On September 8, 1940, 18-year old Austin Callaway was abducted from a jail in LaGrange, Georgia, by a group of masked white men, was shot and left to die. The day before he’d been charged with trying to assault a white woman. The LaGrange Police Department did not investigate the lynching.
LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar speaks during the Austin Callaway service
On Thursday, January 26, 2017, at an event held at Warren Temple United Methodist Church, LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar apologized to the community for the police department’s role in Austin Callaway’s murder.
In this Q&A, Chief Dekmar talks about how he learned about Austin Callaway’s death, the apology and its impact on the community.
How did this incident, which took place decades ago and long before you came to work in LaGrange, impact you personally and professionally?
As a student of history, I was familiar with the sad and checkered past of police agencies and the issue of lynching. Personally and professionally, it disappointed me that our agency had been a part of that history and that our officers, still today, bear the burden of that history.
Once you learned about what happened, what was the process you went through that led to the conclusion to issue an apology? Was it an immediate feeling or did it take you some time to come to that conclusion?
When I learned of the Callaway lynching over two years ago, and after speaking with some partners in the Black Community, I came to understand that in some parts of LaGrange the lynching created deep resentment and concern. It was immediately evident that the police department should do something to address this issue publicly but I was uncertain as to the forum. I spoke with LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton and told him I wanted to do something publically and he supported that decision and advised that the city should be a part of it.
This past summer I saw the local NAACP President at an event and asked him if he would consider working with me to address it publicly and he immediately agreed. We invited other citizens into the conversation, including the faith community, the LaGrange College president, and the pastor of the Warren Temple Methodist Church. I also spoke individually with our city council who provided their support.
So, the lynching contributed to current feelings of animosity or ill-feelings to the police department from the African-American community in LaGrange and Troup County?
Yes, in some parts of that community. I consulted with an African-American woman involved in our Faith Partnerships initiative, someone I’ve worked closely with for several years, and when I told her I was considering an apology for Austin Callaway’s lynching, she commented that the impact in the African-American Community would be enormous in a very positive way. She said, “You have no idea what this would mean in the black community.” Her comment made clear to me the path the police department needed to take to address Mr. Callaway’s murder.
And you believe that this is a burden that your department, and the men and women in it, still carry today, right?
Yes. I’ve been in law enforcement for 40-years and have been police chief for 26-years. The lesson I’ve learned is this: history plays a role in our communities. No matter what positive community engagement efforts a police department may currently be undertaking, and regardless of the strong relationships we may have individually with members of the community, these stories of police bad behavior, in particular toward our African-American residents, often carry more weight in the community than what the agency is doing now. This history creates an underlying current of mistrust between some people in our communities and the police. We need to understand and address that.
What was the reaction within the department, and the city government more broadly, when they learned that you wanted to address this incident by apologizing?
During the annual police department vehicle and uniform inspection this past December, I advised the officers what I intended to do regarding the Austin Callaway lynching. I also told them if they disagreed to please tell me now and I would address their concern and consider their objection. No one raised an objection. I then explained that if no one objected, I expected them, as a member of this agency, to support it.
I certainly don’t know what is in their hearts, but no one in the police department has been publicly critical of the acknowledgment and apology and no one in the agency has shared a criticism with me. After the acknowledgment and apology, the police department has been very positive and supportive, particularly the two dozen officers that attended the event.
The Mayor and Council were also supportive from the time I shared my intentions with them. And then, of course, Mayor Thornton participated in the program, as well as Councilman Willie Edmonson.
It’s only been a few days, but what has been the reaction to the apology from the African-American community and the community at-large?
We have received overwhelming support from all parts of the community, and the attention nationally and internationally has been extremely positive. I have received over 150 emails, cards, and letters nationally and from around the world. Over 90% are very complimentary and supportive. These were from citizens and fellow police colleagues who don’t know me, but support this effort.
How does this apology play into your broader efforts at racial reconciliation and racial trust-building in the community?
It is another step, albeit a significant one, in the evolving process of race conciliation and community trust building. It helps to create an environment where candid conversations can be had without the cloud of racism stifling the ability of a community to work together to solve problems and make great things happen. It remains a work in progress.