Clarksville cops pursue culture change
Once faced with double digit discrimination suits, the department strives for equality in tense times
A November 2019 photo of members of the Clarksville Police Department from the retirement ceremony of Sgt. Ramon Ferrer-Ramos after 18 years on the force. (Photo: Clarksville Police Department Facebook page)
In the days after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, the Clarksville Police Department was “disgusted,” but proud of the policies it has in place against such incidents. Now, as cities across the United States are reducing funding to their police agencies and protesters are chanting to defund them completely, the new leader of the department is frustrated with the culture that defines all cops as bad and looks to build support in his own community.
Former Chief Al Ansley, who recently retired, told The Leaf-Chronicle in late May that the killing was “disgusting,” adding that while officers often back each other up, in situations like this, they need to call out unacceptable behavior and any problematic officers should be removed from the department. “If you’ve got problems, get rid of them,” he said.
The new police chief, Chief David Crockarell, who was sworn in June 30, reiterates Ansley’s comments, adding that Floyd’s death was a “murder” and calling it “disgusting” was actually a mild-mannered way to put it. He stresses the importance of professionalism in the Clarksville Police Department and says the community views the department favorably.
“A few bad actors like what happened in Minneapolis has not changed who I am nor my identity, but it does make it difficult for us to do what we set out to do,” Crockarell says. “We ain’t perfect. We have officers that will eventually reveal themselves in one way shape or form that will result in discipline, but we do have accountability here, and once they’re revealed, we will deal with it.”
Crockarell says that, in general, most of the Clarksville community support the police department and perceive its officers as “good.” He says he appreciates the respect protesters have shown the department, noting that demonstrators have invited the police to their rallies and protests.
Maurice Stegall, the leader and organizer of Clarksville Black Lives Matter who has been holding daily protests on Wilma Rudolph Boulevard, has sent those invitations. He says the department is “outstanding” and has been supporting him and his fellow demonstrators since he has been protesting, often bringing them water and food and making sure they’re safe.
“They genuinely let us protest and they don’t bother us,” Stegall, 32, says. “Nobody’s coming out there with riot shields and any of that. They’ll drive by, honk their horns, turn the sirens on, in support. They genuinely care.”
Stegall has lived in Clarksville for two years and says that while he had traumatic experiences with law enforcement when he lived in Georgia — he was once beaten by police and left with cracked ribs, he says, when he was 15 years old — he’s never seen a problem with the Clarksville police.
Leonia Tucker, the president of the Commission on Religion and Racism in Clarksville, also organized a protest outside of the Montgomery County Courthouse after the death of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky, which is around three hours from Clarksville. Tucker, who has lived in Clarksville for 42 years, says that there’s a lot the police department still needs to improve, and points to an incident she remembers from 2001, when a noose was hung in a view of a Black police detective’s desk.
“In every department, there is some racist police,” she says.
The Department Culture & How It Did (And Didn’t) Change
Just 13 years ago, the Clarksville Police Department was facing more than a dozen discrimination lawsuits.
When former Chief Mark Smith resigned in 2007 and Ansley was appointed as his successor, there were 14 discrimination lawsuits and hostile working environment claims from current and former officers. Tony Blakely, the officer who reported the noose near his desk, among other racially based harassment, received $650,000 in a settlement. Kenneth Austion sued on allegations that he was demoted and denied a promotion because of his race and was later retaliated against for filing complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He settled his lawsuits for $750,000. Black leaders in the community alleged there was a history of racism and intimidation against citizens as well.
As Ansley took charge of the department, he began pushing to get accreditation with the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA).
“The accreditation process was the first thing Chief Ansley went for to dig us out of that negative perception, because he knew that policy would keep us to these standards,” Crockarell says.
Per the organization, CALEA accreditation is valuable because it lays out best practices in policing, requires self-assessments of policies and procedures, and monitors departments’ adherence to those guidelines. Mayor Joe Pitts said he was proud of the Clarksville Police after reviewing a report on its protocols regarding use of force and anti-bias procedures that the department sent him in the beginning of June. That report, which the mayor requested after Floyd’s death “to make sure we are prepared to protect the safety of our community and the civil rights of protesters,” referred mostly to a set of standards laid out by CALEA.
“Around 5% of law enforcement agencies are accredited by CALEA,” says Maya Mitchell, the communications and organizational development manager at CALEA. “Clarksville is currently accredited and has maintained accreditation since July 2010.”
The Clarksville Police Department has put together four reports for CALEA, in 2010, 2013, 2016, and 2020. The assessments touch on diversity in the department, the kinds of use of force officers use and on whom, promotions and discipline taken against officers, and complaints that have been made against the department.
For example, the use of electronic control weapons (ECWs) like Tasers went down significantly over the past decade. Between 2007 and 2009, there were 323 instances of ECW use of force. Between 2017 and 2019, there were 70, meaning an approximately 78% decrease in the display and discharge of stun guns.
Sgt. Charles Gill, who oversees the department’s CALEA accreditation process, says statistics like the ones that show a decrease in the use of electronic control weapons can be attributed to former Chief Ansley requiring more training in 2008. Further, in 2016, the department raised the requirement for ECW use from “active resistance” to “assaultive resistance.”
“More emphasis was placed on scenario training in defensive tactics, to include de-escalation,” Gill says.
However, with the decrease of ECW use of force came an increase in weaponless use of force. Gill says that weaponless use of force is when the officer uses a “hands-on technique” on a subject, with no use of ECWs, pepper spray, or batons. Between 2007 and 2009, there were 232 weaponless uses of force. Between 2017 and 2019, there were 478, an approximately 106% increase.
Between those same three years, there were 228 firearm use of force events reported, the majority of which the officer did not discharge the firearm and was therefore designated as “display only.”
The 2020 CALEA report, which outlines the four years between 2016 and 2019, also begins tracking the demographics of who officers were using force against. The previous three reports did not include this information. According to the statistics that the Clarksville Police Department reported in its 2020 CALEA assessment, approximately 50% of its use of force incidents involved Black people. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Black people account for about 24% of the Clarksville population.
Presented with that information, Chief Crockarell says he hasn’t seen the report, as it’s fairly new and he would need to look further at the data to see what the arrests were about and what areas of town the incidents happened. He also adds that he doesn’t believe that the statistics are going to always match the city’s demographics.
“We can’t necessarily go down and just say, ‘Hey your demographics is this, everything should match,’” Crockarell says. “In other words, if you have 60% Caucasians in your town, you should only have 60 percent DUIs. I’m not a criminologist, I don’t have a PhD, but I don’t think that demographics are going to be any way scientific that parallels criminal behavior.”
Stegall, the Clarksville Black Lives Matter organizer, agrees. When he hears those statistics, he says he has to “look at it on a broader spectrum than just black and white.”
“If I’m under arrest for doing something absolutely wrong and I’m trying to fight back or run, then that’s wrong,” he says. “I’m accountable for my actions and my wrongdoings.”
There is one demographic area, though, that Crockarell would like to parallel the population: the officers in the police department itself.
In the 2010 report, the demographics of the department’s sworn officers were listed as 81% white, 13.3% Black, 3.6% Hispanic, and 2.1% “other.” Slightly over 11% were women. At the end of 2019, those numbers were 79% white, 11% Black, 5% Hispanic, and 3% “other.” Approximately 13% were women.
“Our goal is to mirror our population we serve,” he says. But he says the way police are portrayed in the media is a barrier to that goal. “I see the news, too, and some of it is so not the real truth about who police officers are. But that narrative is out there, so it’s going to be tougher and tougher to recruit and retain.”
What The Future Looks Like
Chief Ansley is credited for changing the culture of the Clarksville Police Department over the past 13 years, and Crockarell admits he is inheriting the “solid foundation” that Ansley laid. The CALEA accreditation process made it easy for them to tell the mayor what plans they have in place to prevent a situation like the death of George Floyd, he says, and it keeps the department in line on its policies and procedure.
But despite a seemingly promising future for his department, the new chief also laments the current culture that surrounds police nationwide.
“Police officers were heroes,” Crockarell says. “We were public safety heroes, we were on the radio, people were bringing food, we were (viewed similarly to) nurses and doctors, and all that. And then these few officers in Minneapolis changed it like that, and now people want to dismantle our agency because of some bad actors.”
Tucker, the president of CORR in Clarksville, says she, for one, will be monitoring the department. She wants officers to be less quick to display a firearm when a Black person is not a threat, to ensure there’s evidence when arresting someone for a crime, and when there is an incident of police brutality, to “stop sweeping it under the rug and address the situation.”
The department insists it is transparent and speaks up when necessary. In fact, the CALEA assessments show a significant drop in complaints from citizens since 2012. Gill attributes that to two things. One is the recent deployment of body cameras on 100% of Clarksville police officers. The other is that “officers know that they will be held accountable for their actions,” he says.
Stegall, who recently took a trip to Minneapolis to speak at events and sit down with local leaders about peaceful protest, said that there was a pronounced difference between the way Clarksville and Minneapolis police officers were reacting to Floyd’s death.
In Minneapolis, “instead of having compassion for the community for what happened, they’re sticking to backing the vileness and crookedness in the police department,” Stegall says. “Like, don’t try to justify somebody’s characteristics, just because y’all have a good relationship amongst each other. His actions spoke louder.”
In Clarksville, though, he says officers “voiced how they feel about the situation that happened with George Floyd and how disgusted they were.”
“The difference between a good cop and a bad cop,” Stegall says, “is a good cop will speak up when something isn’t right.”
That’s what Crockarell says he plans to do. When he was first appointed in January, COVID19 and the unique challenges the virus brought to the department was all that was on his mind. But now he can’t stop thinking about how the department must continue to be professional, review and revise its policies as necessary, and get more diverse. And as he does that, he hopes the community won’t stop supporting his department.
“What happened in Minneapolis, it hurts us because we wear this uniform,” Crockarell says. “We’re proud to wear it, but where we go now in the streets, people look at us, and they think of that. But they don’t really know who we are, and that to us is really bothersome. We have to earn the benefit of the doubt. Every time one of these things happens, they won’t give us the benefit of the doubt anymore, and we have to start over and we have to earn it back.”
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