BARTOW — Bartow city commissioners were met with a salvo of complaints from city residents last week who claimed the city police department was rife with discrimination.
Elder Steve Mitchell told commissioners that a Bartow police officer's recent resignation, which came after he reportedly used derogatory and racist language referring to African Americans, was insufficient and added that “I'm sick and tired of it” and “now I smell the KKK — and that's how they (Bartow police) treat us.”
Mitchell's comments to commissioners were echoed by five other area residents, who all claimed the department's lack of African American officers failed to reflect the city's demographic population.
“The department should look like the community,” said John Ruffin, president of Concerned Citizens of Polk County.
Similar comments were made by several other speakers at the commission session, which took place March 2. The concerns follow the Feb. 25 resignation of former Officer Michael Bennett, who resigned after an incident where he allegedly used racial epithets and derogatory language to a superior officer, who initially issued an official reprimand and relieved him of duty a few days earlier. Bennett subsequently resigned when told the incident would be further investigated.
Bartow Police Chief Joe Hall said last week “there is no such culture at the Bartow PD. It is not who we are and we have worked extremely hard to build relationships with all segments of our community.”
He added, “I hate what happened, but I cannot control what people say, I can only deal with it.”
The speakers' claims that there were only a few African American officers within the department’s ranks proved to be true, according to Bartow Assistant Police Chief Bryan Dorman. Dorman said the city had a 20 percent black population and the department's roster did not reflect that percentage.
He did say, echoed by Hall, that the failure to meet the demographics of the city within the ranks was not for lack of trying.
“We just don't get the applicants,” Dorman said. “We can't hire people if they don't apply.”
Both chiefs said the department worked closely with the Polk Public Schools law enforcement academies and with Polk State College in attempts to lure minority recruits.
Hall also said the disparity in minority hiring wasn't just a Bartow issue, noting that other police agencies throughout the county faced similar challenges. Hall said his department had recently lost two African American officers to other departments, either to those that offer higher pay or better benefits.
Bartow City Manager George Long told the commission the problem of diversity wasn't limited to the Police Department, either.
“Finding qualified minority applicants in all our departments is an issue across the board,” he said.
Leo Longworth, the city commission’s only black member, also weighed in.
“We don't condone what that officer said,” Longworth said. “But he is gone. And we talk about hiring blacks in all our departments all the time. We want and need to reflect the demographics of the city, but we can't find the people.”