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Up against the law: Lockport Police grapple with diversifying department in the wake of tragedy

Posted: 6:45 PM, Feb 25, 2021
Updated: 2021-02-25 19:30:23-05
LOCKPORT PD

LOCKPORT, N.Y. (WKBW) — The Lockport Police Department has never had a Black police officer.

It’s been a known problem for decades.

Since 2005 there have been six police exams. Six opportunities for the department to add a Black officer.

It hasn’t happened.

But, that’s not the whole story.

The aftermath

“It's imperative upon us to not be seen just as law enforcement, we want to be seen as helpful, we want to be seen as part of the community. And we're humans too.”

Steven Abbott came out of retirement in November of 2019 to lead the Lockport Police Department.

He re-entered a department in the middle of a firestorm.

39-year-old Troy Hodge had been killed in his mother’s driveway five months earlier after an interaction with police late into the evening of June 16, 2019.

The autopsy report lists homicide as the manner of death.

(The medical examiner’s report lists Hodge’s official cause of death as “sudden death associated with acute cocaine intoxication and prolonged physical altercation" including blunt force injuries to the head, neck, torso, and extremities.

Homicide was listed as the manner of death because other people were involved, “the manner designation does not imply intent to cause injury or that excessive force was used”, said a note from the forensic pathologist.)

“You know, we make mistakes, just like everybody else, you know, there's bad apples, there's good apples, just like there is in every profession,” said Abbott.

His first order of business: putting the officers involved back on desk duty until the conclusion of an investigation by the New York State Attorney General’s Office.

“It was the right thing to do,” he said.

Getting in

Those four officers were the first to arrive at Fatima Hodge’s Park Avenue home in Lockport after she called for help with her son, Troy, who was acting strangely.

“Who would’ve thought? If I knew it was going to happen like that, I would have never called the law,” said Fatima Hodge.

She said she relives that night every day.

“‘Mama, don’t let them kill me.’” Fatima remembers Troy saying that night. “It’s something I have to live with every day of my life until I die one day,” she said on a Zoom call in December just weeks after body camera footage of Troy’s last moments was released to the public.

It’s something I have to live with every day of my life until I die one day.

“I'm thinking they coming to help my child… I didn’t realize death was right at hand.”

After Troy’s death, the Lockport Police Department faced intense scrutiny and new calls to hire a Black officer.

“Get to know your community. Get to know people in your community. All people… all races aren’t bad,” said Fatima Hodge.

She’s suing the department over the death of her son.

But, she tells our I-Team it’s not about the money. She wants justice for her son in the form of training and a better understanding of how to handle mental health or drug-related calls.

It’s something current Chief Steven Abbott wants, as well.

In addition to more non-white officers.

But, he says it’s not that easy.

Today the department has 51 white officers and one Hispanic.

“I think it's just a department based on the system that we have in place. That's really what it is. It's not for lack of water, lack of trying.”

That “system” he’s referring to starts with the civil service laws that govern police hiring across New York State.

“Originally, it was supposed to level the playing field for everybody,” he said. “Because a test can't see race or gender…That’s the way it was supposed to be, you know.”

When it comes to Lockport’s department — that exam has been the biggest barrier to getting someone non-white on his force.

“Where you score on that test depends on whether or not you're you're going to get an interview,” he explained. “And based on the number of people that you have, civil service mandates that if we have one position open, we have to hire from the top three bodies.”

The most recent civil service exam was held in 2020 for five open positions.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • 38 female applicants
  • 102 male applicants
  • 11 Black
  • 121 White
  • 4 Hispanic
  • 3 Asian
  • 1 Native American

Tuesday night, the Lockport Police Department welcomed five new officers from that pool. One female, and four male — all white.

We asked Chief Abbott why this pattern has continued for decades and what it says about Black residents’ qualifications.

Here’s what we learned about the process:

To become an officer you must first score above an 85 on the civil service exam.

Then you move on to the agility test, the run test, and pushup test — failure on any of these physical agility exams disqualifies you from candidacy.

After that, it’s a background check, psychological exam, and a polygraph test.

If you pass all of those, you get an interview.

But you’re still not in.

Then comes the police academy for five months followed by a 52-week probationary period where you can be fired for any reason.

“So you know, when you look at that broad-spectrum,” said Abbott, “You say to yourself ‘my God, that's pretty, for some people, it could be unattainable.’”

Chief Abbott said the majority of the public doesn’t realize that civil service laws govern who can be hired by this police department.

“When we start talking about, like diversity hiring, I have two Hispanic males. I have a Hispanic female, I have a black male, I have a Native American, I can't even consider them. And they're in the 85. I can't get to them.”

And on top of that, he thinks the department needs to do a better job of educating the public on what they’re up against.

Shame on us for not doing better

“Shame on us for not doing better,” he said. “So when you look at our hiring, we’re in a unique situation with the city of Lockport. I do not hire, I do not fire, I do not promote. The most I can do is give somebody either a verbal reprimand or a three-day suspension. This is by charter.”

Lockport Mayor Michell Roman said the charter has tied her hands as well, but she’s taking what small steps she can to create a system where Black officers can help the department be more reflective of the community.

"I'm genuinely wanting to improve the relationships and improve how things happen,” said Roman. “So that we can avoid anything like this from happening again.”

As mayor, Roman can appoint one person per year to the police board — which hires, fires, and promotes officers.

“One per year is up for reappointment and they have a four-year term,” she said. “And I now have appointed three African Americans.”

There is one Black employee of the Lockport Police Department, but he’s not a police officer.

Mark Sanders is a member of that police board and a community liaison on the LPD payroll. He has been for the last 18 years.

“I came looking for what you're looking for because I heard things,” he said.

“They gave me full access to the computer system cases, traffic stops everything. And I did my own query.”

Sanders said he found no correlation between traffic stops and race, or even racism within the department itself.

Sanders: I came in with eyes wide open, you know? People talk about racist officers, I went looking for him, and didn't really find it.

Madison: What did you find?

Sanders: I found people.

Starting earlier

The City of Lockport does not have a large Black population — just 7% but a police department made up of 0% Black officers does not reflect the city it serves.

In the past two decades, 31 Black people have taken the exam, 11 Hispanic, 6 Asian, and 13 of non-white descent out of the 672 white candidates who have applied.

Mark Sanders said after seeing the barriers to entry — the Department decided to start earlier.

“We're going into the high school and going into the schools and hitting them early, (making sure they’re) having positive interactions with police officers.”

And when it comes to the exam LPD is going to help with test prep, agility test preparation, and other pre-test efforts, but they said their best bet is getting the homegrown talent.

When you live where you work in the community, you have a different investment.

“We do best with homegrown kids that come from our community that are familiar with the community, they're invested in the community,” said Sanders. “Because when you live where you work in the community, you have a different investment.”

There are plans in place to groom, if not recruit, Black and Brown officers to the Lockport Police Department but in the meantime, the goal is to work with what is already there.

Training is set for the department to help handle mental health instances with the public.

“So we have to make them, for one, comfortable calling the police,” said community liaison Mark Sanders. “We also have to change, actually the culture of how we respond.”

Fatima Hodge, who lost her son at the hands of Lockport Police doesn’t want the department defunded, she wants it trained.

“I respect the law, but respect us.”

And Chief Steven Abbott said his department needs to catch up to the times and do a better job at getting in front of people, having conversations, and recruiting the police force the community says it deserves.

“I can't change the fact that… 10 years ago, I wasn't in (this) position. But you know what? I am now,” he said. “The people that usually fall short are the people that cannot adjust to that change."