By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor
In doing what is necessary you sometimes end up doing the impossible.
– Matshona Dhliwayo
Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz responded to Toledo’s surging record-setting homicide rate last week by readjusting his approach to public safety.
Just one month past his reelection, the mayor appointed retiring Toledo Fire Chief Brian Byrd as safety director and Oregon police officer Angel Tucker as deputy safety director. In addition, current Safety Director Karen Poore will transition to a “co-equal” deputy mayor position along with fellow former Deputy Chief of Staff Abby Arnold.
In the recent mayoral campaign, violent crime was challenger Carty Finkbeiner’s dominant theme. And Kapszukiewicz’s much-ballyhooed initiative to reduce gun violence has yet to bear discernible fruit.
These structural changes come on the heels of a recent Ohio Civil Rights complaint against the City by the African American Police Patrolmen League for unfairness in the promotional process and a lack of diversity in the Toledo Police Department. Meanwhile, police-community relations have never been worse in Toledo.
Brian Byrd comes to the Kapszukiewicz administration from the Toledo Fire Department, which has a history of racial and gender bias claims going back to a 1972 lawsuit filed by Blacks and Hispanics.
I spoke with Byrd about his challenges as he “comes out of the frying pan into the fire” to combat the skyrocketing gun violence in Toledo. Here is our conversation:
Perryman: This appointment is quite a challenge. What did you get yourself into?
Byrd: Out of the frying pan into the fire, of course. But, if somebody thinks I can somehow make a little bit of a difference, I’m going to try.
Perryman: You certainly bring success in increasing the minority presence in the Fire Department. Was your success there a factor in the appointment as safety director?
Byrd: I don’t know. I’ve always been pretty active out in the community, which may have played into it. My assumption is those probably did help with their decision.
Perryman: What are your biggest challenges?
Byrd: The obvious challenge now is gun violence. Nobody’s going to be able to flip a switch and solve that because the problem includes years of historical and systemic issues that have created the environment where violence exists. So, we have to fight this battle on several different fronts. First, we have to start addressing these kids from the time they’re young and in school and before they get into trouble or those that are just beginning to get into trouble before it escalates.
We’ve also got to address getting more people in public safety forces who look like the community to address it from that end. There are health disparities and poverty issues that contribute to violence. There are housing issues and drug issues in the community. There are so many different things, and if we can have a small impact on each of them, we’ll see positive outcomes.
Perryman: Most who talk about violence fail to note its complexity and the complicated environmental, situational and individual factors that lead to gun violence.
Byrd: Yes, and when we talk about gun violence, there’s one misperception that a lot of the gun violence is gang-related. That’s just not true. A lot of gun violence today happens because people cannot manage disagreements with people without it escalating to deadly force.
Perryman: Talk about any violence reduction or community policing strategies that you’re familiar with.
Byrd: Well, I’m still trying to learn those things. I didn’t have much time to look into much of that before this announcement. The conditions of my retirement mandate that I take 60 days off. So, I will spend some time educating myself on these things to develop some strategies. The big picture is there’s so much more to address than just a shooting after it happens, including those systemic things that we’ve been talking about.
Perryman: What are the mayor’s expectations for you in this job?
Byrd: We have not sat down for any lengthy discussions on that yet. Still, I’ll spend some time acclimating myself to the position, and I’m sure we’ll be having that pretty extensive conversation soon.
Perryman: You come to this job with previous leadership experience. What degree of managerial discretion would you insist on in this position?
Byrd: I would hope that I would be given discretion based on my previous successes. I think my record and history of doing things in the community would give the mayor confidence in my decision-making to readdress a different version of the same issues. We stepped outside of the box with the fire department to do some things. We changed many decades-long policies and ways of doing things to address some of the community’s needs. Some of the things that are going to be required to address some of these additional community needs will require some stepping out of the box. You can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Perryman: Please elaborate.
Byrd: The community needs to feel in touch with the public safety forces and feel comfortable interacting with them. They must also feel confident that those public safety forces have their best interests at heart, not just when it comes to a 911 call, but in general.
We effected change with the fire department because our people are active in the community in things that have nothing to do with fire. I have a community engagement team with fire that is all over the place, all the time, every day at community events that have nothing to do with the fire department. The community sees you there, being active, and seeing you care about the other things and concerned about how those other things affect the community. I think our presence has garnered a lot of trust.
The community has also seen the result of our recruiting and how we have hired. We have a diverse community, but diversity isn’t just about black and white; it’s also about economics and opportunity. It’s about so much more than what the word diversity has been pigeon-holed into.
Perryman: I’m assuming that you’ll bring some of your successes from the fire department to the police department?
Byrd: My hope is that the success we had with fire was because we recruited people from all demographics we thought could get through the process. That in itself leveled the playing field because people saw it as an opportunity that hadn’t in the past. We recruited people who we think can get through the process based on their successes in their lives before this and their desire to serve.
Our last fire class, their motto, and I didn’t know that they would make it their class motto, but it was something I had said to them on their first day. I had them say ‘service is a privilege,’ and they then took that as their class motto. I wasn’t expecting that. These are the sort of people that we recruited: those who understand that this is a service job and a community-based job. So, by recruiting people who we thought would be successful in the process across all demographics leveled the playing field.
Perryman: What are your ideas concerning police reform?
Byrd: I am an African American man who grew up in an African-American community. So, given some of the things that we see across the country regarding community/police relations challenges, we have to address the communication piece.
If our folks don’t know how to communicate with the police and the police don’t know how to communicate with our people based on their cultural differences, let’s just be realistic. We don’t communicate the same. You can’t get anything accomplished until you learn how to communicate, so that’s one of the first things that needs to be addressed.
Perryman: The reason police reform is so critical is that our community has a demand for public safety. Yet, we’re the ones that most strongly resent the methods that police sometimes employ to provide that safety.
Byrd: Yes. And again, people like to disregard history. We can’t ignore history and, I think on the civilian side in minority communities, they understand the record. They’ve learned it from their grandparents, parents, and things they’ve seen. However, I don’t know if the law enforcement side in general, not just in Toledo but nationally, fully understands the impact on the minority communities of that history and how that history has affected the minority community’s perception of the police. So again, that comes down to communication.
Perryman: Right. Part of that history that you’ll have to deal with is the consent decree to hire and promote Blacks that we went through back in the 1970s and 80’s. So now we’re almost back at the same place.
Byrd: Yes, and that was one of my goals with the fire department. I’ll be damned if I’m going to be in this position and let a court have to order me to hire for appropriate reasons. I was not going to let that happen.
Perryman: Is that your vision going forward in the new position?
Byrd: Absolutely. A court having to require anybody to hire a certain way to reflect the community, in my opinion, means we weren’t doing things right.
Perryman: I am looking forward to you bringing your talents to the safety director position. I am sure that many others embrace your presence as well.
Byrd: This is a great opportunity for both Angel Tucker and me. First of all, I think this is the first time there’s ever been an African-American male in that position and not just one, but now two. Second, I must applaud the mayor for giving this opportunity to, again, change the dynamic in how that position communicates with the city. This position is new and refreshing because the mayor decided to step outside the box with how we’re doing some things.
Perryman: Toledo is much more urban than the Oregon, Ohio community. Will Mr. Tucker experience a learning curve in terms of police/community relations?
Byrd: Not at all! Angel is from the central city of Toledo. He lives here, his family is from here, and he grew up in the Detroit/Central Avenue corridor. And Angel, like me, is very actively involved in the community in other aspects. We’re out there, and we’ve always been out there. So, this is a way for us to take our commitment to the community to a different level.
Perryman: Thank you.
Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, PhD, at firstname.lastname@example.org