J.D. Hale of Lexington called me the other day. Like most of us, he was disturbed by recent incidents of white police officers shooting unarmed black people.
The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., a year ago Sunday focused national attention on the uneasy relationship between many black communities and the police. There have been more shootings since Ferguson, including that of Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati last month.
These tragedies prompted Hale to recall a widely published essay that his father, E.C. Hale, wrote in 1962. One magazine headlined it: “A Southern police chief explains why racism hurts law enforcement.”
E.C. Hale served as Lexington’s police chief from 1953 to 1972 after 21 years in the ranks. His 1974 obituary credited him with making the force more professional. Under Hale’s no-nonsense leadership, Lexington became a national model for police training, procedures, record-keeping and community relations.
As the 1960s began, segregated Lexington had some of the South’s first civil rights demonstrations. They did not become well-known, in part because this newspaper’s management policy was to ignore them.
But perhaps the biggest reason Lexington’s marches and lunch counter sit-ins did not attract national attention was that they did not turn violent. A big reason for that was Hale’s leadership of the police and his good working relationship with local civil rights leaders.
Hale said his goal was to enforce the law while treating everyone with firmness, fairness and respect. For example, he said an in interview in the late 1960s, there was a vigil outside the Fayette County Courthouse in 1963 to protest the racist church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four girls. As participants knelt in prayer, a white man ran out of a crowd of bystanders and slapped one of them. Within seconds, he was arrested and hauled off to jail.
“It could have been a model for other communities in the South,” said Yvonne Giles, an authority on Lexington’s black history. “But it didn’t happen that way.”
After talking with Hale’s son, I went online to look for the essay. I found it in the May 1962 edition of Negro Digest, a popular magazine similar to Readers Digest that was renamed Black World before it ceased publication in 1976.
“The Negro has had good reason to look with suspicion and fear upon the uniformed officer,” Hale wrote. “The effect of wrongful treatment will cause Negroes to carry over the memories of their past experience to the detriment of the whole community.”
Here are a few other excerpts:
“Firmness does not mean belligerence. The former is characteristic of good policing, and the latter is characteristic of bad policing.”
“Equal justice is not merely a term. The police officer who is tempted to vary his role according to personal notions as to the worth of various groups is himself in violation of the law. An officer has a capacity for delivering equal justice only to the extent that he has this problem under control.”
“The entire police force suffers as a result of the brutal measures of an individual officer. The true victims of police brutality are the police themselves, since it develops widespread hostility and disrespect for law among the members of the minority group.”
“A good standard of fairness would be treatment of the individuals in the same manner as the police officer would desire to be treated if he were the individual and the other party the police officer.”
“A good reputation for fairness in dealing with the public is an invaluable asset to a police department because it instills public confidence, making police work more pleasant and effective.”
Of course, neither Hale nor the city he served was perfect.
Hale ruled Lexington’s police force with an iron hand. In the late 1960s, he called efforts to create a citizens review board for his department a “communist plot.” When Vietnam War protesters complained about police tactics, he said, “I’m not going to be pushed around by these long-haired, fuzzy-face people.”
Lexington had no shortage of racial tension, and it finally exploded in October 1994, when a police sergeant accidently shot Tony Sullivan, an unarmed homicide suspect.
Lexington got its first black police chief in 2001 with the promotion of Anthany Beatty, a widely respected leader who since retirement has run for mayor and headed security at the University of Kentucky. His successors, Ronnie Bastin and Mark Barnard, have made community relations a priority, and it has paid off.
Hale’s 1962 essay, which was controversial among many whites at the time, strikes most of us now as common sense. But it is a common sense still lacking among some police officers and some police forces.
“I hadn’t read the thing in years,” J.D. Hale said. “But when I did, it struck me that a lot of these problems we’re having now could have been avoided if more people had listened to what he said back then.”
Read Hale’s full essay by clicking here.