July 10, 2020 9:47:41 AM
Starkville Police Chief Mark Ballard said he wants police officers to be as respected as health care workers and college professors, but they have to earn it.
"I absolutely believe that most law enforcement consists of good men and women, but it is absolutely a profession that is struggling and warrants reform," Ballard said at a virtual town hall meeting hosted Thursday night by Phi Beta Sigma, a national fraternity of law enforcement executives, and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Officers. "I'm an advocate for leadership development, for raising the standards, for accountability and for a very real talk of retention and recruiting."
Ballard's predecessor, Frank Nichols, was also one of the 11 panelists in the discussion about police reform and ways to build bridges between the police and the communities they are meant to serve. The panelists, most of whom were Black, ranged in location from Los Angeles to Memphis to suburban Dallas.
The death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer in May sparked nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism. Some have even called for cities to divert funding from police departments to education, social work and other services that could prevent crime from happening in the first place.
Chris Rey, international first vice president of PBS and the forum's moderator, asked the four police chiefs present if they believe white police officers see Black men as more of a threat than other white men. Most said yes and cited implicit bias as the reason.
Nichols said exposure to other cultures should be a requirement to graduate from the police academy because ignorance can be dangerous.
"In 1992, I got hired with a young man who had never interacted with African Americans," Nichols said. "He was a good person, but he had never done it. He'd gone to private schools most of his life, so he had a lot of problems dealing with African Americans on calls, not that he was trying to, (but) it goes back to implicit bias."
Ballard said he had initially thought white police do not see Black men as more threatening but changed his mind after listening and talking to his officers.
"I think a lot of it's going to depend on the officer's own individual experiences with suspects or with people in general," Ballard said.
Most of the panelists agreed that electing Black people into public office can help ensure that police reform happens. Nichols said leadership on police reform should start at the federal level and that changes within an individual department need to start with the chief.
"When I was chief of police, I made a brochure on how to interact with police at a traffic stop, simple things like no sudden moves, making sure you have your hands on the wheel, things like that," he said. "Things we shouldn't have to do, a Black person or anybody, (because) everyone should be treated the same."
Starkville Police Department is one of the few in the country to be nationally accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. Ballard said accreditation "could be very much a silver bullet to address a lot of the issues in law enforcement," partly because CALEA requires departments to have strategies to recruit minority officers.
Recruitment is difficult when police officer pay is low, and a nationally accredited organization should have the money to offer a competitive wage, Ballard said.
"I'm competing against fast food restaurants for employees, and that is a huge issue within most of law enforcement," he said.
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