Although his going-away party was two weeks ago, today marks Waco Police Chief Brent Stroman’s final day on the force. And, frankly, the unflappable, straightforward, by-the-book lawman’s departure is a little unsettling, coming at a time when so many politicians and activists seek to make the twin concerns of quelling racial strife and improving law enforcement a divisive, either/or issue.
Today also marks the end of a month that should resonate with us all, not only because of two lethal, highly questionable shootings by police officers of black men in other states — partially recorded, complete with death agonies — but also because of vengeful shooting deaths that claimed the lives of eight police officers, five of whom died while managing with great professionalism a Black Lives Matter protest in the streets of downtown Dallas.
With politicians turning these tragic events into self-serving opportunism, we’re better served by listening to police officials in the trenches. Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who is African-American, gained plaudits nationwide for encouraging black critics to undergo training and join the Dallas police force, patrolling the neighborhoods from where they come. Several hundred applied.
Stroman, 61, who is white, has gained praise for his outreach to Waco’s African-American community through participation in such events as a forum last summer mounted by the local NAACP chapter. The event not only stressed rights that all citizens should know but also highlighted efforts by Waco police to improve diversity within the ranks.
Much more of this is needed to calm racial strife involving police and the minority community, the chief told me: “You have to be willing to listen. You have to be willing to understand different perspectives and that a lot of what is being dealt with right now are perceptions.
“There are some realities,” he said, acknowledging obvious missteps by individual police officers here and there across the nation, “but there are also perceptions and we have to be willing to work with both of those. We have to work with our community.”
The chief doesn’t believe a minority community is necessarily better served by only minority police officers. His days as a rookie cop were spent in heavily African-American East Waco and he recalls those times with fondness and insight. However, he believes both the force and community benefit greatly when the department is racially diverse.
At the moment, Waco police have 242 sworn officers, 210 of them men, 32 of them women. Of these, 21 (or 9 percent) are black, 24 (or 10 percent) Hispanic and 196 (or 81 percent) are white. Obviously, that doesn’t quite reflect a city where, for instance, 21 percent of residents are black. The department has regularly sought to encourage African-American business advocates, pastors and groups such as the NAACP to help improve these numbers. Cops certainly can’t do this alone.
Waco Police Sgt. Patrick Swanton says the diversification strategy is working but, given such factors as high police standards, it’s obviously a gradual process. And, to a degree, it relies on further, ongoing community engagement: “It is a must we remain as open and transparent as possible to those we serve. Our community policing foundations are strong and we believe the relationship we have with Waco citizens is very good.”
One of the most encouraging aspects of the Waco Police Department: The figures suggest it readily demands accountability on the force to the degree police supervisors do more questioning of rank-and-file officers than the public does. For instance, last year the department conducted 73 investigations of sworn police officers. Only nine were prompted by public complaints. The rest were initiated by police supervisors who I would guess have exacting standards of behavior and ethics for every officer on the force. That’s another good thing.
Other developments are encouraging. City officials and police are exploring the use of body cameras to provide in the words of Assistant Chief Ryan Holt an “unbiased visual document” in disputes about officer behavior and in reducing citizen complaints.
Stroman, who recalls the racial discord of the 1970s, says the police department’s work even way back then regarding community engagement serves it now as such strife again simmers nationwide.
“So I think it’s going to be easier now for us in policing to transition out of this,” he said. “It’s not a good time [for the nation] and there’s a chance it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But I believe on a local level we’re well poised to move past this because we have that dialogue.”