This article appeared in the March 2018 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
Pictured l to r: LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton, Troup County NAACP President Ernest Ward and LaGrange College President Dan McAlexander.
The leadership of city and county officials can make or break a community. Good, solid leadership can improve quality of life for residents, attract business and industry as well as strengthen relationships with all stakeholders, especially in times of crisis.
Jackson Mayor Kay Pippin knows all too well the critical importance of leadership when faced with a crisis.
In 2016, a white Jackson police officer reported being shot by a black man. Within days, police determined that the female officer, who received minor injuries when a bullet grazed her bullet proof vest, had allegedly lied and believed her version of the shooting was a hoax.
The officer, who had been on the Jackson police force for two months, has been charged with making false statements, violation of oath by a public officer, tampering with evidence and other counts, was terminated and is awaiting court action.
“Throughout this event I was proud of our entire local law enforcement community,” said Pippin. “Our chief of police remained cool and calm, dealt with the GBI, his own officers, the press, elected leaders, and citizens with a cool, calm reserve that reflects his professionalism.”
Jackson Police Chief James Morgan
“Our nation was still healing from the horrible church shootings in Charleston and the news stories surrounding places like Ferguson and other places involving police officers at odds with their communities,” said Pippin. “Out-of-towners came visiting trying to make the bad actions of this police officer an indictment against our city, but thanks to outstanding local leaders like Police Chief James Morgan, District Attorney Richard Milam, City Councilmember Theodore Patterson, NAACP leader Rev. Charles Barlow, and the outstanding men and women in the Jackson Police Department, and more, this police officer was arrested and charged and is now being dealt with in a court of law.”
Pippin continued, “And, thanks to a citywide effort of these leaders and more, this incident did not spur other events. Everyone’s demeanor was calm and reassuring. Everyone listened to one another and spoke with resolve to solve this crime and see that justice prevailed, and everyone used language that was respectful of others.”
“My role was to simply look into the cameras and tell the media that I had no idea why this police officer chose to do what she did nor why she chose to blame the shooting on a fictitious black man. But I can assure the world, her actions were in no way a reflection of who we are in the city of Jackson. We are a city of people who care about their neighbors…be they black or white or any other color; we are a city too busy building a better quality of life for all our citizens to be deterred by this bad thing that happened in our good city,” said Pippin.
Pippin believes the groundwork for good relations within a community must be established before a crisis occurs. She recalled that early in her first term as mayor in 2014, she invited all the ministers in the city of 5,000 to gather for pizza and conversation. From that event, an interdenominational ministerial council was established that continues to meet monthly.
“What I said to them was I think you need the city to accomplish your mission and I know I need you,” she said. “I would much rather us be talking now when we’re not facing some serious issue.”
Leadership also thrived amidst adversity in LaGrange, where a police chief took a bold leadership step. In January 2017, Police Chief Louis Dekmar made a public acknowledgement of and apology for the 1940 lynching of Austin Callaway, a young black man who was forcibly taken from the LaGrange jail by six white men and killed.
Dekmar said he hoped the acknowledgement and apology “would create the opportunity for engagement. It’s the beginning, not the end.”
The police chief said before he made his statements at a historically African- American church in the city, he first shared his reasoning with the city’s mayor, council and 100 officers in the police department. The mayor and councilmembers said they were behind him. During an inspection of the police force, Dekmar shared his plan. He said he gave the officers an opportunity to respond and no one voiced objections. Afterward, he received several text messages of support.
Dekmar added that for a year and a half prior to the apology leaders in LaGrange had engaged in trust-building training.