Dekmar acknowledges he has more work to diversify his force of 97 sworn officers. LaGrange is a majority-minority city – 51% Black, 41% white, with 8% Latino or Asian, according to the census, Dekmar, who’s white, leads a department in which 80% of officers are white.
Dekmar said his philosophy has led to a drop in arrests and a rise in community trust. According to the department’s annual report, LaGrange police made about 2,800 arrests in 2021, compared with an average of 6,000 a year during the 1990s.
“I would call myself someone that looks at the evidence, listens to my community and makes adjustments so that we’re providing the best service we can,” said Dekmar, an Air Force veteran who worked in Wyoming and other Georgia police departments before coming to LaGrange.
One of his innovations comes from elsewhere – he saw that Oregon helped motorists who couldn’t afford minor car repairs.
“So now, on top of getting that headlight fixed, I got a $150 ticket,” Dekmar said. “Does that help them? I don’t think so.”
The department developed partnerships with car repair businesses. Instead of writing tickets, they hand out coupons with discounts to get the repairs fixed within 30 days. Drivers stopped again for the infraction are cited.
Other initiatives were developed by or with community leaders, Dekmar said.
“Just a host of initiatives that were predominantly identified by the police department or facilitated by the police department, but very quickly coalesced with partners so that the community was engaged in helping address these issues,” he said.
In 2009, Dekmar required all officers to wear body cameras and mandated that every contact – patrol officers, gang squad, illegal drug investigators – had to be recorded.
“Everyone involved in enforcement should have video,” he said. “ If you’re ashamed to video your practices, then you might want to re-examine your practices.”
Reform starts with training. Recruits undergo two to three weeks of training by LaGrange officers before they’re sent to the police academy, Dekmar said. On return, they receive an additional four to five weeks of scenario-based classroom training with the department. Recruits then transition into a 12- to 15-week field training program along with comprehensive written tests and scenarios.
After training is complete, Dekmar quizzes them on how to handle different scenarios. He said that 90% will do well, and the rest will be sent back for additional training.
“The state requires 20 hours a year of continual training, which is woefully inadequate,” Dekmar said. “We require our officers to have a minimum of 80 hours.”
Recruits also learn the history of civil rights in LaGrange and the U.S. focusing on police treatment of communities.
“If you don’t know your history and know your past, you’re going to repeat it,” said Officer Bryant Mosley, a licensed counselor who works part-time as a LaGrange police officer with an emphasis on mental-health crisis work. “You have to stay in the forefront with everything.”
Dekmar said putting policing into context makes sense.
“It’s riot. Unsettled calmness. Tension until the next episode,” he said. “It’s like we don’t look at what’s happened in the last 50 years and say, ‘Well, maybe we need to do something different.’”
One route was shifting to a policy in April 2021 of shooting to incapacitate rather than kill, based on data Dekmar reviewed on 5,000 police shootings.
Strengthening the relationship between LaGrange police and residents is an ongoing process. The community that’s most in need in LaGrange has the least amount of trust in police, Ward said.
“I wish that law enforcement would know and understand that nothing is going to change without intentionality,” he said. “I wish that the citizens would understand that nothing is going to happen overnight.”
Others in the LaGrange wish Dekmar would insert himself in all aspects and levels of the city.
Alonzo Roberts, a former gang member turned community activist, is one of those pushing for police reforms.
Although Dekmar is available to the community, he said, people in need have to make the effort to go to him.
“Get the community involved,” Roberts said. “Make the community feel like they’re involved, and you’ll have a better police department.”
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