Most of the dozen demands compiled from a Northwest Decatur community meeting and presented this month to Police Chief Nate Allen are already being addressed as standard departmental policy, the chief said Friday, but he has created a citizens' advisory council to improve dialogue.
Allen said he brought together an 11-member Decatur Police Department Community Advisory Board consisting of Blacks, whites and Hispanics that is generally made up of of “regular citizens who don’t have a title,” even though he already speaks regularly with coalitions of pastors of both races.
Allen said he tried to stay away from including politicians and other officials on the advisory council.
“I felt like I need to reach the streets better,” Allen said.
The Rev. Samuel King said many of those who have attended meetings with Allen agreed “there needed to be a coalition or committee to handle complaints and advise the police chief on the community’s dealings with his officers.”
Pastor Jerry Baker, a member, said the advisory council has only recently organized, so it hasn’t discussed actions or specific issues.
“The chief is putting himself in a position of transparency because he’s willing to come in and listen,” Baker said.
Rodney Gordon, president of the Morgan County chapter of the NAACP, is a member of the advisory group, but he said such a group “isn’t any good unless it has subpoena powers.”
There have been a series of informal community meetings in the weeks since a police officer killed George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, sparking outrage and protests across the country, and since a June 8 post on social media showed security video of a white Decatur police officer punching a Black liquor store owner.
Allen said he is close to wrapping up his investigation of the incident in which three police officers responded March 15 to a robbery call at Star Beverages on Sixth Avenue Northeast. Officer Justin Rippen broke the jaw of owner Kevin Penn with a punch. Allen on June 9 said the officer thought Penn was reaching for a gun that the store owner had on the counter.
Last week, Gordon joined City Councilman Billy Jackson in demanding that Allen fire Rippen, who the chief placed on desk duty June 9.
Gordon led a community meeting at The Pines Park on Fifth Street Northwest on June 14. He said about 60 mostly Black residents attended the meeting to talk about their concerns.
Gordon said the NAACP wasn’t involved in The Pines meeting, but those in attendance compiled a list of 12 demands for Allen.
Among those demands are intensive background checks before hiring, release of dash and body cam video from incidents involving police officers, annual psychiatric evaluations, and drug and alcohol tests for any officer involved in an incident.
“At least he’s willing to listen,” Gordon said.
King has attended multiple meetings, including one with the chief that included Gordon and Jackson, since the liquor store video went public. He said Allen is doing a good job but faces challenges. He said there's still an issue with police profiling Black teenagers.
“The consensus is the Police Department is doing well,” King said. “He’s got some minor things to get straight. Is there racism in his department? The answer is there is racism in the neighborhood, so there is racism in the Police Department.”
Gordon said the liquor store incident is one of several that show there are problems with Allen’s department. This includes an incident, caught on video and spread on social media, in which an officer responded with a curse when a suspect asked for his name and badge number.
Allen said he has already dealt with that case and it is now closed.
Gordon said he believes some officers on the Decatur PD are racist. However, Gordon said the demands are as much about how officers treat and respect the general public as they are about race.
“All police officers aren’t bad, but they’re not all good either,” said Gordon, who added that a police officer changed his life for the good.
Allen said the department already conducts background checks that include using the National Crime Information Center database, driver's license checks, contacting neighbors, a job history review that includes obtaining information from officers' former departments if they are transfers, social media checks and character checks through references.
Gordon said annual psychiatric evaluations are needed because officers often deal with difficult situations like shootings, stabbings and death that can affect them mentally.
The chief said a psychiatric evaluation is done before an applicant is hired.
“It’s only done at hiring unless a need arises to do an additional one,” Allen said.
Allen said the release of dash and body cam video to the public is evaluated case by case. These videos are generally subject to the state’s Open Records Act, although Allen can order that a video not be released if it’s part of an open investigation.
The demands call for a ban on chokeholds and using a knee in the back to subdue a suspect, but Allen said, “We don’t teach that and never have.”
New officers attend an eight-week pre-academy class taught by the city and the 13-week state police academy. They then receive 13 hours of field training before they go on solo duty.
Allen said officers also receive training in deescalation and redirection of a conflict during police academy and as part of in-service training.
“The state requires 13 hours of annual in-service, but we require 40 hours a year of in-service,” Allen said.