The Utility Team would like to spotlight the unique experiences and perspectives of prominent African Americans in the Law Enforcement Industry during Black History Month under the theme “Our Black in Blue”. In this blog, we have the pleasure of speaking with Sheriff Derrick Cunningham of the Montgomery Alabama Sheriff’s office.
Sheriff Derrick Cunningham’s time in the Law Enforcement profession with the Montgomery Police Department spans over 30 years.
In 1989, at the young age of 21, he graduated from the Police Academy. 10 years later, he joined the Detective Division investigating homicides where he later became a member of the International Homicide Investigators Association.
In 1999 he was appointed Chief deputy. He served in this capacity for 15 years until he was sworn in January 2015 as the county’s 39th sheriff and Montgomery’s first African-American sheriff.
For several decades, he has served on the Board of Directors of several non-profit agencies and has been among the most visible supporters of community-based policing, youth mentoring programs, and utilizing smartphone and other technology to better serve the community and reduce crime.
The experience of African Americans in the Law Enforcement Industry
What was your reason for joining the law enforcement industry?
Woo! Well, um, you know, when I first came into the law enforcement, I was really coming to visit my brother who lived in Montgomery. And he worked here and I just come by and visit and then one day I was just watching tv and they were advertising for the Montgomery Police Department and I said if you feel that you can be one of the best. I jumped on it and and I decided to apply and I applied and who would have thought that I’d be where I’m at today.
Describe your unique experience as an African American serving in the law enforcement industry.
I think it is a fantastic accomplishment to say that you are the first African American within Montgomery Alabama. I think that’s no small feat. For me to be able to speak with you is history in the making. I would love to know your experience in your own words then versus now.
Well, I guess if you look at my experience and you look at Montgomery which is the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. This is where Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and all of those uh, those black pioneers that pretty much paved the way for me to be able to be Sheriff. Uh, this is where they live. This is where they work. And uh, there’s something when you can come down the street and you pass by Martin Luther King’s house and you pass by where Rosa Parks lived.
When you talk about Montgomery, you talk about the birthplace of the Civil Rights and then being a black in law enforcement is something that I guess, you know, it’s eye-opening there’s something that uh, now that you can really say that I tried and I want to make sure everything I did, I did uh, to pave the path for those coming behind me.
And so it’s a job but at the same time, it’s a job where I think now we have changed the cultural law enforcement uh, here in Montgomery because now it’s not just every, every face that you see uh, they all look alike. You know, we all look different and we come from different aspects, but at the same time, you know, we’re trying to like and we know what the job entails. So, you know, it’s a good job. It’s a great job.
I’m just glad that I’m in this position and we are glad that we are able to speak with you and to be able to share with you in your joy and your accomplishments definitely. Even with my introduction of you, that is just touching the surface of what you have done for Montgomery Alabama.
You kind of touched on it a little bit but I’d love to hear a little bit more on what you believe were the strides that have been made as it relates to acknowledging diversity in the police force and what proved what improvements are still needed to progress right now.
We in law enforcement we’re fighting against, not only are we fighting against well, the stigma that we have in law enforcement, but now we gotta fight against social media and you’re, you’re looking at what the television portrayed law enforcement asked. I mean just about every law enforcement television series, there’s always a corrupt or there’s always a racial disparity you know, as it relates to our job and it relates to building that bridge with the community. So we always have to make sure that everything we’re doing, we’re doing it uh with a good clean heart and we’re doing it because this is the way that we were trained to do it.
And so the struggle is that that we’re trying to recruit and we’re trying to bring in people into this profession. And right now with the millennials, the only thing that could compare this job to is something they’ve seen on Youtube or something that they’ve seen on, on social media.
So with that stigma, I mean you’ve got a bad apple in Pennsylvania, that same bad apples in Alabama the way that the millennials see that. So when you start talking about diversity and and trying to, we’ll work around that.
It’s hard in today’s environment. I mean you can’t try to run this agency sitting in your office, you gotta push back from your desk, got to go out. I was at a high school this morning talking to some students about the choices and about decision making. That’s some of the things that we gotta do.
We can’t wait until they graduate.We gotta get them while they’re still in school and help try to um turn them into our direction and high or try to explain some of the stigma others out there concerned law.
And so, you know, this is a struggle for us and law enforcement.
It’s more of a struggle for a black man in law enforcement because these are the stigmas that my community, this is how they’re labeling me and in the communities that that looked like me. And so we got to always make sure that what we’re doing, we’re doing it with a clean heart and then we’re able to explain this to our young people so they can better understand what this job is about.
Current challenges faced by Black Law Enforcement officers
I agree with you. I think when I had spoken with you in person at the National Sheriff’s Association conference that we had mentioned in passing about how the recruitment efforts had kind of been doubled down on because of the wave of racial conflicts as well as political views and of course you mentioned the millenial generation and how they view the force in general It’s changing. Um and that kind of segways to the next question I had for you.
A wave of black law enforcement officers are reaching retirement age and in addition to this, the political tensions have affected the community’s relationship with law enforcement. How have your recruitment efforts been affected and what are you actively doing to combat this challenge?
Well what we had to do,we had to jump from outside the boundaries and get out into the mist. When I say get into the midst we can’t continue to do the things we’ve always done. So what we’ve been doing now is going to the high school. I’m trying to grab you when you’re coming out of high school.
At least bring you into this profession and under a cadet status or under an explorer status and then at least I can get you into this profession. The best part about this profession. now what we had to do, we have to go back and we had to see what what do the millennials want.The majority of them wanting to go to school, the majority of them don’t have the scores on the S.A.T. The A.C.T. To be able to get that paid education.
So the majority is going to be sitting out here trying to get a student loan trying to get this just to be able to continue their education. So what we did here is we started paying for college. You gonna work here, we’re going to pay for your education. You just gotta agree to give me a couple of years after you get that that degree.
And so that changes a lot of the stigma as it relates to young people. Now, I can go into a high school, I can recruit a young person. I mean just a young person that has the skills that we want and we want to see in our agency. I can bring him in as a cadet.They can come in and join our workforce and start working for us, learning this profession and at the same time I’m paying for their education.
So they’re coming in at 18 by the time they make it to 21, hopefully they’re just about to graduate college and then they’ll be able to come in, not only come in on at the bottom, but we give uh pay incentives for people that I mean with, with advanced degrees. So you come in with a Bachelor’s, you’ll probably come in with a two step pay raise, a Masters, a three step pay raise.
But you gotta come outside the box and do things that you’ve never done before in order to grab them young and to lead them into this profession and let them know this is a good profession. And it’s been working knock on wood. Yeah, we’ve been able to grab some good ones and uh, and to be able to pull them in here.
And not only that, you’ve got to keep your salaries close to where the general salaries read out here, you’re going to work in a plant. Plant shouldn’t pay more than what the law enforcement officers make. We should be on the same playing field. And we got to make sure that we keep our salaries abreast of what’s going on in our community so that we want to be a tractable to young people and that’s what we started doing.
And so uh, the only way that you’re going to be able to do that and to be able to bring people in, you still gotta help to educate them about the dangers of student loans. I mean, I interviewed people that come in one hundered thousand dollars worth of debt and you know, you just graduated college, with a Bachelors of Science.
You know, we weren’t educating our young guys and girls of the dangers of getting this money and just buying cars, getting luxury apartments and all this stuff. So now they’re coming out and did and that’s some debt that you’re gonna be paying for the next 15-20 years.
So you got to help educate them in high school and then hopefully they’ll turn to you and your agency before they go out and get themselves into so much debt and so much trouble that they’re not gonna be marketable when they do graduate.
I think it’s definitely admirable Sheriff Cunningham that you have really zoomed in on the needs of your target demographic millennials to really see and really it’s owns based on what you’re saying that you really are paying attention to what their needs are and speaking to them on the same level to be able to acknowledge that they are having some issues financially, but also to guide them on how to combat those issues as well as providing a resource so that if it is education that they want to pursue, that they’re able to both serve their country and also advance their education and go together.
I think that’s definitely a great approach to start in that direction to really see how can we make it a relationship where we’re both benefiting. And so if both of you are able to gain value, that’s definitely a good place to start.
In light of the recent events for example, the George Floyd protests in 2020 and the storming of the Capitol in 2021, How do you manage or navigate your role as sheriff and alliances during times of conflict such as these?
Well, you know, when the George Floyd incident took place and you had all of your protest and you know, you gotta let your community know where you’re staying.You know, what happened to him. It shouldn’t have happened.
I don’t care that you’re law enforcement or not, you know, right from wrong and you know that I’m not gonna sit here because I feel like I’m one of them. I’m one of the police and we gotta make sure no wrong is wrong and you gotta be able to let people know it’s wrong.
You’re looking at a culture right now that I got young nephew, it could have been one of them, I got brothers, got uncles, dads, you know. It could have been one of them, you know. Right is right and wrong is wrong and that was wrong. You know, I can’t embrace that I can’t try to embrace that.
So you gotta let the community know how you feel and that’s one of the things I did. I came out and talked to that, that’s wrong. Oh, he needs to be prosecuted. You know, I’m sorry and ain’t nothing I can say about it. I couldn’t sit back and watch and sit back and say, wow, you know, I was just as disgusted as everybody else was.
But there’s a day in court, there’s a day for all that to be handled so as long as you are open with your community and the community knows how you feel about certain situations. Uh, you know, there’s a lot that you just can’t cover up. To say that I agree with it and what happened on January six was just crazy. Who in their right mind would ever thought of something like that and for me to sit here and watch it on tv and you know that we’re in the United States of America and what they did that that was crazy.
I’ve never seen nothing like that in my entire life. Every time I’ve been to the capital you got to go through a screening process to get in and you gotta have a reservation, you got to have all of this and they took the laws out of everybody’s hands and they made this, they made this whole event about themselves and so they should be punished.
Yes we need to send a clear message back that if you do it again you’re gonna go to jail again.You know stuff like that, we shouldn’t tolerate. I’m not gonna sit here and say we got sugar coated, we shouldn’t smile at them like oh they just didn’t know. They knew better, they knew better. And so I’m sorry what makes that any different from the George Floyd incident?
Nothing, you know it was wrong and when something is wrong, something is wrong and you can’t make it sound good, look good, sugarcoated dress it up, it’s still gonna be wrong. I think if the community knows that that’s your feelings not only on the six what which really made it so bad is that they took on law enforcement, they were fighting the law enforcement officers telling them to get back, get out. With some of the threats and some of the things that happened to some of those officers no, I can’t sit back and stomach and say, you know they made a mistake now that these were grown men and women, they knew better. Same way with George Floyd, over grown men that knew better. So definitely being able to speak on issues like this and just being able to denounce something right is wrong.
You know, as clear as they um, some persons in positions of power of me have some difficulties doing that but I am glad to see that you are able to create a stance, health stance and stand behind what you have said. As well as also to remember your role and hope the part you play in events like this.
With that being said, Law enforcement diversity has been linked to lessened policing disparities.How important is it to have a diverse police force?
Very important. If your agency don’t look like your community how you gonna go out and police a community and it is not diverse like your community. You know, you got to have your females, you got to have your males, you gotta have your African Americans, you gotta have your whites you gotta have your hispanics. I mean, you’ve got to have all passed when you recruit, you gotta recruit paul fast. This is a culture change for a lot of different people and we’re going through that cultural change but at the same time this agency needs to represent that community that you’re policing.
You know, we got to be able to change with the times and when you start talking about the diversity that’s when your implicit biases come out and you start seeing a lot of that in our agencies. That’s something that you’ve got to educate your people award.
You know, you know with today’s times, well you can’t be vocal. I can’t sit here and look at you in an unusual way because of any of your religious, your sexual or whatever the biases that I have against you. I should be display in there , I shouldn’t be vocal. I shouldn’t feel like I need to be vocal.
You know, this is a free country. This is a free society and you got to let people live their lives or how did they won’t live their lives. It ain’t for me to be judgmental and tell you how to live your life and the things that I ain’t supposed to approve you or disapprove. I’m here to get people to do this job and I don’t care about all that other stuff. I care about the job.
You come here and get the job done. That’s what I care about. We got policies and procedures in place and I always tell my guys and girls, “Hey, you just go by the policies and procedures. I ain’t worried about all that other stuff and all the other mumble jumble that you like to stay at home, You might want to keep it at home here. You know, we all the same, we all wear the brown, so we’re all the same, we all twins.”
And if you can’t see that, if you can’t feel that. This may not be the place for you because we’re going, this is a whole new century.We’re dealing with some millennials right now that we’re trying to educate them and help them be on the right path to be able to come in here to take this profession for this is gonna be a dying profession. If we think we got to get people a certain way in a certain talk the same look the same and act the same.
No, that ain’t gonna happen and we’re changing that and it’s changing every day and that’s why as leaders, we gotta be the one to sit back and say no. We need to look at that power policies ain’t written so that they’re not able to be change door implement or updated because every day you’re going to update something, change something because there are new laws every single day.
So you’ve got to be able to change with the times as well. Um being able to be dynamic and also to look at current events. Look at the needs and wants of your citizens is very important. And I’m glad that this is at the forefront of your decision making on your approach to policy is admirable.
The next question I had for you Sheriff was, what are your thoughts on the public’s views on the funding the police and taking money to allocate it elsewhere?Or some people phrase it as “reimagining what the task force looks like”. What are your views on that?
Well, I’m glad you asked that question. Yesterday asked me about defunding the police. And I told him, I said, “Well, we already defunded enough. How much more can you defund me?”.
You know, if you look at our job and you look at the task that we have to do. I mean, uh right now with mental health case workers, with mental health workers we deal with the people that are going through alcoholism.
We’re looking at the drug addicts. We’re looking at the sex addicts, We deal with all of that on a daily basis every single day. Yes, you can take money and put it into something else. But every time we have this conversation, we want to come up or reinvent the wheel as it relates to. Well, we shouldn’t let law enforcement go out on this call.
Now, we’re seeing more and more violence in America nationwide. We’ve never, ever heard of a mass shooting, but now it’s just about once a week we see where four or five people were shot. You know, two or 3 people getting killed at the same time.
We never really heard of that back in the day. That’s what we’re starting to see now. There’s no way in the world that you can remove law enforcement. You’re gonna have to have law enforcement go out regardless of what the situation may be.
You know, I sit back and I listen and I just smile because there’s no way in the world that you can creator of society right now and you’re gonna take law enforcement out of it and we’re gonna put in social workers into it and just remove law enforcement. I just don’t see that happening.
We can try all of that, we can try to do all of this but just like here in Alabama, we got a big push on permit this character doing away with permits and just let everybody carry guns. That’s the thing.
So are you telling me that you’re gonna send in a a licensed therapist into an area where a person is already in crisis mode and you don’t know if the person has weapons. You don’t know if it’s exposed to weapons and you’re gonna send somebody in, it’s going to be able to talk their way and talk that person out of that crisis mode. And that’s why we have crisis intervention training for law enforcement.
We go through all of that, all the steps of being able to deescalate a situation. That’s what we’re being trained to do now. But, you know, back in the day, you know, you never heard of law enforcement going through uh de escalation training. When I first started the mental, mental health was something that you had uh they had responders.They have their own police, They go out to a person when they’re in crisis to be able to take that person to the hospital. They had their own unit that did that. But with funding cuts in the Mental Health Department, they stopped all that.
And then you don’t have responders that goes out when a person is in crisis mode. So where did that responsibility fall back on law enforcement?
Now, we’re the ones going out doing the job that they had trained professionals to do. But they wanted to save money. So they did away with that. And now look at the situation when we’re dealing with mental illness, it’s all over our country, right? And it’s gonna get worse because you’ve got people coming back from the war. Uh And that’s that’s something with PTSD and things of that nature.
So this is something that when you started talking about defunding law enforcement, uh you will defund them on one side but then you got to fund them to make sure that they’re still available to be able to go out and do things that we’re doing. But at the same time we gotta be very careful because you don’t want to defund yourself out of a situation and then you lose a good essential personnel that you will never be able to get back.
Once they go back and say, hey look, we need to hire some more people because this problem is getting out of control, You ain’t gonna be able to get people back. It’s hard to hire people now.
So we gotta be very careful and we gotta walk, we gotta walk that thin blue line as it relates to people talking about defunding us and defunding law enforcement because once you go back, you’ve seen in several states where they defunded police units and now they want to go back and say we need to put that money back, we need to hire more officers.
I mean, we’re, we experienced here in Montgomery County, we had over 490 people shot 78 of those die. We have 78 murders. First time in a long time. We had that many murders in Montgomery Alabama. I mean we’re breaking records right now with the number of shootings and the number of murders. So the violent crime is still going up not to mention the other issues that we got to deal with on a daily basis.
So we gotta hope that thin blue line very, very, very closely as it relates to taking away money, taking away salaries and benefits and then laying people off and then later hoping that you can be able to replace those people. It’s hard to replace somebody that’s already trained and already knows his job.
It’s easier to go in there to give them more training on de-escalation. It’s easier to go in there and give them training on crisis intervention training and things that they need to have to be able to handle those situations more knowledgeably instead of going in there thinking that we can still do things the same way.
You can’t put a timeframe on answering call. Now now you get to a call. It may take you our because it may take time for you to be able to talk a person out of a bad situation to make sure the outcomes turn out the way that you really want to turn out.
So defunding the police is, I think when they first came out with that there was something that everybody caught on to. But now, I want you to go back and look at all those cities and all those states, they tried to do it in. They’re going back now, trying to put more money into law enforcement to increase their presence because when you lose that presence in the community, you lost him.
I appreciate you going into that elaborate detail as well as just kind of putting the facts right there on the table. The conversation should really shift from defunding the police because as you mentioned, these are our first responders, these are the ones who are basically keeping the peace, protecting the citizens on a daily basis in different areas, different departments just under the umbrella of law enforcement. Maybe as you mentioned, probably case by case looking into advancing the training depending on what training is needed to improve how they execute their roles in a more efficient way or just really being mindful of the fact that we can’t exactly do an all or nothing approach when it comes to law enforcement. So I appreciate your input on that one.
What actions do you believe need to be taken to improve trust between the community and law enforcement agencies.
I tell you that something gonna be hard because um it’s just like now like I told you I went to high school this morning and talk oh I’ll go to churches, I talked, go to neighborhood, watch all over town halls and do all of this.
But the thing that I always tell people when you’re at a town hall meeting, the people that are attending the town hall meeting, those aren’t the people that you need to really talk to, the people that are after on the streets or the people that you really need to be able to talk to, you really need to be able to touch because that’s where the problem is it.
So the actions that we have to do, we gotta do a better job with the law enforcement is like I always tell my guys and girls hey there’s nothing wrong with smiling at a person and I mean there are several times you go places people look at you, they roll their eyes, they’re mad, they’re mad at the world.
Smile at him Speak and keep walking. You know if you show kindness you know hopefully that that actor kind of he ain’t that bad or she ain’t that bad and they’ll speak back but you’re gonna run into those instances where you’ve got a lot of people that just hate the police. I can’t change their attitude, I can’t change the way in life you know and
We had a I had a gentleman that just couldn’t stand nothing about law enforcement. I couldn’t stand nothing about law enforcement until a tragedy took place in his family. And then law enforcement of the person that had to come out and had to deal with that tragedy and once they got out and they they deal with that tragedy and work with that family.
This whole outlook on on us really changed because he had a bad experience back in the past. You painted everybody with the same brush and you can’t do that. I had bad experiences in the past. I didn’t paint all of the law enforcement with the same brush because of the way I was treated. So don’t get me wrong, we got to push back and we got to get out.
We gotta talk, we’ve got to educate people, we gotta smile sometimes you’re gonna cry because it hits home and it’s starting to hit home a lot more because of the violence that you’re starting to see in the community. I mean we’re not immune to it. So we gotta be very careful the way that we respond to the community when they’re in need. Uh and make sure that they can see that it’s just not a daily conversation that you want them to be able to understand that the things that you’re saying are sincere and it’s just not a daily talk.
It’s definitely going to take some repeated intentional action on the part of not just the citizens But the members of law enforcement to really strengthen that relationship because the last couple of years it kind of has taken a couple of shots here and there.
But I do believe it should be able to be amended if more task force were able to kind of approach it in a manner that you are looking at it to be open-minded about how we can have these conversations, how the tough conversations, even if we end up having to cry from time to time but we’re able to share um share with one another and in hopes of just kind of mending that relationship with the citizens. I agree with you on that one.
Um with everything that is going on with social media as you said and technology, more and more people are able to access footage of live events right here and now and it can be broadcasted to anywhere, you know, with the ease of technology.
I’d love to get your opinion on the statement. “Body cameras are shedding light on issues compared to before” What’s your view on this?
Yeah, well we gotta have them. I mean uh it’s a game-changer for us in law enforcement. I think when they first came out, people didn’t want to embrace them. You stabbed him and embrace him, but it’s a game-changer.
I mean it’s the most um, we’ve had since we’re the body camera was filming and we had vehicle accidents for somebody pulled out in front of somebody in front of one of the deputies that ram the car cut across and you hit him.
And the first thing the person says he ran into me and then you say, well no, he said you could, no, that didn’t happen. Then you play the camera and it’s like, well, so you know, it’s a game-changer and now I think the majority of your staff understand and they know that um as long as you’re doing your job and you’ve got to do your job correctly, you just can’t come out and do your job.
You can’t cuss everybody out, You can’t be the big bad bully of the west if you show compassion and you’re doing your job the way it’s supposed to be done and then you’re showing the ugly side of that person the other side of you.
It’s a game-changer. I mean you’ve got to have them now, it ain’t if you do you need them, you know, you got to have body cameras is it’s a tool and it’s a piece of equipment just like your fall and if you don’t have it, uh your agency will suffer. And I’m I mean that’s just a must and it’s gotten to the point now that you’re seeing body cameras not only on the street but in your corrections facilities, wow.
You know sometimes we always say that a person won’t lie on, they’re just not telling the truth, but that body camera takes out all the doubt and it takes out all of the questionable remarks. And did you say this, did you do this? It’s right here on recording and you can see it.
So body cameras are a game-changer for us in this in this career.
Mhm, definitely like you said improves the accountability, not just on the officers for the city. Yeah, so that definitely kind of ties into the ability to improve trust as well, So it’s literally right there in front of you can’t really to say that it’s a lie. It’s right in front of you, the body.
Just to kind of lean into that a little bit Utility’s Body cameras BodyWorn, definitely help in that case kind of offloading some of the pressure from the officer or the citizens with its automatic start and stop features, which is something we definitely wanted to be able to assist officers with so they can focus on their primary duty, which is to protect and service citizens.
The final question I wanted to speak on was what role does the effective use of Body cameras and In-car systems play in carrying out your role and improving community relations.
Oh, we love them.
I mean because there’s not a week goes by that we’re not referring to our video footage to be able to answer some questions or a doubt that somebody is trying to cast on your personnel.
Uh, but then once they actually go back and they see it, everybody, Oh, I didn’t, he didn’t tell me that. She didn’t tell me that. It just, it really, it’s been, it’s beneficial to. Um, and I mean it just to be able to, to instill that public trust, especially once you show them what actually transpired. Um, used to with body cameras in-car cameras came out.
People say, well they doctored it, they doctored it now would uh put technology and time-stamped and automatic. It takes the human ability away from it and automatically downloads. I mean it takes all of the humanity out of it.
So it’s hard for somebody to come back and say well he doctored this or they doctored that this is it, what you see is what you get and this is what actually happened. So this it really helps as far as on the public trust side for us in law enforcement and you know, at the same time if you got somebody out here doing wrong, it’s gonna show and it’s good because now uh that camera helped you uh make a decision that you kind of assume, but now it’s bringing to life and it’s going to help you get rid of those that don’t really need to be wearing this bag.
So uh and just instilled that public trust that we got to have.
I agree, definitely.
Well Sheriff Derrick Cunningham on behalf of the entire Utility Inc team, we appreciate you taking the time to speak with us this afternoon to discuss your perspectives on the African American experience in law enforcement.
Your perspectives have not only shed light on the deeper issues being faced every day by law enforcement but have also provided a guiding light to others in positions similar to yours on the best way to adequately address these critical issues from moving forward while also fulfilling their rules in partnership with the community, resolving issues that impact public safety.
And I’d like to thank you.