As president of the Northern Kentucky branch of the NAACP, Jerome Bowles has been a leader in civil rights issues in the region for more than 15 years.
The current climate of change, sparked by the death of George Floyd at police hands in Minneapolis, is a “challenging and exciting and historic moment full of opportunity,” he says.
NKY thrives Managing Editor David Holthaus interviewed Bowles about what the protest movement could mean for change in police and community relations here and around the country. The interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
NKY thrives: Do you think real change in policing will happen from this movement?
Bowles: Just as we come out of COVID, we can’t go back to pre-COVID because our world is changing, I feel we can’t go back to pre-George Floyd in terms of how law enforcement is policing our communities. What’s coming out of this is a way for our nation to strengthen law enforcement, not weaken it. When you make recommendations to enhance or improve law enforcement, that’s strengthening it.
NKY thrives: What kind of change needs to take place?
Bowles: Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean that those rallying dislike police or dislike anyone who supports police. We need police. All they’re trying to suggest is we need an accountability system when situations happen when certain police officers go over the line. We need policies and procedures in place to deal with those who go over the line.
NKY thrives: So what needs to happen next?
Bowles: We’re looking for police departments to strengthen their policies in terms of revisiting the way they have created them over the years. In our society, we have given police departments a lot of power in how their individual communities should be policed. We have to revisit those policies and also allow the communities to take a look at them and make recommendations.
NKY thrives: What should police departments be doing right now?
Bowles: Every police department should take a systematic review of where they are and what they want to be in the future, because you can’t police in 2020 like you policed in 2019 or 2018. Our community changed in a year. The policies have to change along with that.
We can’t have one community suggesting that the police protect and serve and another saying that they don’t protect and serve, that they harass us. We want all communities to say that we need law enforcement, that they protect and serve us.
NKY thrives: What other specific changes do you recommend?
Bowles: We need to review use of force policies. What determines reasonable force, because sometimes reasonable force can be looked at differently in different communities.
We need to make sure we have no-chokehold policies, and make sure when we have police stops in our communities that we break down those stops by race and ethnicity so that we can look at numbers in terms of who’s being stopped. To make sure there’s no systematic pattern of intentional or unintentional stops.
Also, training has to continue. There has to be some training on how to work with diverse communities. I’m talking about working with constituents and stakeholders in diverse communities. How to work with them and how to help those individuals become a voice for law enforcement. That’s a continuous work in progress. Because things come up that set us back. But if you have a number of voices out there talking about how we need each other and we can work together, it only helps how our law enforcement agencies police.
NKY thrives: What do you think of the “defund the police” movement?
Bowles: I think the correct term is “reallocate resources.” We have hiked police budgets so much that in some places it’s a major budget for the city government to fund.
Some of those resources that we are pumping into police budgets, are there community aspects to that? Is there a youth development program in that? Is there a communication program in that?
NKY thrives: Do you think people’s hearts and minds can change?
Bowles: We have to be a nation that cares for one another that looks out for each other. That’s working for a common goal of a better future. 2021 is coming up and we should be farther along in eliminating some of the vestiges in our society that have plagued us – racism, prejudice, discrimination, and stereotypes. We shouldn’t have to deal with those things going forward. That’s what this movement is all about. We don’t want to be dealing with these things every year. Our voices are crying out, saying enough is enough.
NKY thrives: Who should lead change?
Bowles: We need our politicians, our nation’s leaders, to use their voices. Be a voice of healing, a voice of unity, a voice of appreciation, a voice of respect. A voice of reaching out and trying to pull people up and better our society going forward. That’s the kind of society we want to look at, a society that is continuing its progression.
NKY thrives: What should local government leaders be doing?
Bowles: Let’s revisit the things we fund in our communities. Are we providing enough resources to underserved communities? Are we providing the kind of resources as we do when want to provide a different type of urban core, when we pump resources into condominiums and other large developments in the urban core? Do the people in underserved communities see themselves as having access to those? We’ve got to make sure our city governments are providing resources to underserved communities to allow those people to prosper and to hope for a future, just as they’re doing for the urban core.
Question: Is there enough momentum to continue the hard work of enacting change?
Bowles: This moment can’t just be a moment, it has to be a movement. We have to move these things forward. It can’t be something that lasts for two months and then we go back to doing the things that we were doing before. People are saying enough is enough.
The Northern Kentucky NAACP maintains a scholarship fund to help provide access to college education. “That’s become a major barrier right now,” Bowles says. “The financial challenge Is increasing.” Anyone interested in contributing to it can send their donations to Northern Kentucky NAACP, P.O. Box 1295, Covington, Ky. 41012, or call 859-442-7476