Police Chiefs Speak on Bias, Community Relations
The police chiefs of Covington and Cincinnati, a former assistant chief of Newport, and the president of the Northern Kentucky NAACP appeared together for the Northern Kentucky Forum's discussion about police and community relations.
The forum was moderated by Ericka King-Betts, executive director of the Cincinnati Human Rights Commission. Covington Police Chief Spike Jones, retired Newport Assistant Police Chief Robert McCray, Northern Kentucky President of the NAACP Jerome Bowles and Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell made up the panel.
The event was held at the Kentucky Career Center in Covington.
The questions were mostly on topics that dealt with racial inequality, police bias, and ways for police to better interact with their communities.
During introductions, McCray said that he became the first African-American employee in the Newport Police Department when he was hired 36 years ago. He then disclosed that since he retired in 2010 there have been no African-Americans on the force, though there have been others in the past.. He also said that there has never been an African-American on the Newport Fire Department, never any in Parks and Recreation and never any on the Code Enforcement Board. At one time, he said, the public works department was roughly 50% black but that there are no African-Americans in that department currently.
“Our departments do not represent the true makeup of our community. Now I don't mean to sound negative, but I agreed to serve on this committee and speak of what I observed and what I lived through,” McCray said. “I'm not knocking my city, I'm not knocking my police department, I'm not knocking our fire department. Our government is lacking.”
The first question asked: if racial profiling was commonplace among police departments.
“The way we serve the public is different when there is a diverse workforce, because certain things just won't be allowed. Certain conduct will be checked internally because the diverse officers will not stand for some of the shenanigans that we've seen in other parts of the county,” said Chief Blackwell.
Later, a question was asked of what ways the police department can build trust in their community. Bowles talked about how important it is for police forces to police smarter rather than harder by combining resources when necessary and working as a region rather than as individual cities.
“My suggestion is to try to do these things on a regional level with partnerships with other agencies to try and develop a resource base and I think that can go a long way,” Bowles said. “Many stakeholders came together to address the heroin situation in Northern Kentucky. That meant health care, law enforcement, education, political leaders, business leaders and a lot of people of good will came together and from that, state law began to change.”
Next, the conversation shifted to training and how it works in the police departments. Bowles said that because local agencies are so strapped with smaller budgets, a lot of cultural and diversity training happens on the job rather than in a classroom.
“That's not enough. That's too late. It needs to be addressed in terms of more aggressive training toward culture competence that will create a culture shift from that perspective,” he said. “Some agencies in Northern Kentucky are ahead of others in that respect. We are a region, we have pockets of law enforcement in our area that may not speak the same language as other departments. So we may have to do some culture competence training on a regional basis.”
Chief Jones said that the Covington Police Department reached out to Northern Kentucky University to help create better training courses primarily for the department's supervision and command staff about social and emotional intelligence.
“That type of initiative has to take place and it is the future of police training,” Jones said. “It's about having a respectful conversation, an appropriate conversation and being able to disagree at the same time. Sometimes conflict is good as long as it's constructive.”
The issue of respect—or lack thereof—came up a number of times in the evening and it was clear that each member of the panel emphasized the importance of remaining respectful at all times.
“Every time you see misconduct, it starts with some type of disrespect,” Blackwell said. “And so really what we're trying to do, is improve a culture of respect of American policing where cops and people of the community have a mutual respect, if not love for one another so that we can get the job done. But when police agencies have the old model of policing, which is the big me, little you. We've got to trust our community to have input. When you talk about that type of policing, it has to be problem-oriented, evidence-based policing. It can't be random, routine patrol that we did in the 1960's.”
The question was then raised from the audience if the panel thought the racial bias within the police force has been exaggerated by the media.
“Those stories being out and you folks seeing that reality, is that a good thing?,” Chief Jones asked. “Yes it is, because there is only one truth. But it's a bad thing that it is used to sell dish-washing products; that's not the intention. Knowing the truth is a very good thing.”
“We did not always welcome the press,” McCray said. “We fought the press, we ran from the press, we opposed the press, and they can make you or break you. We later found out through Covington and through trial and error that it's better to have a relationship with the press, and be open with the press, and contact the press when there is something going on that you should think the community should be aware of.”
The next question was if it is possible for police agencies to remove bias within their officers through training. McCray said he thought not, but Blackwell disagreed.
“I think you can train out bias because a lot of people aren't aware that they have it. The implicit bias that some police officers have, if you bring that to the forefront of their attention, you make them aware that they have those biases and that acting on those biases is unacceptable.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misquoted McCray as saying he was the only African-American ever to work for the Newport Police Department. That is not what he said. There have been others between the time he was hired as the first and the time that he retired, though none have been hired since, he said. Also, he did not say that there were no African-Americans ever in the public works department. In fact, he said that the department was at one time 50% black, though there are currently no African-Americans employed there. The River City News regrets the error.
Story & photo by Bryan Burke, associate editor