Sunday Morning Meditation – Off the record

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt June 14, 2015
Decatur Police Officers compare notes in the parking lot of Decatur High. File photo by Dan Whisenhunt

Decatur Police Officers compare notes in the parking lot of Decatur High. File photo by Dan Whisenhunt

Whenever a politician wants to tell the truth, they ask reporters not to write it down.

That’s the essence of what “off the record” really means. Politicians, as a general rule, don’t trust the public to interpret unvarnished opinions or cold hard facts. Straight talk could get you run straight out of town.

But what happens when an entire public discussion goes offline? What does the public gain or lose when our elected officials engineer a discussion about public business that takes place behind closed doors?

This week, we dug a little deeper into the series of “focus groups” that the city of Decatur’s Police Department has been holding to develop the department’s strategic plan. That sounds like benign bureaucratic busywork, but context is everything. Since 2014, a group called the Decatur Community Coalition has been politely and persistently pushing the City Commission to address its concerns about alleged racial profiling by police officers. We found out that the city is paying a consultant $15,000 to coordinate a private discussion about the Police Department’s operations.

People participating in these conversations include members of the Coalition and other residents who have had negative experiences with the Police Department. They also include people that may be sympathetic to the Police Department, like graduates of the Citizen’s Police Academy.

In addition to the to the $15,000 contract for facilitating discussions about the Police Department, the city has entered into a $25,000 contract with a different consultant charged with holding a discussion about diversity. That group’s conversations have been taking place out of the public arena as well.

Let me be clear. I don’t think anything nefarious is going on at these meetings. I wouldn’t have time to cover all of them, even if I wanted to. But as I’ve asked around about this, I have yet to hear a clear or compelling reason that these conversations should be taking place in any other venue but a public forum. I’ve pressed hard on that question, and I get answers to the effect of “That’s the way we did it before” and “The conversations are more productive this way.”

“Focus groups are used in the beginning stage of the strategic planning process in order to keep the conversations centered, make them less intimidating than in a large community setting and to allow participants to speak freely,” City Manager Peggy Merriss told me. “This is similar to the process followed during the City’s highly successful 2000 and 2010 Strategic Plans.”

Don Denard, a former School Board member who first brought his concerns about racial profiling to the City Commission’s attention last year during a public meeting, is supportive of the city’s strategy. He told me that organizers and city leaders need to get their “ducks in a row” before engaging the rest of the public about this important issue. Denard said there’s been some straight talk going on behind those closed doors.

“It’s not all been Kumbaya or are we wonderful,” Denard told me. “It’s been very real.”

Focus groups may be neat and tidier for city officials to handle, but I’ve never been of the opinion that democracy has to be neat and tidy. Sometimes meetings go on forever and you miss dinner. People get ticked off and start turning an opportunity for public comments into a filibuster. Every so often, a guy has to stand up at the end of a meeting and spend 15 minutes telling commissioners that the city’s real problem is there aren’t enough public toilets.

And once in a blue moon, residents show up at the meeting of your progressive City Commission and tell you that you aren’t the city you think you are.

At the last City Commission meeting, Community Coalition Members showed up and confronted commissioners about their slow response to one of the Coalition’s letters. Remember, if it weren’t for a free and open public forum, we wouldn’t be having this discussion about racial profiling in the first place. If the city’s rationale for focus groups is basically, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” that could just as easily apply to the public comments that got us here.

The general public wouldn’t know if these conversations are productive or real because they weren’t invited. The city has promised a round of public input at some future date, but why shut the general public out of the discussion now? The city and its consultants are choosing who participates. There’s no guarantee that the roster will be reflective of the community at large. Why not allow other people to show up and observe these conversations and let our officials know if there’s something they’ve missed? Policing is a public issue and this needs to be a public discussion from start to finish.

The city is paying a seemingly never ending supply of consultants to do things that could be done quite cheaply.

Having a community discussion is not hard. All you have to do is set a time and a place, find a competent moderator and be sure to leave the doors unlocked.

About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of

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  • RAJ

    I think you just made a case for YOURSELF!

    • RAJ

      Man of few words!

  • Geoff

    There’s nuance that you’re missing here, Dan. You say, “I have yet to hear a clear or compelling reason that these
    conversations should be taking place in any other venue but a public

    City Manager Peggy Merriss says, “Focus groups are used in the beginning stage of the strategic planning
    process in order to keep the conversations centered, make them less
    intimidating than in a large community setting and to allow participants
    to speak freely.”

    That sounds clear and compelling to me. Focus groups are used for different reasons than a public forum. They are used by market researchers to find preferences, thoughts, opinions for various reasons. They are often handpicked to ensure an array of opinions from participants – or to ensure the opinion of one particular constituency. They are often used for exactly what Ms. Merriss said.

    You can’t confuse the reason for these focus groups with the larger goal of developing a strategic plan for the DPD. I imagine the public at large will have a large roll in developing the plan, but there is a process to developing these plans and it sounds like targeted focus groups is part of the early stage of the process. You pay professionals to conduct these processes because they know what they are doing. It’s more efficient that way – we can have our public officials do the business of the city, as they allow the consultants to focus on the process of developing a plan.

    Certainly they are related, but the Community Coalition process is actually separate from the DPD strategic plan process, as I understand it. Or even if one wouldn’t consider them “separate” one would likely concede that they are on separate schedules. Thus, it’s not surprise that different tactics might be in use for each process at this particular time.

    Am I just explaining all this away? Yes. I agree with you that “I don’t think anything nefarious is going on at these meetings.”

    Thanks for the coverage of our community.

  • Andrew

    You seem to be suggesting that the alternative to police department focus groups / controlled listening sessions would be some grand, egalitarian public-wide forum. Sadly, that’s not the case.

    The alternative to a police department attempting to listen to the voice of the community is a police department not attempting to listen to the voice of the community. Which is the far more common default position in most places in America. Police departments making essentially no effort to engage — much less understand — the very people they’re sworn to serve.

    I’ve lived in such places. It’s frustrating at best and the basis for serious discord at worst.

    If you ask Chief Booker, who I consider an example of excellence in Blue, he’ll tell you that he believes we need to walk in others’ shoes before we can really understand where they’re coming from. It’s why he’s built our police force around a model of empathetic community policing. That’s a model that the people of Decatur, even the department’s critics, believe in and support.

    I’m not making an argument that the department is without fail. They’re human, and that makes them fallible in all kinds of ways. The difference is that Chief Booker understands that and has the humility to work the problems. Finding fault with the manner of listening rather than pride that the community is having various opportunities to be heard seems, to me, like an insistence on winning the battle, even if it means losing the war.

    • “The alternative to a police department attempting to listen to the voice of the community is a police department not attempting to listen to the voice of the community. Which is the far more common default position in most places in America.” I disagree. As a taxpayer-funded institution, the Police Department must listen to the concerns of citizens and they must be held accountable when they don’t. The lack of accountability in other communities is no excuse for the lack of transparency in this community.

      I’d like to respond to both you and Geoff with a simple question: What harm, if any, could be caused by having these discussions in a public forum?

      That’s what no one has been able to articulate to me in any way that makes sense. What is being discussed in these meetings that could not be discussed in public? I’d be happy to consider any reasonable arguments about why there should be a restricted public discussion, but so far I’m hearing a lot of circular logic. “We’re doing it this way because it’s the best way.” Says who besides the city of Decatur? And what are the pitfalls of doing it another way?

      If there are any clear disadvantages to having a discussion that’s open to the public, they’re not obvious to the casual observer. I’m not going to support using taxpayer money to facilitate private discussions about the public’s business unless there’s a very good reason for it.

      • Geoff

        You get different answers from people when you have “closed” focus groups than when you have a public meeting. The process seems to be that a focused set of individuals from the community will help to “center” the conversation and it is presumed that answers will come more freely in focus groups than in a community setting. Yes, I am basically restating what Ms. Merriss said. This doesn’t preclude a larger “open” public process. Future public meetings can still be had.

        The disadvantage to having these conversation centering groups in the open is that you may miss the opportunity to allow a group of citizens speak without the fear of reprisal from other community members. That is, what you hear in a public meeting may not be all that a person has to say.

        It sounds like you’ve heard it before, but this is how professionals get these types of things done. This process works and will work here.

        • Geoff, can you point to any specific instances where there have been reprisals for holding this kind of a discussion in a public forum? Some of the concerns are not new. They’ve been aired in public at City Commission meetings. Do you know if anyone who spoke at those meetings experienced retaliation? If so, what was the nature of it? Odds are much more likely that if you hold several of these meetings, only people genuinely interested in the topic will bother to show up. That’s basically what the city did with the UDO. I’m not seeing the danger here, other than an assumed one.

          • Geoff

            Dan, you are asking me to recount the thoughts that others had at meetings that they were reluctant to ask in a public meeting. That is an impossibility for me, so no I can’t point to specific instances. But I do know that those thoughts are likely just as important as those spoken by other community members in public. Those publicly-quiet-but-still-important thoughts are the thoughts that will come out in a focus group – thoughts we may never get exposure to otherwise.

            Again, you are tying to together the Coalition process and the DPD strategic planning process. This focus group is part of the strategic planning process. It may or may not be targeted specifically for answers for the “concerns.”

            In your own reporting you say: ‘this year Chief Mike Booker made the decision to gather a broader range of input. “The current effort in the Police Department follows a long-standing practice of having departmental strategic plans and as Chief Booker approached a new planning cycle, he recognized that in the City of Decatur, soliciting community input would only serve to improve the Department’s management, operations, and interactions with the community,”’

            This appears to be part of the concerted effort to gather MORE opinions, more thoughts, in a variety of ways. I say, let’s see how the process plays out and see if the chief upholds his promise.

            I’m not 100% certain, but I’m pretty sure you also had “closed” focused groups in addition to the many open meetings for the UDO. I’m assuming from your comment that you concede that that process worked. Why would this process not work?

            I appreciate the opportunity to chime in on this.

          • Hans

            Dan, we fundamentally disagree on this one. People indubitably speak differently when their opinion is recorded and published as a part of an open record. As a journalist, you *know* that people respond differently when they know they are going to be quoted. I’m pretty intolerant of public officials that want to be behind closed doors or always off the record. But private citizens who are asked to discuss one of the single most explosive topics in our nation’s entire history? Come one. Give them a bit of a break. If the City plans to keep this forever quiet and never have a public conversation, then I could be persuaded to agree. But by all reports this appears to just be the first phase of what will be a long process, and City leaders seem to be just trying to get an honest pulse of the community from private individuals who will almost surely adjust their words if they were for public consumption.

            If this is still quiet a year from now, if the conversations do not move into the public sphere, or if policy begins to be changed without the public discussion, I will wholeheartedly pound the drum with you. But to get the honest pulse of a racial issue from real people who are private citizens? I will give them the benefit of the doubt. Not everyone likes their name in the paper, especially tied to a topic like race. Let’s try to keep that in mind.

          • Hans, we do disagree. I will never be in favor of spending taxpayer money on something done in secret, no matter how well intended.

      • Andrew

        “As a taxpayer-funded institution, the Police Department must listen to the concerns of citizens and they must be held accountable when they don’t.”

        As best I can tell, we’re in total agreement on this point. The apparent difference is that, to me, that’s what they’re presently doing.

        If focus groups give Chief Booker, etc., what he needs to explore sensitive issues that various members of the public feel strongly about, I’m all for it. I believe the process will prove most effective (and, accordingly, provide greatest benefit to the community) if it fills the gaps in understanding that DPD needs to fill. So why not let them design a process that gives them what they need? (That’s a rhetorical question. I understand why you don’t think the present process is acceptable.)

        Ultimately, I’m much more interested in results than process. If nothing comes from this, I’ll join you in the skeptics corner. But for now, what I see is an honest effort to be a better police force and, as a resident, that counts for a lot.

        • Never doubted the motives and I give the city credit for trying to address the concerns. When given a preference of whether something will be open or closed to the public, I’ll always side with it being open unless there’s some public benefit to it being closed. The sincerity of Chief Booker isn’t my concern. It’s the idea that there’s some benefit to doing this in a closed forum. I’m not seeing any real benefit other than a fulfilling desire to avoid some speculative negative outcome. I say hold one forum in public and see how it goes. If the city hasn’t burned to the ground by the end of the week, it’s a safe bet Decatur will be fine. I have a hunch it will be as boring as every other public input meeting I’ve attended. I of course respect and appreciate your opinion, and thank you for reading.

  • Chris Billingsley

    Interesting discussion. Below are my notes concerning the police focus group held at the Rec Center on June 10. One of the paid consultants took careful notes of the conversation and may have recorded it. Someone could make a legal request for the notes but that is not the case with the Decatur Next group. Their conversation is unavailable because the discussions are secret. We don’t even know who serves on the committee. It is now verified that in addition to the fifteen members listed at the Decatur Next web page, Mr. Don Denard is allowed to participate. I suspect that there are other members, maybe from the Community Coalition but who knows. And it’s not just the secrecy that is the issue. The entire process so far is rigged in favor of those who not only want to weaken the authority of the police, but also want to make major changes to private property rights and religious freedom in Decatur to further promote the commission’s goal of more “diversity and compassion”. A good example of this is the police focus group that I was invited to attend. I expected a mixed crowd but was surprised to see a member of the Decatur Next committee. What kind of diversity of opinion can you get if the same people are used over and over again?
    I continue to maintain that the secret meetings of Decatur Next are illegal and should be challenged in court. If this were happening in Johns Creek or Dunwoody, and they were having secret meetings to promote conservative values, every liberal group in Georgia would be knocking down the courthouse door to stop it. It is a sad reflection on the political process in Decatur.

    Decatur Police Focus Group
    Decatur Rec

    Participants: Frank, a former police officer and his wife, were the moderators. Frank was quiet throughout most of the meeting. His wife did most of the talking. A third person took notes. We were told that the notes would be “thematic” and no names would be assigned to the comments. At the end of the meeting, I asked that my name be added to my comments. There were five participants. An elderly woman who may have been in her late sixties. A mother in her late thirties. A woman in her late forties who told us that she ran a non-profit. A man in his mid-sixties (?) who is a familiar face at these types of events and myself. The meeting started at 6:30 and continued to almost 8:00.
    Chief Mike Booker began the meeting by welcoming us.
    The moderator asked us to respond to several questions. I took notes. The following statements are part of a ninety minute discussion and are not meant to be exact quotations. To those who participated in the discussions, please forgive me if I misrepresented your comments.
    We were handed a copy of the City of Decatur mission statement: “Our mission is to work with the citizens of Decatur to meet the needs of the community while serving all with respect and integrity. We strive to do so with competence, accessibility, responsiveness, and excellence. We Care.” We were asked,
    1. “What kind of police department in the future do you envision that would support the mission statement?” Man- Officers should look like a cross-section of citizens in terms of race, gender… Mother- the mission statement is a mishmash of values. The police have specific duties to carry out. The traditional mission is to protect and serve. Non-Profit Lady- I want to live someplace where I feel safe. I work with seniors. Do they feel safe? Mother- Values personal experience with the police. Accessibility is the key. Retired Lady- Wanted more communication with all residents. “Everything is online but I’m not online.” Man- Does the community have trust in the police? Do the police build trust? There has been a breakdown in trust across the country. My Response- The mission statement is similar to the guiding principles of many organizations today. How can you not support it? It’s like, who doesn’t love babies? I like the terms respect, integrity, and excellence. I don’t like the idea that our police officers are competent. I expect outstanding police officers. And what does accessibility mean? Most of all, I don’t like “We Care”. I want the police to do two things well, help protect the rights of citizens and catch the bad guys. I’m worried about what’s going on. There are groups here in Decatur and around the country that are trying to weaken the authority of the police. This will happen if we are not careful. I’m not talking about within five or ten years but this year.
    2. What kinds of characteristics do you want to see in an officer? Mother- Professional. She went on to describe the characteristics of a highly professional officer. Retired Lady- A proper education, not necessarily a college education but a certain level of education. They should be in good physical condition. The moderator asked, “Define Level of Education. The retired lady replied, “Some College”. Non-Profit- Police should reflect the community. Look at the demographics of the community. Mother- an officer should be empowered by their supervisors. My Response- I want to make it clear that I oppose any racial or gender qualifications. I don’t care if our department is all female, or black, or gay or lesbian. I want the best officer to answer my call for help. And if our department is made up of all white males, that’s ok with me as long as they are the best. Mother- that would be cool, an all-female force. Non-Profit- Agreed that we should not have a quota system but wanted a good pool of applicants to choose from. There was general agreement about this. Man- I think we need to have a serious conversation about who owns safety in a community. We need a partnership. Police and neighborhoods need to have a partnership.
    3. I want you to think about what our police department does well. Retired Lady- Community action. Participation in the MLK service project. Mother- Police presentations at the schools. Several participants mentioned Lieutenant Ross as someone who does a great job. Man- The police participate/partner with the Take Back The Night program. Non-Profit Lady- Make me feel safe. Mother- Accessibility. (Deleted- Personal Information) and if I’m home alone with my kids and hear a noise in the garage, I want the police to come and check it out. Retired Lady- Assistant Chief Lee came and inspected my home for safety and security. That one on one relationship is important to me. My response- I want the police to continue to make the effort to build relationships with all citizens. The school resource officer does a great job building trust with the middle and high school students. I told a story about how last year, when I was feeling sorry for myself because of a personal beef with a police officer (Not all my interactions with the Decatur police have been positive), I was working in the front yard of my home when a police cruiser rolled down the dirt road. He gave me a friendly wave but I just glared at him. He stopped the vehicle and began a friendly conversation. When I told him that I was trying to work through a bad experience with an officer, he gave me his card and told me that he would be glad to continue this conversation anytime. I was impressed with his effort to reach out to me. I want our officers to be able to do this, maybe not all the time but building positive relationships with citizens is a big part of successful police work.
    4. What practices do you want the police to discontinue? Mother- Isolation. More Interaction. I want my kids to feel comfortable approaching police officers. Man- People cannot ask police officers to solve all problems. If a neighbor is too loud, you don’t call the police. You go to that person and say something about the noise. The police need to make more progress concerning bias towards African-Americans. They have made a lot of progress but there is still work to be done. Non-Profit- Get out of the car. Mother- More foot and bike patrols.
    5. What do you want the police to start doing? Mother- Initiate conversations. Man- Add body cameras. Retired Lady- begin a Junior Police Academy. Additional comments were made concerning this question.
    6. The last question is, since the police cannot solve all problems, what can the community do to help or support the police? Mother- Support non-traditional partnerships. Non-Profit- If you see something(I assume something wrong or suspicious, notes incomplete), say something. This began a discussion about suspicious behavior. Man- What is suspicious behavior? How do you determine suspicious behavior? There should be levels of intervention. My Response- I have learned from experience that not all bad behavior at Glenlake Park requires the intervention of the police. But once a citizen requests police assistance, it’s up to the officer to check it out. The police should not question a citizen’s suspicion. The meeting ended with friendly conversation among the participants and moderators. Several days later, one of the participants stopped by my house and we had a friendly conversation. This would not have happened prior to the meeting since we have opposing viewpoints concerning the police.

  • Bill Jones

    They want to do it off the record because they know that a majority of Decaturites won’t support any changes that make people less safe for the sake of political correctness, white guilt and the sanctimony of people who need feel important because they have nothing better to do. The city found that there was no police wrongdoing in Mr. Denard’s case. Dosen’t matter. He won’t bring his case in a court of law where it would be subject to factual scrutiny. Rather, it can be a cause celebre for the liberals who saw “Selma” and are sad they weren’t a part of it. If they can characterize the most liberal town in the SE a racist hornet’s nest with Mike Booker as Bull Conner, then that will make them feel worthwhile, regardless of how asinine that is logically and how bad the policies might be for the rest of us.
    The City Commissioners attitude is “SHHHHH, don’t call us racists. Here is some money for a task force. Now sit in this room and get it out of your system and people will forget about it, even though we never found any wrongdoing to begin with.”

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