On September 8th, 1940, the local LaGrange, GA, newspaper ran a story on the last page about Austin Callaway’s death and the incidents that led to his death. Seventy-six years later, Callaway’s story is on the front page of multiple nationwide media outlets, including CNN, the New York Times, NBC, and CBS.
Austin Callaway, an 18 year-old African American male, was sent to jail for allegedly assaulting a white woman in LaGrange. Later that night, Callaway was removed from his cell by group of armed men wearing hoods, shot six times, and left for dead. There was no official police record or investigation. The nature of Callaway’s death was unknown to the community and the LaGrange Police Department until recently.
Last week, at a packed Warren Temple United Methodist Church, Chief Louis Dekmar publically apologized for the police department’s lack of action regarding Callaway. Chief Dekmar, who is also the First Vice President of the IACP, acknowledged that the police department had a responsibility to protect Callaway while he was in custody. In an effort to reduce the strain between the community and the police department, Chief Dekmar addressed and recognized the incident. “The event was graciously and warmly received by our community, black and white. It has enhanced the racial trust building efforts we’ve been involved with in the past two years,” expressed Chief Dekmar.
Chief Dekmar hopes that this acknowledgement helps the community move forward while learning from past. Events like these help to increase the legitimacy of the police department in the eyes of the community. Acknowledging the past shows that the police department is making a conscious effort to work with the community in a transparent manner.
The local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Troup County representative Mr. Ernest Ward, Councilman Willie T. Edmonson, and family members of Austin Callaway including Mrs. Deborah Tatum attended and announced they accepted Chief Dekmar’s apology. Also in attendance at the event and showing support to both Callaway’s family and the police department were Mayor Jim Thornton, Judge Jeannette Little, and community leader Dan McAlexander, who also acknowledged the incident and the lack of response.
This acknowledgement was well received by the community due to the continued trust building efforts of the Troup County Commission, the police department, the Mayor, city council members, and the Troup County branch of the NAACP through the Troup County Racial Trust Building Initiative. Trust building trainings at local LaGrange College are held frequently and all of the organizers of the initiative meet monthly in a public forum at multiple locations throughout the Troup County area to discuss concerns and successes of the trainings and what is happening in the community. These trainings helped create the proper climate and tone in the community, so that the message from Chief Dekmar would be perceived in the manner in which the department meant it.
Chief Dekmar and the LaGrange Police Department believe that this event was the first step toward a dialogue that will continue to help in community unification.