U.S. House in March aims to address systemic racism and bias and build trust between law enforcement and communities. Public trust is a priority for Lou Dekmar, a law enforcement veteran of 44 years. He's been chief of police in LaGrange, Ga., since 1995.
[TAPE] WABE Lou Dekmar: As the LaGrange police chief, I sincerely regret and denounce the role our police department played in Austin's lynching.
Virginia Prescott: Lou defied Southern police stereotypes a couple of years back when he publicly apologized for his department's role in the 1940 lynching of Austin Calloway, a black teenager accused of assaulting a white woman.
[TAPE] WABE Lou Dekmar: Both through our action and our inaction. And for that, I'm profoundly sorry. It should never have happened.
Virginia Prescott: Chief Dekmar says he's not so much reform-minded, but evolving and adapting his force to an era when police are not crime fighters but social workers with guns. Today, some bold initiatives in policing in LaGrange, Ga. What is the most obvious way that the job has changed since you've been in the Grainge?
Lou Dekmar: Well, I think it's been a continual evolution since the ‘70s when there was a recognition that we have to do better in ways of training in ways of selection, a recognition that what we really are are kind of ombudsmen for a lot of social issues because we deal continually with those individuals that are either involved in homelessness or mental illness, domestic violence, situations impacted by poverty, unemployment, housing, medical issues.
[TAPE] CBS NEWS: Lou Dekmar took an oath to protect everyone.
[TAPE] CBS NEWS Lou Dekmar: Much of crime is impacted by social issues.
[TAPE] CBS NEWS: So he's partnering with dozens of local organizations like the ARC, a homeless and substance abuse center.
Lou Dekmar: And so about 10 percent of what we do result in an actual enforcement action where somebody is taken into custody. Most of what we do is some form of service dealing with people and sometimes in the worst parts of their life and and helping them through either mediation, referral, hooking them up to other resources. So I think with each passing year, that role continues to be emphasized. And that's particularly true as we see missed opportunities from other agencies or services that aren't funded. And mental illness, of course, is probably the best example.
Virginia Prescott: What's an example of how you force deals with mental illness?
Lou Dekmar: Well, we have one person in our jurisdiction that we've dealt with 70 times in the last three years that's affected by mental illness. And if the occasion comes where there's a bad outcome because of the use of force, that's going to be the focus. Not all those dozens of times we successfully resolved the immediate issue and in some cases got them to a medical facility only for there to be inadequate resources to address these issues long term.
Virginia Prescott [00:04:02] So that's interesting, because the whole conversation in this year — the pressure, the protests about police reform or abolish or defund the police — diverting funding from the police departments into social services for — for homeless people, for people who are mentally ill, for example, to cut down on the number of arrests. What I'm hearing from you is that you are actually serving that role on some level.
Lou Dekmar: Oh, yeah. I spend most of my time emphasizing our partnerships, looking at our policies, looking at our training. Community policing, I can define in one word: as partnerships. We have over 70 relationships with other government entities, faith-based resources and nonprofits.
[TAPE] CBS NEWS: LaGrange now stands as a model for community policing across the nation. The key, says Dekmar, is trust. He helped change the life of 43-year-old David Mixon, a prisoner on work release when they met.
[TAPE] David Mixon: He just told me that he will help me find a job when I get out.
[TAPE] CBS NEWS: After 20 years behind bars for armed robbery, Mixon is now working as an animal service officer.
[TAPE] David Mixon: Oh, I'm grateful. Every time I see him, I thank him.
Lou Dekmar: We deal so significantly with our partners and with the variety of social issues that four or five years ago we took a police officer position and turned it into a case worker position. And so now our case worker maintains and takes advantage of all those relationships to help our officer address these calls when they identify individuals in need. So officer goes to the scene, realizes, you know, “Holy smokes, this person needs a lot more help than I've got time to give.” So they'll make a referral to our case worker and then our case worker will follow up and hook them up with services, everything from housing to food to medication to Social Security, to getting a driver's license, homelessness, mental illness — it's just a host. And so, you know, I'm all for realigning the police, but let's set up these services and then you've got to have them available 24/7 and then let's do an evaluation and assessment and see whether or not there is a decrease in calls for service. And if there is, then I'll happily modify my budget to reflect the activity that this new lane that's been created for me is now available. And the reason that we often see these issues go to the police is because we're the only government agency that you can call 24/7 regardless. And we show up. That's going to be the, I think, challenge for those jurisdictions that are cutting police before they have these services standing in a way that's going to address the issue of timeliness because folks aren't in chaos at 3:00 in the afternoon. They're in chaos at 3:00 in the morning.
Virginia Prescott: So that's you looking at the big picture. How about your force? How are they feeling in a year when a lot of mistrust, especially based on use of force, the disproportionate use of force on people of color?
[TAPE] TAMIKA MALLORY: People here in Minnesota are saying to people in New York, to people in California, to people in Memphis, to people all across this nation. Enough is enough. Arrest the cops, charge the cops, charge all the cops, charge them in every city across America where our people are being murdered.
Virginia Prescott: How do they feel about being that topic of conversation, especially in a way that wants to diminish or do away with them?
Lou Dekmar: Well, and that's interesting. I think what's been showcased by the media and others in those jurisdictions that have citizens calling for defunding. I don't think it's coincidental that these are the same jurisdictions that don't appear to have broad community support. When rocks and bottles are being thrown at police around the country, citizens are throwing calories at us. I mean, every day they're bringing food in. They're buying our officers meals. They're thanking them for their service. I think those communities that are having the difficulties is because a lack of accountability when there is outcomes that should be challenged as it relates to their officers’ behavior or performance. I think that those communities that don't enjoy a trust with their police agency, they — that's playing out in the frustration that you see in the call for defunding the police.
[TAPE] CNBC NEWS: Both Seattle and Atlanta police chiefs agree reconciliation starts by talking with the communities they serve. For Chief Bryant, rebuilding that trust is deeply personal.
[TAPE] CNBC News Rodney Bryant: Our community that we serve have to trust our police department. It's impossible to do it without transparency. It’s impossible to do it without changing your policies. You have to do those things.
Lou Dekmar: And trust doesn't buy a pass for the police department if there's a controversial issue or a controversial use of force. What it does do is it buys you time to get the facts so that you can explain what happened and why it was justified or what happened and how it shouldn't have happened, what you're going to do to prevent it going forward. And too many of these cases we've seen where the officer's actions upon analysis were justified, but the police didn't get the benefit of the doubt because the community doesn't trust them. And that incident was just one of a book of incidents in a library full of them that the community felt like was wrongly handled.
Virginia Prescott: What are some of the programs or ways that you have tried to create a system of trust with your community?
Lou Dekmar: Well, at the point that people trust you, then they start sharing with you what they think is wrong, you know, what they think is unfair. And then you have to look at it because police officers, we like things black and white. It's the law or it's not the law. And life is not that clear. And I think the challenge for contemporary policing is to address public safety concerns, not as a club to beat people up with. I'll just give you a couple of quick examples. Car Care Program. Somebody has got a broken taillight, a broken headlight. Then it depends on each officer’s standards, who gets a ticket and who doesn't. So you get stopped, you get a warning, I get stopped, I get a ticket, and then we talk to each other. And I'm wondering how come I got the ticket and you didn't? And if there's race involved, the assumption always is that because I'm a marginalized member of a community, that I got it because the police aren't supportive of those communities. And so we went several years ago to all of our parts stores in the city and said, “Hey, if we come up with a coupon, you give a 10% discount for a part, when we stop somebody for a broken headlight, taillight, tag light, whatever it is”. And they said, “Sure,” so we made it our policy. You stop somebody, you introduce yourself. You explain to them as a courtesy, you just want to let them know they got a headlight out. You give them the coupon, says here, this’ll give you a discount. It totally changes the dynamic of that traffic stop. The number of comments, including postings on our Facebook of particularly African Americans who say that they were expecting one thing and they were pleasantly surprised at the outcome in dealing with our officer. So that's one. We arrest somebody that lives paycheck to paycheck and they go to the county jail. They make sit in jail for two days if they can’t make bond. And if they're arrested on Friday and they sit there two days and they had a job on Saturday and they no-show and now they’ve lost the job, we've just introduced a real chaotic event into that person's life and their family, if there — if they’ve got a family they care for. We got permission from the court, and so now we tell folks “We're going to place you under arrest. Cooperate with us. We'll take you down to the police department instead of the county jail, process you, and you can sign the ticket and be gone.” So now it's become a partnership. They work with us. Instead of going to jail, they're going to get released here in a short period of time. We just got to do some paperwork. Those are just some of the initiatives. But it gives you a sense of let's look at what we do and then are we doing things that as a result of our involvement, leave things better? Or are we complicating already a chaotic situation, or a bad situation, making it worse?
Virginia Prescott: Coming up, do Chief Dekmar's initiatives affect crime rates in LaGrange? We'll find out when Georgia Today continues. I'm Virginia Prescott.
It's Georgia Today, I'm Virginia Prescott. Calls to defund or abolish the police erupted during last summer's widespread racial reckoning protests.
[TAPE] The View’s Sunny Hostin: The next step would be defunding the police departments. When you defund the police departments, you take parts of those budgets and you send them to social services within communities.
Virginia Prescott: Those slogans subsided over the fall election cycle and are losing support as crime goes up across the country.
[TAPE] MSNBC NEWS: Defund the police right now is absolutely, positively insane. And to me it was a gimmick.
Virginia Prescott: Regardless, public trust and expectations of law enforcement are evolving, especially as data reveals that Black people are far more likely to be targets of traffic stops, searches and of police violence than whites. Lou Dekmar, chief of police in LaGrange, Ga., aims to keep those interactions from creating chaos in the lives of people who can least afford it. I asked him whether his initiatives have had an effect on crime in the city.
Lou Dekmar: Oh, yeah, and I can show you the numbers. I mean, as this philosophy evolves, you see the numbers go down on traffic citations. You see the numbers go down on arrests. You also see crime go down. So these are very measureable and I think the police chief's job and the department head’s job, particularly as it relates to enforcement, is narrowing that discretion as much as possible and providing options. Because if you have a wide berth in discretion and you're going to have a wide berth of outcomes and people are going to scratch their head and say, “I don't understand why I was treated differently.”
Virginia Prescott: Well, we have lived through a record year for homicides and violent crime, which historically that's resulted in more crackdowns on minor crimes, so-called quality-of-life crimes, and use of force by police, policies that many people and data sets finds to target people of color especially. So how do you talk with your force about racism and policing, which can become part of that kind of crackdown culture?
Lou Dekmar: Well, you have, you know, part of developing, you know, you used the word culture and, you know, culture is the personality of the organization. And if you have a culture that understands service, that understands that, you know, we're given authority over other people's lives and to use that authority in a way that is not only legal but also wise, then you don't have to deal with those kind of issues and the way that you create that culture again is through policy and training. And the other part of it is transparency. We've had mandatory reporting. That is, officers have to record every encounter with a citizen for almost 20 years. If you have an encounter with a citizen and it's not recorded and you lose a day's pay. We suspend you. And you don't have to do that many times before folks understand that you're very serious about that. And — and the fact is, all individuals in policing come from the community or come from a community and they're no different than the folks that they deal with. I mean, we have the same challenges in our family. We have the same challenges in relationships, in our neighborhood. I think there's a lot more apathy subscribed to the police than there really is. What I find are police are, in fact, very concerned about the people they serve and look for opportunities to, as I said earlier, leave things a little better than what they found when they came on that call or came into that person's life.
Virginia Prescott: Some of your initiatives sound, dare I say, progressive. I mean, not so commonly associated with Southern police chiefs. Neither is apologizing for racial violence that happened more than 70 years ago.
[TAPE] CBS NEWS: Four years ago, the police chief publicly apologized for the 1940 lynching of a black teenager. He says atoning for the past includes working for a better future.
[TAPE] Lou Dekmar: An acknowledgment that apology is necessary.
[TAPE] CBS NEWS: He says atoning for the past includes working for a better future.
[TAPE] Lou Dekmar: Much of crime is impacted by social issues.
Virginia Prescott: Now you keep a lot of company with law enforcement peers. You've been a federal monitor for the Civil Rights Division for the U.S. Department of Justice. You sit on and you speak to a lot of boards, so you have a lot of company among your contemporaries. I'm wondering how they respond to the kind of things you're doing in terms of policies to try and keep people from getting jammed up and things like the apology for lynching.
Lou Dekmar: Mixed. Generally, it was very supportive of those folks that were in the business now. I get the most criticism from individuals that had retired. I think there's — and it’s not just in policing, it's in any profession — that there's a hesitancy to admit sometimes that we made a mistake or we did wrong because that admission acts as an indictment, when it's been my experience that that admission creates the opportunity for understanding, forgiveness and going forward. And I think that the fact that after that you saw several other jurisdictions, including New York City, that apologized for things that they did in — in the course of the ‘70s as it related to a marginalized community,
Virginia Prescott: You're painting a picture of a very idyllic force. They're not talking about homicides are violent crimes; that your officers have respect for people regardless of race, regardless of what neighborhood they come from. Do you think this could be the same picture if you were chief of a much bigger city like, you know, Atlanta or Los Angeles or Chicago?
Lou Dekmar: Well, each city is different. And, you know, this is surely not Shangri-La. We have the highest number of homicides last year than we had at the time that I've been police chief. We have 10. We have our fair share of violent crime and gangs. We have a very robust gang unit. Our city supports prosecutors. We send people to prison that need to go to prison. But the other part of that is, you know —
[TAPE] CBS NEWS Lou Dekmar: I think the role of the police is almost like the Hippocratic Oath, which is first do no harm.
Lou Dekmar: We are hard on crime, but we're soft on people. I mean, if we're able to facilitate a way to address a public safety issue that engages a number of resources, we're prepared to do that. If the only resource that is going to protect the community is locking somebody up, we’ll do that, too. And so I don't think that it's being one or the other. I think it's a holistic approach to how you deal with public safety issues. You know, we've got a little over 30,000 folks. And I think last year we arrested maybe around 3,000. When we were around 25,000 people population, I think we arrested as many as 6,000. So we're seeing arrest rates go down. But 3,000 folks are a lot of folks to arrest. So, yeah, I don't I don't want to leave you with the notion that that this is a Shangri-La, but it is a good community and it's a good city with the hardworking and caring police officers and more importantly, a community that's engaged with their police.
Virginia Prescott: My thanks to Lou Dekmar, chief of police for La Grange, Ga. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting, and you can subscribe to our show anywhere you get your podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on Apple. Jess Mador and Jahi Whitehead, our producers. Our engineer is Jesse Nighswonger. Steve Fennessy will be back with a new episode on Friday. I'm Virginia Prescot. Thank you for listening.