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The State of Policing: A Conversation With Cape Girardeau's Police Chief

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Marissanne Lewis-Thompson/KRCU
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The shooting deaths of two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota by police officers spurred national protests about police brutality and racial-profiling of African-Americans. And in Dallas a protest turned deadly when a gunman shot and killed five police officers, while leaving several civilians and officers injured. KRCU’sMarissanne Lewis-Thompson spoke with Cape Girardeau Police Chief Wes Blair about the state of policing.

 Lewis-Thompson: I know this might be difficult to talk about, but before you came to the Cape Girardeau Police Department you spent some time as the interim police chief in Lancaster, Texas, which isn’t too far from Dallas. What is your response to the ambush attack last week in Dallas?

Blair: It's a very horrific thing, and I have several friends that are Dallas police officers. And [I] know Chief Brown personally. And when I saw that on the news even as career police officer, I've been doing this 20 years and have lost one of my own officers in the line of duty, it was even more shocking than what I thought it was going to be. It really hit me hard to see that officers that were out there protecting people who were peacefully protesting, which is their right to do and we always want to afford them that opportunity. But to see them just gunned down because they were police officers was horrifying.

Lewis-Thompson: With protests popping up all over the country, are your officers concerned about acts of violence towards them or retaliation like we saw recently in Dallas?

 

Blair: There's always a level of concern about that, and there are some things that we've changed internally just to make sure that our officers are safe. But I don't think it's something that the officer thinks everyday when they get in the car is is today going to be the day that somebody shoots me. It's always in the back of our head that that's a possibility, and we're always prepared for that. If we were terrified we just wouldn't go to work anymore. And you don't see that. The officers are going to get out there and do their job and treat people fairly and equitably.

Lewis-Thompson: Unfortunately, this is nothing new. We’ve seen cases like this before. Nearly two years ago Missouri was thrown into the conversation with the shooting death of Michael Brown. Why do we continue to have incidents of police brutality in our country?

 

Blair: Well I think it's with anything you will continue to have incidences of bankers who steal money. And you're going to continue to have incidences of lawyers who do unethical things. And cashiers who take money out of the till. I don't think it's a pandemic. I think it's isolated incidences of bad people who do bad things. I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that 99.9 percent of police officers don't want the officers who brutalize people working with them. And they want them gone just as much as society does.

Lewis-Thompson: How are your officers trying to build relationships within the communities they serve? What about the south side of Cape? It’s an area that many have labeled the bad side of town.

 

Blair: It starts with dialogue--talk. We show up at events. We're willing to talk. We make sure that people see us as human beings and that we're not just robots with guns and badges, but we actually have lives. We all like a lot of the same activities. We certainly all like to sit around a grill and grill food together. And we've done that on some instances where we've given kids rides on our ATV. We just want people to see us as hey we're just part of the community. We want to make it a better place just like everybody else does. But it all comes down to just being willing to sit down and have conversation and sometimes conversations are difficult, but they still have to be had.

Lewis-Thompson: Is community policing something here that is working out for everyone's benefit?

Blair: Oh absolutely. I believe it is. And you know, everybody says this is a whole new concept, but community policing is not new. When policing was first established way back in England and hundreds of hundreds of years ago that was the concept was community policing. That the police were just members of the community that were paid to perform those functions, but every member of the community is responsible for making their community safe. And that's kind of the view that we take of it. And I do think it's working. When I first got here, when we would have a shooting, we would get nobody that would take to us at all. And we've seen it hasn't been 100 percent turn around yet, but building trust takes a long time. But we've seen people that now are wanting they'll come forward they'll take a little more. And we're able to solve crimes a little bit faster, because community realizes we're going to take action. We're going to do something about it.

Lewis-Thompson: Recently, Gov. Nixon signed into law a piece of legislation that will essentially make it more difficult to access police dashcam and body camera footage. Does this further the gap of trust between the community and the police department? Transparency?

Blair: I would hope that it actually enhances trust with the community.

Lewis-Thompson: How so?

Blair: And I support that legislation. Because take for example I'm an officer [that] responds to your house. You and one of your family members have had a disagreement of some sort. I'm going to have my video camera rolling when I walk into your home. You probably don't want the rest of the general public to have access to watch video of the inside of your house and see where all of your valuables are stored, and see martial or spousal or family problems that you're having posted on YouTube. And that's the intent of that legislation, [which] is to prevent the nosy neighbor if you will from being able to access people's private lives and make money off of it on YouTube, or humiliate people on YouTube. And quite honestly if I was a burglar and we didn't have that legislation, I'd be watching every police video in somebody's house that I could think of, because you get to see where all the stuff is.

Lewis-Thompson: But what about for events where officers need to be held accountable? What about transparency?

Blair: Right. And I understand what you're saying, but you know we also have to be able to trust that the system and the investigations are going to work. And by policy we have here within the city of Cape Girardeau, if we were to have an officer involved shooting, we don't investigate that ourselves. We request that the highway patrol come and do that investigation, because we want that transparency. We want that distance from that situation to say somebody totally objective is doing this for us. But the video won't be [from] my understanding of the legislation won't always be restricted. If there's video that's filmed in a public place that's not restricted video. Really the intent of it is just to protect individuals inside their residences and inside places that they have a reasonable expectation to privacy.

Lewis-Thompson: Does your department have a way of holding its officers accountable when and if they are at fault? If so, how?

Blair: Absolutely. Every officer anytime that they use any force whatsoever, whether it's hands-on with somebody, all the way up to having to discharge a firearm, or just pulling a firearm on someone. There's a use of force form that is created by that officers supervisor. It's reviewed up through the chain of command. They hit my desk. I review them as well. And that's a really good way of tracking are we having an issue. Is there an officer that has more use of force than another? If there is, then we need to look at that. Why is that happening? Is it just an anomaly, because it just happened to coincidentally happen to him? Or is there a pattern with that? And we look at those things and we track those things.

Lewis-Thompson: How do you all as a department deal with issues of race out in the field? Have there been incidents in the past where your officers have profiled minorities that have led to problems?

Blair: I have not witnessed that in the city of Cape Girardeau that officers have racially profiled anyone. I know that it probably does happen. I'd be again naive to say that across the United States it never ever happens. That would be an extremely naive statement. But I have not had any occurrences of it happening or brought to our attention that it's happened within the city of Cape Girardeau. And again, it kind of boils down to the supervisors monitoring their guys and showing up on calls and knowing what's going on. I don't think that we have a racial problem in Cape Girardeau.

Lewis-Thompson: When we look at different police departments and how they are structured and how they are trained about diversity issues, not every department is trained the same. With that being said, when they're not all trained the same does that lead to issues that have with for instance Philando Castile or Michael Brown or whoever, is that something where training needs to be rectified where it's universal for everyone?

Blair: You know, without getting into politics a whole lot I am pretty much a states rights person. And I think that a whole lot of things should be left to the states to decide how they want their laws written, and how they want their police officers trained. But you know, I think that everybody has pretty much a basic standard across the United States that they train to. Some may train a little bit more on it. Some may have a lot more diversity training that other states, but you know in the last several years I have not seen a state that didn't put a whole lot of emphasis on diversity training. And it's not even just in the police, it's in the business world as well. You see that everywhere now that the diversity training is almost mandatory for a lot of places.

Lewis-Thompson: Can you talk a little bit about the de-escalation techniques the Cape Girardeau police department uses?

Blair: Absolutely. And the term de-escalation is a new term. It's not a new practice. That's something that even when I was going through the academy almost 25 years ago it was taught. There's an old saying that I had a training officer tell me a long time ago that it's a whole lot easier to take someone into handcuffs than to fight them into handcuffs. And those are the tactics that we employ. We tell people 'hey look this is what's going to happen. You've got a warrant for your arrest. I'm going to have to take you into custody for whatever reason.' And then we do it. But it's always better to take your way through it and reason. Now some people just can't be reasoned with and you have to escalate the force to make an arrest. But you know we don't ever want the officers to be heavy handed. We want them to use the minimal amount of force that's necessary to effect an arrest.

Lewis-Thompson: What mental health resources are available for your officers in the event they have to use deadly force? Are there warning signs that you look for in your officers that maybe they shouldn’t be out patrolling the streets anymore?

Blair: We offer any officer whether they've been involved in a deadly force situation or not the resources to counseling. I went through a shooting myself early in my career in 2000. And I shot a person who was trying to run me over with a stolen vehicle. And he lived, but it was still a really horrible situation. I didn't enjoy doing it. I was angry at the guy, because he put me in a situation that I had to shoot him. And even back then the department had me go see a psychologist before I returned to duty. Just to make sure that I was in the right mental place for it. But you know here in Cape Girardeau, we haven't had a deadly force situation in a long time. So, we don't have officers that have gone through multiple shooting scenarios. And God forbid that we ever have that. I don't that's the kind of community that we have nor is it the kind of community that we want. But we would monitor those officers if we did. We would make sure that mentally that they were okay. Because at the end of the day we want them to be okay for their own well-being first and foremost, but also for the public's well-being as well. But you know if a supervisor sees an officer [that's] maybe a little bit more on edge, they're going to pull them to the side and they're going to talk to them and maybe send them to resources if they need to be.

 

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