Hamilton’s appointment includes room with elephant

| December 24, 2013

City’s first black police chief to face more than just homicides 

Garry Hamilton

Newly appointed Police Chief Garry Hamilton (pictured here when he was Deputy Chief) (Photo: Michael Patterson)

A Frost Illustrated Commentary

First, we’d like to say congratulations to newly appointed Fort Wayne Police Chief Garry Hamilton. Over the years, Hamilton has worked hard to advance through the ranks of the department, proving himself at each level through study and hard work. And now, Brother Hamilton makes history by becoming the city’s first black police chief. We believe he is certainly qualified and up to the task.

Congratulations said, and kudos to Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry, we hate to bring up some harsh realities:

Contrary to the election of U.S. President Barack Obama and the appointment of Chief Hamilton, this is NOT post-racial America! Race is still the elephant in the living room. As with Obama, there’s plenty of talk from the old heads in the community about what’s really going on.

First of all, dare folks say that Hamilton is not the first black police officer qualified to serve as chief of police. He is, however, apparently the right man in the right place at the right time—or, perhaps as Dr. John would say, in the right place at the wrong time.

Some folks suspect there’s a little you-know-what in the game. It’s interesting that a city administration finally decides to elevate a black man to police chief at a time when the city is facing a record-high homicide rate—mostly affecting the black community. Furthermore, black folks are starting to challenge officials on the problem of unsolved homicides, with apparently only a half dozen of nearly 50 killings solved. The Fort Wayne Urban League and others have gone to City Council to urge government to take action in doing “its” part to help solve the problem of violence in the community. At least one City Council member, Dr. John Crawford, reminded folks that some of that responsibility lies on the shoulders of black folks and that black folks themselves have to do a better job of teaching social responsibility to young people, particularly when it comes to unwed, teen pregnancies.

We recently received a call by one citizen who wanted to point out that the people “downtown” don’t care about the black community and that those same people “downtown” need to “do something about all these murders.” Well, they have—they’ve put a black man in charge of the police department. Here are a number of scenarios that could play out:

Scenario one (The best case scenario) 

Hamilton, being active in the black community, including attending church right in the heart of the neighborhood, is able to instill some trust in black folks on the street. They start trusting him and the Fort Wayne Police Department and start going to him and his officers with information that could help solve a large number of violent crimes in the community.

Along the way, Hamilton insists that his department show greater understanding and respect in policing the black community and helps to advance that by stepping up recruiting and hiring from the community. Furthermore, in the atmosphere of greater trust between the black community and the police, homicides and other violent crimes drop dramatically.

In the end, Hamilton is seen as the leader who helps save the community from violence, and the mayor and public safety director look like geniuses for making that move.

Scenario two

Hamilton doesn’t get the cooperation he needs from lower level police officials and the rank and file to make changes necessary to improve relationships between the black community and the police department. Instead, he gets some significant backlash from some in the department who resent his appointment as some “ill-informed, affirmative action move.”

Dysfunction grows in the department, making Hamilton look ineffective and the “good folks” can say, “Well, we tried to give one of you people a chance but he wasn’t up to it.” Meanwhile, with the department in disarray, crime worsens in certain parts of the city giving some opportunists the chance to say, “We need to get rid of him and get someone in there who’s tough on these folks.”

When that happens, a certain cadre of officers, under a name like a “metro squad” or something, starts cracking heads in the community while pundits have been armed with the excuse of, “their own folks can’t handle them, so we have to take harsh measures to save us from them and them from themselves.”

The kicker is, they can say, “Look what happened with one of them in charge—we’ll never make that mistake again!”

Scenario three (The worst case scenario) 

Hamilton takes the job, and after the accolades and talk of “we’ve finally got our FIRST black police chief,” dies down, the black community fails to support Hamilton, fails to cooperate with him and fails to do what it can to monitor and control our own community. Folks continue to withhold information that could prevent and solve crimes, yet go running to Hamilton when they feel they have been a victim of police brutality and want something for self and not the community. Again, Hamilton looks ineffective and the powers that be can say, “See, we tried but if they can’t get it done with one of their own in charge, too bad.”

In regards to the latter two scenarios, critics point out that institution such as police chief and mayor offices are left to black folks after things already have gone to hell in a hand basket. When economic winds blow in different directions, or when black folks blow into some “neighborhoods,” white flight sends many of those “neighbors” elsewhere. Often, the last man out is the mayor. Read Brenda Robinson’s recent Frost Illustrated piece on Detroit and the role race is playing in that city’s economic woes. Look what happened to Gary and other similar cities when “others” gave up on them. Put someone black in charge of a sinking ship and if they save it, they take the bows; if the already nearly submerged ship sinks, “Oh well, we told you they weren’t up to the task.

The black community can prevent that from happening with Chief Hamilton by working with him, supporting him and having his back when he runs into obstacles from his own department or perhaps city administration when he tries to make necessary changes to help the community. By the same token, Hamilton also has to show some boldness and not let the “Thin Blue Line” hype make him turn his head to problems within the department—particularly with those few who use the gun and badge as an excuse to wreak havoc in the black community. Furthermore, he must keep the lines of communication open to all facets of the community—even with whom he disagrees. And, neither side can afford to ignore the elephant called race that sits in the living room.

All history is not pleasant and not all firsts turn out to be good things. In this case, Hamilton and the community can band together to silence the cynics and naysayers. Let’s hope that happens.

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Category: Local, Opinion

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Frost Illustrated is Fort Wayne's oldest weekly newspaper. Your Independent Voice in the Community, featuring news & views of African Americans since 1968.

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