The Rome Police Department is one of nine agencies forming the core of the Georgia Police-Community Trust Initiative.
The newly launched program is aimed at bridging the historical gap between law enforcement and communities of color. Assistant Police Chief Debbie Burnett said Sunday that it starts with listening, and a commitment to engage.
“We in Georgia are the first ones to start and implement this, and we’re hoping it goes national,” Burnett said.
It’s based on a concept championed by LaGrange Police Chief Louis Dekmar last year when he was president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Dekmar began implementing it locally a year earlier, with a public apology for his agency’s lack of action in 1940 when a 16-year-old black youth was taken from the jail and shot to death.
His Trust Initiative Report to the association, detailing the steps that followed, is the template for the Georgia program.
“Rather than just speak the words, we want to show some action behind the words,” Burnett said. “People won’t trust us unless we show we’re willing to back it up.”
Burnett said representatives from the core agencies met earlier to work out a plan. It was presented Saturday at a seminar for law enforcement in LaGrange that included the IACP, Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Key people of color from the agencies’ communities were invited, to listen and to speak. Rome Mayor Bill Collins went, along with his wife, Faith Collins, who chairs the city’s board of education, and Ouida Sams, president of the Rome-Floyd County NAACP.
Burnett said she was struck by the stories from two people whose great-great grandfathers were lynched in the 1930s, and how that’s affected generations of their families.
“We want them to know we will provide the same services to them as any other person,” she said.
“The local coalitions will involve faith-based people, maybe people who have a history in their family of a failure to protect,” Burnett added. “We have to be willing to say we hear you and we’re going to work with you to make sure this doesn’t happen to you in the future.”
Mayor Collins said he was impressed by Dekmar and interested in bringing to Rome some of the actions taken by the LaGrange Police Department to break through suspicions.
“Compare it to taking a homeless person out for food and saying you’ve done your good deed. No, it’s walking with these people, talking with these people and knowing they’re your neighbor,” Collins said.
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr was the keynote speaker and promised his support. On Twitter he called it an honor to be with local, state and national leaders “to talk about a path toward reconciliation between minority communities and the police departments that serve them.”
“We discussed acknowledging history, treating all people with dignity & making just actions,” Carr continued.
Burnett said she, Collins, Sams and Police Chief Denise Downer-McKinney would meet to discuss their takeaways and put together a plan of action. They’ll bring in the City Commission and a wide cross-section of the community.
“Rome and Floyd County is unique because we have a good relationship, but we can’t just sit on our laurels,” Burnett said. “And if we have members of the community who don’t think that – that’s the next step: Go back to the community and find out where we can improve.”
In addition to working within their communities the agencies of the Georgia Police-Community Trust Initiative will continue working together, with guidance from the National Network for Safe Communities.
Member agencies are the police departments of Rome, LaGrange, Albany, Cobb County, Covington, Decatur, DeKalb County, Perry and Thomasville.