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Decatur racial profiling concerns folded into larger discussion about diversity


Decatur racial profiling concerns folded into larger discussion about diversity

Cover Photo from the Charter for Compassion's 2013 annual report.
Cover Photo from the Charter for Compassion's 2013 annual report.

Cover Photo from the Charter for Compassion’s 2013 annual report.

Allegations of racial profiling by Decatur Police got the City Commission’s attention.

But rather than address the issue on its own terms, the commission has expanded the discussion. A city consultant, The Art of Community, has put together a Leadership Circle of residents and city employees. The group has been meeting since last year, according to the city’s Decatur Next website. It is developing recommendations for the City Commission about how to move forward with a community-wide conversation about diversity.

The effort is called Better Together, described as “a citizen-led, government supported effort to build deeper connection, understanding, and mutual respect among the Decatur community.”

“The process will facilitate a lengthy community conversation that explores our strengths, weaknesses, perspectives and misunderstandings,” the Decatur Next website says. “Taking shape as a variety of citizen-participation opportunities later this year, it will culminate in the creation of a tangible Community Action Plan.”

The line connecting racial profiling concerns to the Leadership Circle and Better Together may not be clear to everyone, however.

During the May 4 meeting, Chris Billingsley, a retired Decatur High teacher, asked commissioners why the Leadership Circle’s meetings have not been advertised and made open to the public. He said he was concerned that the board doesn’t include diversity of thought as well as a diversity of racial backgrounds.

“I am concerned about open government,” he told the City Commission. “I have never seen a public announcement about where and when the group meets. It is in my opinion a poor way to start such an important process.”

Commissioners said there will be an opportunity for the public to participate. The Leadership Circle is helping to create roadmap for how the city moves forward.

“This group is operating in the same manner that any number of task forces have operated in,” Mayor Jim Baskett told Billingsley. “They will come to us with some recommendations. Any decisions will be made by this body.”

Linda Harris, a member of the Leadership Circle who is also the city’s assistant director for community and economic development, the “community action plan” will help the city address issues surrounding Decatur’s plummeting diversity.

“Ultimately at the very end there would be a community action plan as to how are we going to keep these conversations going around being welcoming,” Harris said. “What are things we can do? What do we as a community want to see happen?”

According to a report produced over the summer by an intern, whites accounted for 60 percent of the city’s population in 1990, while blacks accounted for almost 40 percent. According to the 2010 census, about 73 percent of the city’s population was white and 20 percent was black. The remainder of the population was non-black minority, which includes Hispanics.

Commissioners last year began to focus on the topic after hearing from Don Denard, a former Decatur School Board member. He said police racially profiled him while he was walking down his own street. While the Police Department’s investigation of Denard’s case ultimately cleared its officer of wrongdoing, his concerns opened up a wider discussion about incidents involving other black men and police officers.

In response, the Police Department began tracking the ethnicity of people stopped by officers. The first report produced by police found that 56 percent of the police department’s stops involve minorities. Police officers also completed a training session with the Anti-Defamation League’s A World of Difference Institute.

Last April, Decatur signed onto the Charter for Compassion and became a “Compassionate City.”  Commissioners later adopted “A Community Action Plan for a Compassionate Decatur.”

That plan that included a $25,000 contract awarded to The Art of Community for facilitating the diversity discussion, which in turn led to the Leadership Circle being created, Harris said. Decatur Police Chief Mike Booker is a member of the Leadership Circle. To see a full list of members, click here.

The description of Better Together and the Leadership Council on the Decatur Next website does not mention “racial profiling” or attempt to connect the issue with what Leadership Council is doing. Harris said racial profiling is one of the topics the council will consider.

If the Commission approves the Leadership Circle’s recommendations, the formal community-wide discussion will begin in August or September, according to the city’s www.decaturnext.com website.